Note-Taking

“He listens well who takes notes.”

Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321)

Methods

I like to keep in mind that no one way of taking notes is the best way overall. Notes are best used for recording information and some of these methods can double as fantastic study tools, but I don’t recommend making notes as a form of studying. Some methods will be better for certain situations and it’s up to us to decide what’s best for ourselves. These are a few methods to add to your arsenal. The best part of having access to different method is being able to combine them with each other to make your own unique method. Remember, you know yourself best when it comes to your learning and what works for you. Try out a few of these popular methods and tweak/modify them to fit you to get the most out of this.

Outlines

The simplest method to take notes. Good for lectures or textbooks. You start with main ideas listed as a bullet point then supporting details will be listed under that. Eventually, you will have an organized system of key ideas. This blog post was originally designed using the outline method!

Outlining has its perks but be aware of thoughtless recording. Sometimes when we’re outlining we tend to write down non-crucial information, which takes cognitive resource away from more high-yield concepts. It’s easy to mindlessly copy everything the professor is saying without internalizing it and putting in the effort to learn the material.

This is an excellent method for taking notes on a laptop if your class allows for that. I did my fair share of handwritten outline notes in high school, then in college I typed most of my notes outline style in my humanities classes. I don’t recommend this style for math and physical science classes but it’s great for other classes like history or psychology.

Advantages

  • Great if a teacher provides an outline where the readings contain many clear headings and sub-headings
  • Results in well-organized notes
  • Indentations and groupings show relationships between information
  • Main points/headings can be used as active recall study questions

Disadvantages

  • This system is hard to use if the lecture is moving too fast
  • Permits Thoughtless Recording
  • Must be careful to maintain organization

Mind Mapping

This method is great for visualizing large amounts of information. You can also use mind mapping as a form of active recall. So it’s a great tool to use when first studying a new subject. Mind mapping can be a way for you to write down everything you know without having to write paragraphs on paragraphs.

To use mind mapping you want to start by writing the overarching topic in the center of your paper and put a circle around it. Then write down words that are related to that topic by branching out. Then flesh out those branched words with more words. Eventually you will have a giant web of concepts/topics/and words that will all be related and the relations will be very easy to see.

I don’t recommend this method for taking notes in class but their great for reviewing and getting an idea of how much you know about a topic. Mind maps shine brightest when we are scoping the subject. That is when we ask ourselves how much we know about something before we start studying. It gives us a frame to hang the new information on when we learn something new, which helps with information retention. Mind mapping can build knowledge frameworks, which are powerful for understanding complex systems.

Advantages

  • Great visual aid
  • Fantastic for recording ideas when brainstorming
  • Great method for less structured lectures
  • Engages multiple sense when we learn which improves information retention

Disadvantages

  • Not suitable for all learning situations
  • High distraction potential
  • Time consuming
  • Extra supplies required
  • Details can be easily missed

The Boxing Method

This method involves taking related notes and organizing them into boxes to get a better idea of which concepts are related and which ones aren’t. Typically we would write all of the notes from our session, be it lectures or textbook reading, and organize the notes into boxes later. An iPad or other tablet with a note-taking app, like Notability, would probably be best for this method but you could also write your notes and rewrite them in boxes later. This can help with learning the relations between different ideas and focusing on one idea at a time.

Advantages

  • Easy to see the relationships between details
  • Keeps notes organized
  • Good for textbooks or organized lectures

Disadvantages

  • Not great for disorganized lectures
  • More nuanced connections aren’t easily represented

The Slides Method

In college, there’s a common technique to take notes on PowerPoints where students will write down anything that is not included in the PowerPoint. College professors will often post their lectures online and students will print them out before class with the intention to use them as notes.

To be honest, this is a pretty lazy way to take notes but it can also be incredibly efficient. Since most of the information is already recorded for you, the majority of your energy can be spent paying attention to what the professor is actually saying. Instead of focusing on writing down everything the professor says, you can just write down the facts that are not included on the slides. Just be weary that the information that you do not write down still must be consolidated in some fashion, so try to make sure that you spend time after class accommodating those concepts.

Do not let the laziness take over! Be careful with this method, it can lead to a lot of information being overlooked.

Advantages

  • Most of the information is already recorded
  • You can focus on what the professor is saying
  • Won’t miss key concepts

Disadvantages

  • Encourages passive learning
  • Small details are not as easily recorded
  • Could decrease engagement in class

Cornell Notes

Originating from Cornell University, this is probably the most famous note taking system consequently making it the most misused note taking system. In order for it to work, like most things, it must be used properly. This system was designed to help us create an efficient way to review our notes after our lectures and properly increase retention.

