How to Take Better Notes (Episode 28-39)
And Achieve More
During my work, meetings, and life in general, I am an avid note-taker. Also, when I get a sudden splash of inspiration, I like to scribble things down about this. Personally, I have a wide range of notes on a great variety of topics. However, I’m not a star at organizing or categorizing them. Also, the way I take notes is up for improvement. Therefore, to improve my information retention abilities, and to enhance my capacity to structure and organize the abundant amounts of information I’m scribbling down and accumulate on a daily basis, I decided to dive into the topic of note-taking. It is something almost everyone engages in, but few have a watertight system. Proper note taking will improve our lives, and enable us to be more structured and productive while accessing and processing more information. I was lucky to find the world-champion of note-taking, Professor Kenneth Kiewra, who agreed to an interview with me about this. Kenneth is a Professor Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has been studying note-taking techniques for over 40 years. He obtained his PhD in the year when I was born (39 years ago), published a great many books, and developed and validated the SOAR teaching and learning method. This method is shared with tens of thousands of teachers and students world-wide, and his insights and work on note-taking, with many more. Right note-taking practice can be extremely helpful in work, research, and learning. It enhances performance and achievement, as I’ve learnt. Therefore, let’s dive in!
How we benefit from taking notes
‘Note-taking allows people to outsource their memories to an external source (paper), as well as make content explicit for future reference’ (Friedman, 2014). It also helps us perform better. Although this might not come as a surprise, those who take notes during a lecture or presentation achieve more than students who just passively listen (Kiewra, 2019). Note taking focuses our attention on the ideas being discussed and prevents our minds from drifting (Kiewra, 2019). Note taking boosts achievement (Kiewra, Colliot and Lu, 2018). Note taking is effective because it directs our attention towards the information shared and thereby prevents distractions. When we take notes, and revise and review these, this allows for more time to process and dissect information. Both the process of note taking, as the product (the notes themselves) improve our achievements (Kiewra, Colliot and Lu, 2018). Research has shown that a good set of complete notes, be it your own or as provided by the instructor, leads to the best results in the classroom setting (Kiewra, 2022). Obviously, the same will ring true in a corporate or business environment.
Levels in note-taking
Typically, people record only one third of important information (Kiewra, 2022). To help us understand why this happens, we can look at note-taking as a process which takes place at different levels of detail. The first level of what we typically note down is the superordinate information. This is more general information, or the main ideas if you will. We typically do well in noting down this first level of information. Level two and further down become more subordinate. These levels consist of the details and examples. They provide the context for the higher-level information. The more subordinate the information becomes, the less we take note of this (Kiewra, 2022). For example, ‘[s]tudents often omit examples from notes’ (Kiewra, Colliot and Lu, 2018). This is a shame, as through the examples the material comes to life. With that, we become able to place new information in context. It’s fairly easy and straightforward to grasp the high-level points of any meeting or presentation. However, when we get past the main points and general principles, and take note of the facts and details, our overall comprehension, understanding, and memory improves. In doing so, we provide more anchors for our ideas to take hold. Therefore, during our note-taking, we should not only focus on the high-level superordinate information, but also focus and take note of the details and examples.
Apart from details and examples, also qualifiers are often missing from our notes. Qualifiers are typically adjectives added to nouns to qualify a noun’s meaning. Kiewra, Colliot and Lu offer a good example for this: ‘“If recent trends hold true, the site can produce 100 million barrels of oil,” but an investor missed the qualifier “if recent trends hold true” and tersely wrote, “the site can produce 100 million barrels of oil.”’ (Kiewra, Colliot and Lu, 2018). Obviously, the latter statement is entirely different from the former, due to missing the qualifier. Thus, we must be conscious to not only take notes of the big ideas, but also include the context. Examples, details and qualifiers will help bring our notes to life upon later review.
