Note-Making: The Definitive Guide

Christoffer Kaltenbrunner
By ยท

This is the complete guide to note-making.

In this new guide you’ll learn how to go from note-taking to note-making including:

  • the difference between note-taking and note-making
  • how note-making will help you become a better learner and thinker
  • analog vs digital note-making
  • how to make notes (step-by-step)

So if you want to make better notes, you’ll love this guide.

Let’s get started.

What is Note-Making?

Note-making is a process for gaining understanding of a topic.

While note-taking is a passive form of information collection, note-making is an active form of content creation.

Note-making is about breaking the material down into chunks, or small pieces of information, connecting these pieces together, and building new knowledge upon them.

Or put another way: Note-making is a learning process.

I’ll explain…

One of the best ways to learn something is to explain it in your own words. If you can’t put your thoughts into words, you probably don’t have a deep understanding of the topic.

As Australian philosopher Peter Singer put it:

I suspect that whatever cannot be said clearly is probably not being thought clearly either.1

Explaining a concept in your own words does not only require you to formulate your thoughts but also to think about them. You get to see shortages and logical fallacies in your thinking and get a chance to correct them.

Note-making helps you capture the key ideas of the topic you study, and once you get understanding, connect and build upon these ideas.

How Note-Making will Help You Become a Better Learner and Thinker

Effective note-making is a powerful tool to help you become a better learner. It is a skill every successful student must master, especially in college and university.

The benefits of note-making:

  • helps you collect important concepts and ideas,
  • lets you go back to the notes instead of the original text during repetition,
  • helps you connect concepts and ideas,
  • helps you break down information into smaller chunks and connect these ideas to gain new knowledge
  • can act as a starting point for content creation

Writing is a great way to become a better thinker. And note-making is a natural part of the writing process.

Analog vs Digital Note-Making

"Should I use pen and paper or a computer for note-making?" I hear you ask.

The Short Answer

It doesn’t really matter as long as you make notes. Use what works best for you!

The Long Answer

Research shows that students perform worse when using a laptop as opposed to pen and paper when taking notes.

However, it’s important to point out that digital note-taking per se doesn’t seem to be the problem.

Rather there seem to be two reasons why students taking notes on a laptop perform worse:

  1. Students write down everything the lecturer says without thinking about what they are typing nor formulating it in their own words.
  2. Students check social media simultaneously with the lecture.

So: should we give up digital note-taking altogether?

I don’t think we have to.

First, if you take digital notes, make sure to not just write down everything the lecturer says. Write down the key ideas only — and do it in your own words.

Second, don’t check social media, emails, or browse the internet during class or a meeting. It’s disrespectful towards your peers. If you know that you easily get distracted during lectures, install a website blocker like Cold Turkey.

There are also huge benefits with digital notes: they are easier to read, edit and share with your peers.

Live collaboration software like Google Docs, even makes it possible to make notes in groups and learn from each other.

So: what should you use?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.

If you prefer taking notes by hand, use pen and paper. And if you prefer digital notes, use a computer.

The most important thing is that you make notes. The second most important thing is how you do it.

What tool you use doesn’t really matter.

Of course, you could use a combination of analog and digital note-taking tools, too.

3 Steps to Effective Note-Making

1) Looking for Patterns

Effective note-making is active.

The first stage of the note-making process is collecting ideas. When you study new material you want to look for recurring themes, or patterns. These are often definitions, concepts, or ideas that are vital for understanding the material.

This approach can be applied to books and articles as well as Youtube videos or lectures.

Once you recognize a pattern, simply write it down for reference later. Always write down the main ideas which are discussed.

You can think of your collection of patterns as a map of the material.

At first, it will be from a 30,000-foot view. But, once you dive into the material to gain understanding of all the nitty-gritty, you’ll gradually fill in the missing pieces and your map will become more detailed.

Don’t worry too much about all the details at this stage.

Try to get an overview of the material you’re studying. This will be helpful when you dive deeper into the material.

Use Your Own Words

Sometimes you come across a passage that is so good that you think that you could not explain it better yourself.

Of course, you could cite it. But, you should keep citing to a minimum.

I’ll explain…

To gain understanding, active learning is required.

Writing down a quote is, like underlining text, a passive learning activity, and quite ineffective.

Thus, you should always try to write in your own words when making notes.

If you don’t feel a bit of resistance when making notes, you’re probably only doing note-taking. Making notes require attention and energy.

2) Gaining Understanding

Once you have a collection of patterns or chunks of information, the next step is to gain understanding.

Sometimes it’s helpful to focus on one pattern at a time, trying to work out its nitty-gritty. At other times it’s helpful to look for connections between patterns and your previous knowledge.

For instance, you could ask yourself:

  • What does this definition really say?
  • How could I formulate this in my own words?
  • How do these patterns relate to each other and what connections could I make?
  • How do these patterns relate to what I already know?

This is a learning process, so write down thoughts that pop up in your head, questions you have, and fill in new insights to make your notes more complete.

If you use a note-making app with support for internal links, you can use this feature to link your notes together.

3) Build Upon Your Notes

Note-making is a continuous process.

You’re encouraged to go back to your notes to add better explanations and more examples as you learn more about the topic.

In addition, if you use a note-making app with support for internal links, you can add links to older notes as you see fit.

Your notes are living documents that you can build upon over time. So it’s just natural that your knowledge base will change over time as well.

Your knowledge base of notes is a great starting ground for content creation. Your notes can, for instance, evolve into blog posts or essays.

Another benefit of building upon your notes is that you actually get to use your notes.

Think about it: You have already spent time taking notes, time that gets wasted if you don’t use them.

You can also share your knowledge base and build upon it together with others.

  1. This quote comes from Peter Singer’s book Ethics in the Real World. It’s a response to the numerous philosophers who believe that philosophy which the general public can understand isn’t worth doing. 

Focus on What Really Matters
Get one monthly email with insights for creating a life of focus, curiosity, and purposeful learning.