To use this method properly we divide our notes into three distinct sections.

  1. The question column – this section is to contain questions that are answered in our note-taking column and are designed to be the questions that we want to use when reviewing time comes along. Usually these questions will cover main ideas within the lecture, but sometimes they can cover specifics also.
  2. The note-taking column – this is where the bulk of our notes will be. We can use any method to take notes here. Most people typically use the outlining method. This is where we would look to find the answers of our questions if we aren’t able to answer them during our review phase.
  3. The summary column – this section will be at the end of our notes. To get the most out of the Cornell method its best to take 2-5 minutes at the end of a lecture to summaries the main points to remember. This gives us a great resource to look back on later to find out what this set of notes contains but also gives us an opportunity for active recall practice to help with retention. If we’re going to use Cornell notes, it’s imperative to do this section, the retention we get just by spending 2-5 minutes writing the summary saves us hours in studying later!

Advantages

  • Organized on multiple levels
  • Doubles as a great review tool
  • Encourages active learning

Disadvantages

  • Summary and questions require more effort
  • The note-taking column has limited space on a standard piece of paper

The Flow Method

Developed by Scott Young, a writer best known for going through MIT’s computer science curriculum in just one year. He claims that our brains store information in unique ways that do not mimic the way we write them in our notes and in order to make effective notes, we must record information the way that our brains encode it. The question would then be, how do we know how our brain will store information? The answer would be that we write our notes however we see fit, in a new creative way. By doing it this way, our notes will most resemble how we make sense of the information in our heads. Making note-taking a creative process will help the information find a nice home in our mind. The Flow Method is based on 3 principles, simplify, visualize, and make connections.

The Flow Method has many different forms and that’s what makes this method difficult to perfect. I do not recommend this method for all subjects, but it would be best for reviewing in detail-dense classes like anatomy, physiology, or biochemistry.

To effectively implement the flow method we can do a few things to get started:

  • Use arrows to connect terms and ideas
  • Write new concepts in your own words and relate them to things you already understand, even things that aren’t related to the new concepts
  • Create new metaphors to explain the ideas
  • Draw pictures and funny doodles to represent new information
  • Create flow charts or algorithms to represent how the new concepts relate to the big picture
  • Capture the information in a pyramid or hierarchy

Advantages

  • Simple if done correctly
  • Captures complex and nonlinear ideas easily
  • Great for detail dense subjects
  • Creative process

Disadvantages

  • Requires understanding of your own mind
  • Has the potential to be disorganized

The Charting Method

Taking notes helps with the learning process, but reviewing and studying should be done with active recall. Some of these methods are great for active recall, while some require some modifications. The charting method is a general term for organizing information in a chart. The chart can look like a box with columns like this:

Or a venn diagram or T-Chart like these:

Charting is fantastic for capturing and organizing high yield information. A good chart will have all the pertinent information you need to know without bogging you down with extraneous facts. Making charts or recreating them from scratch can be a fantastic form of active recall as well.

Advantages

  • Reduces amount of writing
  • Compares similar topics easily
  • Great for memorizing and comparing facts
  • Fantastic tool for scoping the subject

Disadvantages

  • Chart organization can be difficult for new information
  • Requires additional time to create chart
  • Some details may not fit in chart categories

Handwritten vs. Typed Notes

In high school, I mainly hand wrote my notes and in college (for my non-STEM classes), I typically typed my notes. Each has their pros and cons and each have their time and place. When we hand write our notes, our brains uses more neurons and our minds use more effort to record the information which results in higher retention. When we type our notes, our brain and mind uses less energy and we are less likely to remember what we typed. However, typing notes is much faster than writing and we are able to record more information than we would have if we recorded by hand. Typing has a narrow scope when it comes to academic subjects. I wouldn’t recommend typing notes in a math, chemistry, or physics class but typing can do wonders in a social science, history, or humanities course.

When we hand write notes we get a little less effectiveness for efficiency and with typing we get more efficiency for effectiveness. When we hand write our notes, we should take extra precautions to make sure that we aren’t missing valuable or crucial information. When we are typing our notes, we should spend a little extra time going over the material to make sure it really sticks. I recommend using my method of systemic consolidation. It’s efficient, effective, and supported by evidence based theories about learning.

Effectiveness and efficiency aren’t the only trade offs when it comes to handwriting and typing notes. There is also the trade of syntax and meaning. Typing gives us more syntax but less meaning and learning lies in the meaning. This is why we are more inclined to forget new information that we typed. We get more of what our instructor is saying, but we take in less of what they mean. On the flip side, when we’re writing, we get less syntax and more meaning. We aren’t trying to write down every word the instructor says (less syntax); we try to figure out what they mean and quickly record something that can represent it (more meaning). This synthesis step we take when we’re handwriting something is why we remember what we write down better than what we type.