Don’t only note down what you don’t know, also write down what you know
‘When most people take notes, they’re writing down things they don’t know’ (Kiewra, 2022). Then later, when coming back to the notes, we find a bunch of things we don’t know. The context (which was familiar to us when we heard it), is missing. Hearing about this from Kenneth during our talk was quite an eye opener to me. I have to admit, I’m guilty of this. Too often I merely write down the things I think I need to remember, because they’re new, and omit the things I already know. Naively thinking I’ll remember this. Consequently, we need to make our notes more complete, also adding the familiar parts which provide context for the information which is new. ‘Learning and memory is really all about connections’ (Kiewra, 2022). For that reason, it’s very important to link our notes to examples, definitions and context. We want to connect the pieces of information to each other, and to the things we already know. In this way, it becomes much easier to retain information.
Be selective while note-taking
Most lessons are presented at around 180 words per minute. Most people only type at around 30 or 40 words per minute. When writing in longhand, this drops further to around 20 words per minute (Kiewra, 2022). Note-taking is about distilling things to their essence. Capturing the most important elements of that what is shared or read. ‘The essential skill is not the ability to write fast, but the ability to recognize what someone is talking about and [to] identify the message’ (Gutmann, 2019). Thus, it is essential to be brief, selective, and fast in our note taking. Using abbreviations helps with this. Also asking someone to wait, or repeat what they said, will help you note down the important elements when something strikes you as significant.
As identified by Ho, our attitude and behavior also influence our note-taking abilities. ‘[S]nacks with high sugar or high salt will impact our ability to pay attention. This similarly applies to coffee which, if not consumed in moderation, can impact sleep and your ability to pay attention and focus (Ho, 2022). Preparation prior to the event in which note-taking will take place will help our engagement and improves our note-taking abilities. Preparation enhances our focus and help us become more invested into the information shared.
Longhand and digital note-taking compared
When we’re taking notes on the computer, we’re easily tempted to take notes verbatim. This doesn’t offer the best way to absorb information. Research shows that verbatim notes are associated with ‘shallow, non-meaningful learning’ (Kiewra, 2019). When taking notes by computer, we risk getting distracted, or adding too much information. ‘Don’t let the speed with which you can type cause you to enter unnecessary text’ (Gutmann, 2019). When taking notes by hand, we stay more focused as there are simply less distractions. When taking notes on a computer, an email notification can be enough to take our attention away at an instant. Apart from avoiding the risk of distraction, there are more benefits to longhand note-taking. Hand-written notes provide the possibility of adding graphic information, which is missing from typical digital notes (Kiewra, 2019). With hand-written notes we can also connect ideas by drawing lines throughout our pages. ‘[L]onghand note takers recorded higher quality notes than laptop note takers: Notes were more efficient and contained more paraphrasing and more images’ (Kiewra, Colliot and Lu, 2018).
Avoid distractions when taking notes
Thus, as concluded, note taking can be best done in longhand form. Not on a computer or phone. Reason for this is the risk of distractions on the latter two. As shown in research, texting reduces note-taking by 13%. 70-90% of students in a classroom setting text, and students working on a laptop in class spend 60% of their time on the laptop for non-class purposes. Laptop use lowers grades for laptop users and bystanders (Kiewra, 2022). I am sure that in the professional setting these numbers, and their negative effects on performance due to distractions and as a consequence of reduced attention due to multi-tasking, are equally shocking. As I wrote when researching simplicity, it takes around 23 minutes on average for someone to come back and find their focus after a distraction or when multitasking. People do not know how to put their phones away (Kiewra, 2022). However, when we want to increase our focus, take better notes, or do anything better and with more attention for that matter, we need to get rid of our screens and limit our distractions. When we are on our screens, we are choosing not to pay attention.
Note-taking during meetings
As mentioned before, preparation helps us focus on the information shared. When taking notes during meetings, often there is an agenda available beforehand. To create accurate meeting notes, it helps to follow the order of the meeting agenda and prepare your note-taking structure beforehand. A typical meeting structure is made up of (Gutmann, 2019):
Greeting – Minutes usually don’t reflect this opening statement;
Absences – Include a list of those who said they couldn’t attend;
Declarations of interest – Officials who can’t participate due to conflicts of interest should file these statements, which are particularly important in government;
Minutes from the last meeting – Distribute these before the upcoming meeting so members can confirm their accuracy and ascertain that no one has made content changes without the committee’s knowledge;
Matters arising – This includes follow-ups and action steps related to matters from previous meetings;
Information items – These are concerns that participants need to hear about but not necessarily discuss;
Agenda – The main agenda items include the primary topics of business and the meeting’s main purpose;
Other matters – Provide time for participants to add last-minute agenda items;
Upcoming schedule – Include details about the next meeting.
