How to Take Notes for Learning

Original Editor - Robin Tacchetti based on the course by Michael Rowe
Top Contributors - Robin Tacchetti, Jess Bell and Kim Jackson

Introduction[edit | edit source]

We take notes for many reasons. They help us learn, improve our long-term retention of information and enable us to record specific events or moments.[1] Effective note-taking requires learners to summarise important concepts as precisely as possible in their own words and to connect these concepts with lecture material. During the note-taking process, learners will interpret, filter and process information. This new information will be stored and retrieved when needed.[2][3][4]

Why Take Notes?[edit | edit source]

Two reasons to take notes:[5]

  • notes can extend memory[6]
  • notes can enhance focus[6][7]

However, it is necessary to remember that a crucial element of note-taking is actually revising your notes later. "If you’re taking notes simply to capture the information that’s on the slides, or that you can read in a book, you’re not adding much value to your learning strategy because you can probably find that information somewhere else."[6]

Note-taking has two main functions:[3][4]

  1. Encoding:
    • the listener has to actively engage with the incoming information when taking notes
    • they then need to make decisions about how to encode that material
  2. Storing information:
    • note-taking creates a record of information that can be accessed at a later date
    • this stored information can be used for many different "post-listening activities and assignments"[3]

Types of Notes[edit | edit source]

There are many different kinds of notes, but five common types are: daily notes, temporary notes, literature notes, permanent notes and project notes.[6]

  • Daily notes[6]
    • essentially a journal, diary or calendar
    • these notes are kept in date order to keep track of daily events (e.g. tasks for the day, reminders, thoughts you might want to access at a later date)
    • they provide a place to record administrative aspects of learning (e.g. timetables, notes from meetings with tutors, etc)
    • they can be considered an extension of your short-term, or working, memory
  • Temporary notes[6]
    • notes taken in the moment that can be deleted once the information has been dealt with (e.g. sticky notes with phone numbers, emails, etc)
  • Literature notes[6]
    • questions, comments, challenges you write to authors in the margins of books or in annotation apps when on the web, or comments on social media
    • act as evidence of our critical engagement with authors and other content creators
    • these notes often end up scattered everywhere
      • one solution to this problem is to use a resource manager like Zotero
  • Permanent notes[6]
    • the final version of notes taken during your studies
    • can be used at a later date for revision (potentially even years in the future)
      • they are a distillation of your cognitive effort to understand a concept deeply
      • they can be considered as an extension of your long-term memory
    • these notes have certain features to help them be more useful:
      • descriptive title
      • longer notes may include a short summary
      • they include relevant quotes from original sources and a reference list
      • digital notes may include tags for filtering and searching
    • note-taking apps like Obsidian, Notion and Logseq enable internal linking between notes
  • Project notes[6]
    • notes that are taken as part of a project/assignment
    • can be archived once the project is complete
    • tend to be a collection of notes, including administrative notes (e.g. meeting notes, to do lists), literature notes, annotations, permanent notes

Taking Notes by Hand vs. Using Technology[edit | edit source]

Mobile devices have been incorporated into the learning environment and are now used for note-taking. As Pyörälä et al.[4] note, digital note-taking enables students to retrieve information (notes / learning materials) anywhere, anytime, when studying and treating patients in clinical practice.

As mentioned above, there are a number of apps to help learners take notes (e.g. Obsidian, Notion and Logseq). Some students also use their phones to take photos of notes on classroom boards. The speed and convenience of these technologies have inversely affected the amount of time students spend writing[7] and most people can type faster than they can write.[6]

However, it is important to remember that taking notes "is not really about the quantity or fidelity of the information being captured. [...] Taking notes is about trying to link new, incoming information, to existing knowledge frameworks in your mind.[6]

Taking notes on a laptop may mean that a student is able to record more information more accurately (i.e. verbatim).[8] However, students with laptops in class tend to spend more time multitasking (e.g. checking email, using the Internet, playing games, etc) and, therefore, less time writing notes, which results in lower achievement.[8]

There is also research to suggest that taking notes by hand could have certain benefits, including improved long-term recall and conceptual understanding.[6] However, it is important to note that the research on adult learners is somewhat conflicting.[9]

  • Horbury et al.[9] found that while factual recall was not affected by the note-taking mode in children (e.g. handwriting vs using a computer), "children who handwrote notes had greater conceptual understanding one week after viewing their lesson, compared to those who typed notes."[9]
  • Longchamp et al.[10] looked at adult learners' ability to learn new characters (i.e. letters) by copying them by hand or typing them on a computer. They found that when characters were learned by typing, "they were more frequently confused with their mirror images than when they had been written by hand."[10]
  • Mangen et al.[11] found that free word recall was better in adults for words that were written by hand rather than typed.
  • Mueller and Oppenheimer[12] found that students using laptops to take notes tended to perform worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes by hand.
  • However, Morehead et al.[13] replicated and extended Mueller and Oppenheimer's 2014 study[12] and found that, at present, "concluding which method is superior for improving the functions of note-taking seems premature."[13]

Please see the following tables for a list of the advantages and disadvantages of taking notes by hand and taking notes with a laptop.