This video does a great job comparing handwritten and typed notes and highlights a few of the points I touched on earlier.

Trace is a pretty cool guy

Nowadays, we can get access to the best of both worlds with pretty low friction. My iPad pro with the Apple Pencil are great for combining the speed and efficiency of computer notes but also gives me the option to draw diagrams and encode information at any given moment. You don’t necessarily need an iPad pro and the Apple Pencil, this can work on any tablet that supports a stylus! I love that we have tech that can further our learning capabilities so easily. Tablets can be a pretty hefty investment, but I highly recommend getting one not only for the note taking purposes but because it can remove the friction to a lot of other productive behaviors like reading. I’m all for investing in things that make doing our ideal habits easier and more fun.

When do you use each method?

When thinking about which method of notes to record in a class, it’s important to consider what kind of class it is. Understanding the class structure will help you answer questions like

Is it better to handwrite these notes or type them?

Should I draw a diagram or just jot down bullet points?

What should my notes look like?

There are two categories classes can fall into, concept based and fact based. Concept based classes are usually the math and physical science type classes where we are expected to learn a concept and apply them broadly over many different situations. The concepts are usually simple to understand but the difficulty comes from being able to apply them in different contexts. Fact based classes are usually the history, social, and life science type classes where we are expected to memorize facts and synthesize an understanding of a bigger picture. The facts usually aren’t difficult to make sense of and the difficulty of these classes typically comes from the high volume of information we are responsible for knowing. From my experiences as a student and tutor, I’ve noticed that the handwritten flow method is best for most concept based classes and typed cornell notes or charting notes are better for fact based classes, but I encourage you to find what works best for you. Note taking takes a while to develop, especially when developing the little adjustments for yourself

Systemic Consolidation & Expansion

Note taking is a useful skill in the world of academics but it isn’t an effective way to review material. Some methods, like the cornell notes, are designed to be used later as an active recall resource but with systemic consolidation, all of your notes can be effective active recall resources. The idea is to shrink down your notes into a smaller space. I don’t mean write smaller, I mean try to capture the same ideas in less physical space. This is useful for a few reasons:

  • it forces you to cut extraneous information
  • it encourages you to develop a special neural pathway to recognize the same information from less cue input
  • you end up being able to recall most of the information in the process

Back in college, my engineering professors allowed us to use one notecard on the test with anything written on it. We could write examples, formulas, concepts, sentences, pictures, anything as long as it fit on a notecard. (As my classes got more difficult, that notecard grew to an entire sheet of paper.) My classmates and I took advantage of this situation and wrote down as much as we could on those little notecards. We weren’t able to literally fit everything, so we had to be smart and intentionally choose what to save in the notecard. This process of separating the wheat from the chaff helped me learn a huge portion of the material and by the time the test came, I rarely had to use my cheat sheets. After discovering this little trick, I periodically consolidated my notes every exam. This not only allowed me to review for my exams effectively and efficiently, but it gave me clear and powerful study resources that came in clutch during finals week. Taking notes alone isn’t an effective study technique, but when its coupled with systematic consolidation, any note-taking method can be made great!

Making things smaller isn’t the only way to use notes effectively. Systemic expansion is a fantastic option to further enhance and deepen our understanding. I like to use this method to make my online content. The main idea is to expand on the knowledge you are trying to understand by incorporating it within a larger creative project. As a tutor, I know when I learn something for the first time there are going to be gaps in my knowledge and if I’m going to be able to disseminate knowledge that will actually help students, then I need to make sure my own knowledge is thorough and accurate. Through systemic expansion, I give myself an opportunity to articulate my thoughts more clearly and examine gaps in my understanding. As much as I’ve rejected the idea, writing is rewriting.

Nerdy Workflow

When I learn something new that I may want to share with someone later I usually take notes in my notes app that comes on my iPhone. This is mainly because of convenience, it’s easy to quickly catch a thought in my notes while I have it. There isn’t anything special about the notes app in particular. Once I get some time to actually think about the idea deeply I organize it in Microsoft OneNote into it’s appropriate notebook. I like OneNote’s notebook-section-pages organizational style, it adds structure to my content. Right now, I have three main notebooks that I split up my interesting ideas into. There are two notebooks geared towards education and building a curriculum that enhances the education of students using the current system in place. One notebook is for my (future) online course and another is for the in-person course. The third notebook I have is a collection of ideas for creativity and the creative process. Each notebook then has their own sections and each section has subsections (pages) that I can use to specifically categorize each bit of information. Each of these ideas is then fleshed out in a blog post! I plan on taking these ideas even further by turning them into youtube videos, lectures, and hopefully books! This process is long, effortful, and difficult but my understanding and knowledge of each idea will grow and be strengthened through every step of the way.

When practicing systemic expansion, you don’t have to expand in these exact steps. Get a feel for how you would like to expand on your ideas. Creating something out of the knowledge that we are trying to learn is the best way to encode information that sticks around for the long run. If you’re interested in maximizing your understanding, periodically consolidate your information but expand on the ideas in a creative project that spans over the medium to long term.

Thoughts on Highlighting

Throw away your highlighters! Highlighting is not an effective use of your time. It’s an example of prioritizing short term over long term. It feels good and productive to highlight things in a textbook, but in order to encode the information in ours heads we would need to reread those sections again instantly doubling our work! The reality is we would probably have to read outside the highlights for context potentially tripling our work. Highlighting is one of those methods that breeds more work and the benefits you do get from highlighting are not worth the time. You are better off using one of the methods mentioned above incorrectly than highlighting.


I suggest finding other methods that work best for you. The methods I listed here are popular and effective but we all know ourselves best. Becoming a great note taker is a personal art and needs to be formed over time, so try different things out and see what works best for you. Remember, making notes is not a reliable form of studying, I recommend practicing systemic consolidation or expansion as a replacement! Taking good notes is a skill and because of that we aren’t going to be pros at it when we first become intentional with our note-taking. It will take us at least 20 hours to learn how to take effective and efficient notes. With learning new skills, there is a transition curve that we follow. So if at first your notes aren’t stellar, keep at it diligently and actively find ways to improve. Over time you’ll become a master and recording information will be second nature, especially after designing a system that works best for you!

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Education Lifestyle Productivity

Cognitive Load

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

Commonly thought of as the effort required for our brains to do a specific task. Cognitive Load is a fun concept to use as we navigate the best ways to accomplish our daily tasks. Some people like to think of cognitive load as mental gasoline for the “brain engine.”

Australian Psychologist, John Sweller came up with the Cognitive Load Theory which suggests that our working memory can only hold so much information at once and in order to maximize learning, we must learn in a way that does not overwhelm the working memory. The amount of information held in the working memory can be thought of as our cognitive load. If the working memory is overencumbered, then we can’t process information effectively or execute actions properly. This effect is most obvious when we skip sleeping for about two days. The tiredness we feel comes from the working memory doing more than it’s used to. Typically, the more difficult the task, the more cognitive load is required to complete it, but there are nuances.

Types of Cognitive Load

Extraneous Load – this makes up the majority of our cognitive load. We can think of this as the unnecessary load when we are learning something new. Extraneous loads don’t contribute to learning and usually bog us down when we are exposed to them. Different stimuli have different levels of extraneous load. Examples of large forms extraneous load include but are not limited to poor instruction, task/attention switching, and redundancy. Some of the smaller forms are processing changes of motion or light in the room we’re in, or filtering out noise unrelated to the task at hand. Noticing these small things takes such little processing that we barely even notice, but it adds up and it’s possible to process so much sensory information that other tasks can’t be completed.

Intrinsic Load – this can be thought of as the difficulty built right into the subject. The more difficult the subject, the higher the intrinsic load put on our brains. Intrinsic load can be managed through high quality instructors, sophisticated study habits, and deliberate practice. It’s important to keep in mind that some things are so complicated that our brains cannot handle the intrinsic load of the complicated subject and process new information simultaneously. This was me when I was trying to learn quantum physics in college…it was really complicated and I had a hard time learning new information.

Germane Load – this is my favorite type of cognitive load. While it does take some of our mental resource throughout the day, germane load is for transferring the information in our working memory over to our Long-term Memory (LTM). So germane load is the processing devoted to processing information, constructing, and automating schemas. Not all memory consolidation has to occur when we sleep, we can move things to our LTM while we are conscious, it takes a little bit of energy and this is known as the germane load.

I like to think of cognitive load in relation to our “Mental Bandwidth” – it effects our processing power. We can only process so many things at once so it’s helpful to be mindful of our environment and the demands that we put on our brains.

Cognitive Load Threshold vs. Time of Day

The maximum amount of cognitive load we tolerate at a given moment is considered the Cognitive Load Threshold (CLT) and this threshold slowly diminishes throughout the day, or at least until we sleep. Our CLT is highest in the morning and lowest at the end of the day. I don’t recommend this, but if you don’t believe me try saving all of your difficult tasks for the end of the day and pay attention to how difficult it is to complete them. Do all the difficult things in the morning and save the “mindless” simple stuff for later in the day.

