I’ve continually spoken at great length about how spaced repetition with active recall is a foundational component to achieving stellar results in school. We’ve gone over how to create good Anki flashcards, which is rarely done properly, even by popular study experts, but even more foundational is how to take good notes. I’ll show you how to do just that.
Taking good notes, whether from class or from your textbook, is nuanced and messy. It’s part of the reason I’ve pushed off writing a post about note-taking for so long. Unlike many other components to studying, like memorization techniques, note-taking doesn’t naturally fall into a straightforward and streamlined process.
To consistently take useful notes, you’ll need to be adaptable with your approach, adjusting it based on several variables, such as the content you’re learning, the lecturer who’s teaching you, and a few other factors. Let’s get started.
First, what is the purpose of taking notes? This may seem obvious, but it’s this foundational question that trips many students up. You should not be taking notes to copy the professor or textbook verbatim. This is the most common offense. Rather, notes are a tool used to facilitate comprehension, memorization, and more effective future studying.
You can think of note-taking as two discrete steps: process function and product function.
The process function refers to the fact that the act of taking notes while listening to a lecture improves your comprehension and retention, regardless of whether you review those notes. The product function refers to the ability to review the notes in the future and commit facts to memory through rehearsal, organization, or elaboration.
With that in mind, how should we decide what type of device to use when taking notes?
If you write on a notepad, you lose much of the convenience of storing files digitally or having them searchable or being able to quickly insert images. If you type on a computer, you cannot easily draw, or you may be prone to distractions like social media or instant messaging.
Additionally, Mueller and Oppenheimer in 2014 demonstrated that typing notes on a laptop is more likely to result in transcribing lectures verbatim rather than deeper information processing and reframing into one’s own words. In short, less of it actually sticks.
Based on the Mueller and Oppenheimer paper, you may jump to the conclusion that taking notes by hand is superior to on the computer. As always, the actual science is far more nuanced than black-and-white summaries would have you believe. Mueller and Oppenheimer found an advantage to handwritten notes with regards to conceptual testing, but no difference with regards to factual testing.
Additionally, they only tested the process function of note-taking (meaning taking the notes) but not the product function (meaning reviewing the notes). When they did allow laptop and written note-takers to review their notes, the handwritten notes performed better in both factual and conceptual testing. Settled? Not yet.
Dung and colleagues in 2012 found opposing results, demonstrating that when participants could study their notes, those who used a computer to transcribe the lecture performed best on delayed recall tests. Similarly, Fiorella and Mayer in 2017 showed that when allowed to study one’s notes, those who used a laptop performed better on factual information recall than those who took notes by hand, postulating that taking longhand notes requires greater cognitive processing, which is ultimately a distraction—a problem not faced by laptop note-takers.
Perhaps these seemingly conflicting findings are best addressed by Luo et al. in 2018, who addressed the main shortcomings of the three previous studies. Seems confusing? It should since there are several conflicting findings on the surface level.
The Verdict on Notebook vs. Laptop
With all of this conflicting data, what should we believe? Again, nuance is key, and the devil is in the details. Here are the best practices I recommend based on the data:
1 | Eliminate Distractions
Completely disable all notifications and enter airplane mode if necessary to eliminate distractions from a laptop or tablet while taking notes in class. Failing to do so drastically reduces any benefits offered by using an electronic device.
2 | Avoid Transcribing
I type at 145 words per minute, and if you’re also a fast typist, you may find it easy to transcribe what the lecturer is saying verbatim. This is a highly passive form of note-taking, and as we’ve discussed many times on the MSI blog and YouTube channel, active learning is king.
While in lecture, your priority should be to understand the information. To facilitate this process and avoid regurgitating, put it into your own words. The data on the utility of transcribing is conflicting, but that’s due to study limitations and overall poor note-taking strategies within the studies.
3 | Take Advantage of Images and Figures
Regardless of the medium you use when taking notes, prioritize incorporating relevant images and figures. With handwritten notes, you can draw them yourself. With a laptop or tablet, you can take a photo or screenshot and insert them directly into your notes, which brings us to our last point.
4 | Use a Tablet
Traditionally, we looked at either typing on a laptop or writing in a notebook, but each system has significant downsides. As we now enter a new decade in 2020, tablet devices are more affordable and accessible than ever, and they allow for the best of both worlds—the convenience of typing and digital notes with the ability to draw and annotate.
At the time I was in school, I went with an iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, but even a basic $300 iPad will get the job done. Windows might consider Microsoft Surface. If you have a different suggestion, share it with the rest of us in the comments below.
In terms of apps, I highly recommend Notability or OneNote, as both allow for a flexible system of drawing, typing, and importing images or PDFs that you can annotate. I used to use Evernote and Apple Notes, but their drawing functionality is highly restrictive. And while I do love Notion, the lack of drawing or annotating holds it back in the purposes of in-class note-taking.
Now that we have the fundamentals in place, how do we approach note-taking most effectively? The first step is to take good notes.
The Cornell Method
Cornell notes follow an intelligent structure that facilitates active learning and recall. On the left side, you write down keywords or questions that you use to quiz yourself later. On the right-hand side, you take your notes in a traditional nested outline format. At the bottom, you write a summary of the information on the page.
While well-intentioned, I do not recommend you use this format, as there are much better ways to incorporate active learning and recall into your daily studying, which we’ll get to shortly.
The Outline Method
The Outline method is my favorite, and it’s one of the most popular methods used by college and medical students. It’s quite simple. You start with a main topic or idea, and if there is a sub-topic related to that idea, you nest it with an indent. If you have another supporting fact of that sub-topic, you nest that point further. This allows for a clean, organized, and straightforward way to organize the information from class.
You should use this as your default go-to in most situations. If this seems straightforward and simple, it should. That’s because during this stage, you’re simply seeking to understand and organize the information in a way that makes sense to you. It’s the next step where additional effort and adaptability comes in.
Note Interacting and Reflecting
Once we’ve taken the notes, the key to learning the information and crushing your exams isn’t to simply review the notes again and again. That’s the silly brute force method I used in college, and it’s the method most students use, leading to much frustration. Rather, you need to practice forms of active learning.
In determining which method to use, consider what makes the coursework challenging. Most classes are either fact-heavy or concept-heavy. In heavy courses, there is simply an immense amount of information you need to memorize, but the facts aren’t all that difficult to make sense of. Think of history or psychology. Concept-heavy, on the other hand, means the difficulty lies in understanding and applying the concepts. Think mathematics, neuroscience, or cardiology.
It’s not an either/or, as just about all subjects have a mix of facts you need to memorize and difficult concepts to understand, but some will be more dominant in facts and some will be more dominant in concepts. Understanding how fact or concept-dominant a subject is will guide you in how to study most effectively.
Summary sheets, also known as condensed notes, are notes of your notes (I know, pretty meta). Essentially, you’re trimming the fat, condensing, and synthesizing your notes into something more manageable. Don’t simply write smaller. Rather, you should be making connections you didn’t realize during lectures and synthesizing the information in new ways, such as in tables or other visuals.
Summary sheets get a bad rep amongst the evidence-based learning community because some studies have shown that they aren’t all that effective. I’d argue they are indeed quite helpful—again, nuance is key. When certain study strategies are employed in a research setting, the nuance is understandably lost.
For summary sheets to be worthwhile, two conditions must be met. First, the subject should be concept-heavy, and second, don’t simply copy your notes, but make it an active learning process by actively seeking to understand, make connections, and simplify. This may not be easy or comfortable, but that’s to be expected of any effective active learning method.
In my pulmonology block during the first year of medical school, I scored in the top 3 of my entire first-year class. I primarily took simple outline method notes as I attended lectures.
Later on, I went home and condensed the notes into a single piece of paper, front and back, that looked something like this. I took a photo and saved it into Evernote for me to reference later when I needed to review.
Next up, synthesis questions, which are appropriate amongst a broader range of subjects. I’m grateful that my medical school provided us with learning objective questions, which was my first introduction to the practice of synthesis questions. But you don’t need someone else to make them for you—you can make them yourself.
Let’s take the cardiology block during my first year of medical school, one of the most conceptually challenging blocks, but also one of the blocks where I set the curve and ranked number 1 in my medical school. Again, I started off with outline method notes, but after lecture, I worked on synthesis questions.
Again, this is best served when it becomes an active process, such as when you’re making a table of two similar but distinct entities. Simply copying down definitions does not help you here.
For example, after learning about skeletal and cardiac muscle, I made a table comparing the two. Here’s another table comparing systemic and pulmonary blood circulations. The process of making the table was an active process that reinforced the material and my understanding of it; plus, I had the added benefit of a high-yield table to review at a future date.
Students often ask me if they should make flashcards directly in class. I actually tried doing this in medical school during some blocks, and it’s not a good idea. The reason being is that you’ll make very low-quality flashcards that have far too much information on them, or test you on multiple facts, or don’t follow other best practices. This translates to highly inefficient flashcards and wasted effort. It’s for this same reason that I don’t recommend you use Cornell notes.
Flashcards should only be made after you have organized the information, understand it deeply, and have made connections or simplifications in your head or on paper. Flashcards are used to drill in information that requires rote memorization more so than conceptual understanding.
Transform Your Study Habits
And there you have it! This is my note-taking process that earned me a 99.9th percentile on my MCAT, top marks in medical school and on my USMLE, and allowed me to match into the hyper-competitive field of plastic surgery. There are some other techniques unrelated to notes, such as practice problems, the Feynman technique, and more, but I’ve gone over those in my popular post “Study Less, Study Smart.“
For more study tips, life hacks, and strategies that will help you succeed as a premed or medical student, follow the Med School Insiders blog, which is filled with tools, comprehensive guides, and how-to resources.
What other study technique questions do you have? Drop a comment below and I’ll consider making a video or article about it. Much love, and happy note-taking!