Table 1. Taking notes by hand[6]
Advantages Disadvantages
Better cognitive processing Slower
Better recall of concepts for longer periods afterwards Less information captured
Table 2. Taking notes with a laptop[6]
Advantages Disadvantages
Higher fidelity / more accurate capture of information More easily distracted
Ability to search digital notes more quickly and accurately Less cognitive processing and analysis, so possibly lower levels of understanding

Note-taking depends on the context and reason for taking notes. If the aim is to capture as much information as possible, it is probably best to use a laptop. If the aim is to remember content more easily, it may be more useful to write notes by hand.[6]

Michael Rowe suggests the following tips:[6]

  • when taking notes by hand, it can be useful to use a large format, hardcover, ring-bound notepad
  • when using a laptop to take notes, it may help to use a plain text editor (e.g. Notepad on Windows) as these programs tend to have fewer distractions. For more information on this, please see: Why Plaintext for Notes?
  • it might be a good idea to take initial notes in class by hand and convert them to digital notes later
    • notes captured by pen and paper tend to be temporary notes
    • these temporary notes can point the learner to resources that need to be elaborated on in literature notes (which also include critical thinking)
    • next, integrate the temporary notes and the literature notes into permanent notes, which are more fully formed and contain complete concepts and ideas from the lecture

How To Take Notes[edit | edit source]

There are many different note-taking systems, but one popular method for learners in higher education is the Cornell method.

Cornell Method[edit | edit source]

This method was developed in the 1950s to help students summarise their learning.[14] This method has a distinctive layout, with a single sheet of paper divided into columns.[6] Each column has a specific purpose:[6][15][16]

  1. Note-taking area (i.e. the details) - right-hand side:
    • notes from the lecture (or any other source) are included in this column
    • these notes usually include the main ideas (i.e. the gist of what is said) and avoid long sentences
    • useful when reviewing notes
  2. Cue column (i.e. key points) - left-hand side:
    • arguably the most important section
    • relevant questions or key concepts are recorded here
  3. Summary - at the bottom:
    • "encapsulates the details from the notes section into a few sentences that paint the big picture"[15]
    • provides an overview of what this page of notes covers

The Cornell Method is organised and easy to review. It allows the learner to extract key ideas and concepts.[16] By limiting the space available, especially in the left-hand column, the Cornell method aims to keep a learner's focus on the most important concepts.[6]

The following video by Cornell University highlights how students can use the Cornell Method:

Tips for Taking Better Notes[edit | edit source]

When taking notes, it might be useful to reflect on the following questions:[6]

  • What am I trying to remember or make sense of?
  • How am I going to use the information contained in my notes when I am revising?
  • What do I plan to do with these notes in the future?

Michael Rowe has the following tips to enhance note-taking:[6]

  • Always take notes! This will help to keep your attention focused and provide a structure when you revise lectures in the future.
  • You may only need to record a few of the most important points from a lecture, but actively taking notes will help you to connect new information to existing knowledge. Capturing the most important concepts means you can elaborate on them later.
  • Be as detailed as necessary. You want to avoid leaving out crucial details when taking notes.
  • Listen for note-taking cues from lecturers that signal important information is coming up.
  • Taking notes is only the first part of the process. You also need to review your notes! It is also important to revise your notes.
  • If lectures are available as a recording, make sure to go through the content again to update your notes and check you have captured the major points.
  • It may be worth committing to taking handwritten notes even when you have a laptop.

Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Friedman MC. Notes on note-taking: review of research and insights for students and instructors. Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching. Harvard University.
  2. Schmidt SJ. Taking Notes: There's a Lot More to It than Meets the Eye. Journal of Food Science Education. 2019 Jul;18(3):54-8.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Siegel J. Factors affecting notetaking performance. International journal of Listening. 2022 Apr 15:1-3.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Pyörälä E, Mäenpää S, Heinonen L, Folger D, Masalin T, Hervonen H. The art of note taking with mobile devices in medical education. BMC medical education. 2019 Dec;19:1-0.
  5. Young S. How to take notes while reading [Internet]. 2019 [cited 26 September 2023]. Available from:
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 Rowe M. How to Take Notes for Learning Course. Plus, 2023.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Özçakmak H. Impact of Note Taking during Reading and during Listening on Comprehension. Educational Research and Reviews. 2019 Oct;14(16):580-9.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kiewra K. A seven-step guide to taking better notes. The Conversation. Available from: (accessed 26 September 2023).
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Horbury SR, Edmonds CJ. Taking class notes by hand compared to typing: effects on children’s recall and understanding. Journal of Research in Childhood Education. 2021. 35(1):55-67.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Longcamp M, Boucard C, Gilhodes JC, Velay JL. Remembering the orientation of newly learned characters depends on the associated writing knowledge: a comparison between handwriting and typing. Hum Mov Sci. 2006 Oct;25(4-5):646-56.
  11. Mangen A., Anda LG, Oxborough GH, Brřnnick K. Handwriting versus keyboard writing: Effect on word recall. Journal of Writing Research. 2015;7(2):227-47.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Mueller PA, Oppenheimer DM. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychol Sci. 2014 Jun;25(6):1159-68.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Morehead K, Dunlosky J, Rawson KA. How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educ Psychol Rev. 2019;31:753-80.
  14. Mewburn I. The Cornell note-taking method – revisited [Internet]. The Thesis Whisperer. 2019 [cited 26 September 2023]. Available from:
  15. 15.0 15.1 Saran M, Krentz Gober M, McCarty EB. An introduction to the Cornell Note system. Ear, Nose & Throat Journal. 2022 Nov;101(9_suppl):37S-41S.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Oxford Learning. How To Take Study Notes: 5 Effective Note Taking Methods. 2017. Available from: