Note-taking or note-making: Unlocking the generation effect

13 March

Note-taking or note-making: Unlocking the generation effect

Taking notes has been a part of human history for centuries. Ancient Greeks used the word hypomnema (ὑπόμνημα) to describe what could be translated as a note, a reminder, or an anecdotal record. And in the modern age, students are encouraged to take notes in lectures to record the knowledge being shared. As a result, various note-taking systems have been developed, such as outlining, guided notes, and the Cornell method. But while these systems are popular, research suggests that they don't lead to better recall. Is there a better way to capture, understand, and remember what we study?

The difference between note-taking and note-making

Edgar Wright, in his 1962 book about study methods, made a distinction between "note-taking" and "note-making." Note-taking is often done while listening and is about quickly capturing content to refer back to later. Note-making, on the other hand, is usually done while reading and is about deliberately crafting our own version to learn and create better.

Note-taking is fast, uses the original author’s language, and feels easier. The issue is that the content is easily forgotten. In contrast, note-making is more involved and uses our own language. As such, the content is better understood and remembered. This phenomenon is known as the generation effect, which states that information is better remembered if it is actively created from our own mind rather than read passively.

The key principles of making notes

At its core, note-making is about shifting one’s mindset from passive collection to active creation. Instead of just recording content, the goal is to assimilate the information for long-term access. Three key principles can help with this:

  • Rephrase the original idea. Don't simply copy the author's or teacher's language; instead, distill the ideas into your own words. This also helps avoid unintentional plagiarism.

  • Connect ideas together. Create links between the ideas you are studying and draw mental maps of the problem space.

  • Build upon the ideas. Your notes should be living documents. Review and revise them as you learn more about a topic, adding more examples, questions, and related ideas.

Note-making is about shifting one’s mindset from passive collection to active creation. The goal is to assimilate the information for long-term access. Three key principles of making notes include rephrasing the original ideas, connecting ideas together, and building upon the ideas. This includes creating links between notes, drawing mental maps of the problem space, and revising notes as more information is learned.

Examples of note-making methods

Because the principles of note-making encourage students to generate their own content and design their own system, there is no one-size-fits-all method. However, some popular methods include mind mapping, digital gardening, and the Zettelkasten method. In terms of tools, note-taking apps for gardeners such as Roam and Obsidian offer features such as bi-directional linking and a visual knowledge graph. Ultimately, the tool used doesn't matter as much as applying the principles of note-making.

In conclusion, note-making is about actively engaging with the information, using our own language, and creating our own systems. By taking the time and making the effort to rephrase the content we are consuming, we are more likely to commit the information to our long-term memory. While there is no one-size-fits-all method or tool, focusing on the principles of note-making will result in more efficient notes compared to traditional note-taking.