When taking notes, it helps to identify cues in the information provided. These cues could be verbal/written, but also non-verbal. Examples of verbal cues could be for example, ‘listen up’, ‘don’t forget..’, ‘here’s the main point’, or ‘this is absolutely critical’. Non-verbal cues could be particular body language, for instance a straightened back, or a raised finger. Repeating of sentences and particular information also signals prominence. Cues are to signal us of important information. There are also organizational cues, as Kenneth explained. Examples of organizational cues are for instance the word ‘parts’ in the statement; ‘atoms have three parts’. The word ‘parts’ here signals that there are three elements to atoms; a proton, neutron, and electron. When someone says ‘this process consists of four steps’, ‘steps’ is our cue that four more elements will be discussed. The following example of Kiewra provides a clear cue for a matrix we can use for organizing our information. ‘The four theories can be compared with respect to origin, evidence, and limitations’ (Kiewra, 2022). This could be noted in the following way:
‘Any time we can graphically display something […], we make a much more convincing argument and we have something that is far more memorable than a list of things’ (Kiewra, 2022).
Revision and review of notes
When we take notes, typically, they are incomplete. It is a common mistake for people not to revise their notes after the event (Kiewra, 2019). Many people might review their notes, but they don’t rewrite and order them. When doing this shortly after the information was shared, you’ll be able to remember other points and add these to your notes. I know this from experience when journaling. When I review my day and write about my meetings and events, memories surface and already forgotten information presents itself. To enable this process, it is beneficial to allow physical space for this on your paper when taking notes. Revised notes will contain much more information and details and help retain more information. For this reason, and to enhance our learning, it is beneficial to revise our notes, shortly after they have been taken. Revision of notes, done right after the information has been absorbed, is a crucial step to absorbing information and allows us to add any missing information aided by our short-term memory (Kiewra, 2019). Our memory is cue dependent (Kiewra, 2022). For instance, when we smell something, or when we hear a particular song, this instantly triggers our memory of experiences connected to that particular smell or song. The same holds true for the cues in our notes. They help us remember more and retrieve information we didn’t write down while taking notes. The practice of reviewing our notes is critically important. Where the revision part might be quick and dirty right after the notes have been taken, the process of review is really working with the information, organizing it and looking for associations, connections and linkages throughout the information (Kiewra, 2022).
During our talk on note-taking, I asked Kenneth about his practice for categorizing his notes. In line with the before mentioned, he has the practice of instantly reviewing and revising the notes, and taking them from his phone or note-pad, directly to his computer where he processes the information directly. In all cases, it’s important to connect the notes as soon as possible to the relevant project or category of information. Therefore, in order to find back information, it is helpful to categorize our notes. However, as I’ve learnt when researching simplicity, less is more. It’s easy to create a Christmas tree of folders and subfolders, but this will not help with finding information. Adding the right (file) name for our notes and documents will help with finding back information later.
The Cornell Method of note-taking
Developed in the 1950s at Cornell University, this method allows for organization of the information provided. By breaking the page down with drawing three lines, there becomes a division between three sections.
Image from Comprehensionhart
On the top, one writes down title, date, and other practical information. The narrow section on the left is the space for cues, and key points. These function as headings for the related notes in the bigger section on the right. Below, there is space for a summary. See The Learning Toolbox and Comprehensionhart for more information in the Cornell Method. Personally, I find this a very practical and useful way to increase the structure in our note-taking.
The SOAR method
As mentioned above, Professor Kenneth Kiewra developed SOAR, a simple and straightforward method for teaching and learning. As laid out in his book ‘SOAR to College Success and Beyond’, SOAR is an acronym that stands for its four components: Select, Organize, Associate, and Regulate. This method is shared with tens of thousands of teachers and students world-wide, and helps boost note-taking and information dispersion and absorption. Firstly, we have to carefully select information. We have to decide what’s important and not. Write things down, dissect, pose questions, and formulate answers. While doing so, it is important to note this information down, being able to refer to it later. The second part of SOAR is organize. This doesn’t typically take place during a meeting or a lecture but is best done afterwards. The process of organizing helps structure the selected information and notes in a format that is easily accessible and shows associations, connections and linkages throughout the information noted down. By means of graphic organization, through matrixes and charts, information becomes more comprehensible and ‘user-friendly’. Thirdly, there is the process of association. This becomes easy after organizing the information. Here, our information, or our notes, begin to speak to us. Lastly, there is regulation. This is a form of testing one’s knowledge based on the information selected, organized and associated. From this, one can formulate questions that help expand the understanding of the information (Kiewra, 2022). Regulation should be a continuous process, and can also be done while communication, for instance by asking ‘am I making myself clear’ or, ‘do I understand it correctly that…’.
Thus, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to note-taking. When we approach this process systematically, paying attention to both superordinate and subordinate information alike, look for cues, and note down details and examples, our information retention will inevitably improve. With that, our achievements will follow suit. Well noted.
To improve my information retention abilities, and to enhance my capacity to structure and organize the abundant amounts of information I’m scribbling down and accumulate on a daily basis, I decided to dive into the topic of note-taking. Right note-taking practice can be extremely helpful in work, research, and learning. It enhances performance and achievement, as I learnt.
For this, I have talked to Professor Kenneth Kiewra, who we could call the world-champion of note-taking. Kenneth is a Professor Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has been studying note-taking techniques for over 40 years. He obtained his PhD in the year when I was born, published a great many books, and developed and validated the SOAR teaching and learning method. This method is shared with tens of thousands of teachers and students world-wide, and his insights and work on note-taking, with many more.
As in the nature of the animal, Kenneth even got some slides out during our talk which helped bring the examples to life. I gained a lot of new insights during my talk, and I’m sure this will help you too improve your note-taking, and thereby your achievements. Enjoy!
Prof. Kenneth Kiewra’s page at University of Nebraska-Lincoln: https://cehs.unl.edu/kiewra/
Werbsite on the SOAR method for teaching and learing: https://cehs.unl.edu/kiewra/soar/
Ahrens, Sönke, 2017, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,
Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. https://amzn.to/3GX1nYM
Flanigan, Abraham Edward and Kim Jackie HeeYoung, 2022, Digital Distractions in the College Classroom.https://amzn.to/359zqjo
Friedman, Michael, 2014, Notes on Note-Taking: Review of Research and Insights for Students and Instructors. Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, Harvard University. https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/u.osu.edu/dist/c/15148/files/2017/03/Notes-on-Note-Taking-qrs2kq.pdf
Gillies, Andrew, 2017, Note-taking for Consecutive Interpreting. https://amzn.to/3BCDGnt
Gutmann, Joanna, 2019, Taking Minutes of Meetings: How to Take Efficient Notes that Make Sense and Support Meetings that Matter. https://amzn.to/3s4Qyzu
Ho, Leon, 2022, 7 Most Efficient Note Taking Methods. Lifehack.org https://www.lifehack.org/856826/note-taking, accessed on February 20, 2022.
Kiewra, Kenneth, Tiphaine Colliot, and Junrong Lu, 2018, Note This: How to Improve Student Note Taking. IDEA Paper #73, September 2018. https://www.ideaedu.org/idea_papers/note-this-how-to-improve-student-notetaking/
Kiewra, Kenneth, 2019, A seven-step guide to taking better notes. Quartz. https://qz.com/1701631/how-to-take-better-notes/, accessed on February 19, 2022.
Kiewra, Kenneth, 2021, SOAR to College Success and Beyond. https://amzn.to/36yQ4tl
The Learning Toolbox, Cornell Notes. http://coe.jmu.edu/learningtoolbox/cornellnotes.html, accessed on February 19, 2022.
The Open University, 2007, Reading and Taking Notes. https://help.open.ac.uk/browse/study-skills, accessed on February 19, 2022.
Zetlin, Minda, 2019, How to Take Better Notes for Information Retention. Inc.com, https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/note-taking-better-notes-retention-remembering-information-l.html, accessed on February 19, 2022.