The reason for the gradual decline throughout the day is because our minds hold our cognitive load in our working memory is because our working memory has a finite capacity. In order to reset our CLT, we would have to clear out our working memory and that typically happens through sleep.

*Note – this curve is a representation of typical behavior of our cognitive load and everyone’s CLT curve may vary. Everyone’s mind is a little different, so I recommend taking time to figure out which times of day you have the highest and lowest CLT.

Competence and Performance vs. Cognitive Load

Our performance and perceived competence is also a function of our cognitive load. As we acquire cognitive load we perform better, but if we acquire too much cognitive load it can be detrimental to our desired outcomes. This curve mimics the Yerkes-Dodson Curve, a relationship between desired performance and mental arousal.

9 Methods to Reduce Cognitive Load

  1. Maximize the signal to noise ratio – optimizing our environment to facilitate the task at hand. Keep all the extra stuff away from what we are trying to do. The intrinsic load will usually be high for learning something new, so we want to keep the extraneous load to a minimum so we have as much processing power as possible dedicated to germane load. Signal is what we want. Noise is everything else. Keep our processing mechanisms focused on the signals.
  2. Minimize the decisions you have to make in a day – each choice chips away at our CLT. By keeping that number low, we have more brain power dedicated to other things. I minimize some of my decisions by meal prepping, having pre-set outfits, running routines, and having a calendar. Systems are clutch for minimizing cognitive load. Choices are inevitable, but most of the decisions we make throughout the day are unnecessary.
  3. Execute the most difficult tasks first – mentioned a couple times before. I believe that this is what Mark Twain really meant in the quote I included at the beginning. We have the most cognitive load at the beginning of the day and the most difficult tasks require the most cognitive load. Therefore, if we wanted to complete difficult tasks, it would be in our best interests to do them first thing in the morning. For me, blogging is a high cognitive load activity, so I usually get my best writing done in the morning. If I wait until the evening or the afternoon, it’s harder for me to write and my writing quality diminishes. Back when music production required high cognitive load for me, I used to produce first thing in the morning. Now that I’m more comfortable with production, I can do it at night and still produce high quality music. The production isn’t as high a quality as it would be if I worked on it with a clearer head, but it requires significantly less cognitive load to get a song done.
  4. Limit redundancy – learning repetitive stuff is boring and a waste of our valuable cognitive resource. It’s best to limit exposure to novel concepts and ideas, this is not to say that repetition doesn’t have its place. Repetitions are extremely crucial to studying efficiently, but everything we’re processing adds to the cognitive load even if we’ve “already see it before.”
  5. Collaborating – working with other people takes the load off of us, as long as we can work effectively with the people we are collaborating with. Putting multiple brains to the task multiplies our cognitive load threshold as well as gives us an opportunity to share the load with everyone else. Win-win situation.
  6. Provide cognitive aids – I love to use checklists, calendars, reference guides, and habits as forms of cognitive aids. Pretty much anything that we can use to remember something for us or anything that makes making decisions easier can be considered a cognitive aid. I try to keep my working memory as load free as possible and externalizing my appointments, grocery lists, small tasks, and specific facts is a great way of doing that. I have a few posts on scheduling. My calendar is my favorite cognitive aid and it can take years to get good at it.
  7. Minimize context switches – when our brain switches from one activity to the next, it takes on a little cognitive load. This switching can be with the smallest of activities. Let’s say I’m writing a blog post and I get a notification that someone texted me. I stop writing the blog post and start texting my friend. There is a context switch from writing the blog post to texting my friend and that adds to the cognitive load, but there is another context switch in this scenario, and it was when I switched my attention from writing the blog post to looking at the notification. Just the simple act of switching my attention elsewhere is a context switch for my mind. Focus on one thing at a time, and keep notifications off! Minimize context switching!
  8. Utilize the Modality Effect – the modality effect suggests that people learn best by taking in information through multiple modes. This means we learn better when we take in information auditorily and visually rather than just auditorily or just visually. While there is a higher extraneous load, the germane load is much less than what it would be when we optimize the modality effect.

Our minds can only do so much in a day. As tough as people are, we are biological creatures and our bodies have limits. Understanding our limits and what we can do to minimize our loads will help us be more efficient in the long run. Through incorporating these ideas into our learning techniques and practice, our minds will be able to perform at a higher level with less strain. Cognitive Load hygiene is crucial to maintaining a healthy mind and developing peace of mind. Being mindful of our cognitive load will help us live better and accomplish more over the long term.