Rules for effective note-taking

  • Select. Omit trivial and redundant details. Omit anything you'll recall anyway!
  • Condense. Replace lists with a category term.
  • Organize. Choose headings and topic sentences.
  • Rephrase. Use your own words.
  • Elaborate. Make connections to existing knowledge.1

To use note-taking effectively, you need to understand that its primary value is not in the record you produce, it is in the process itself. The process of taking notes guides the memory codes you make. Note-taking is a strategy for making information meaningful. It is therefore only effective to the extent that you paraphrase, organize and make sense of the information while taking notes.

Note-taking is a strategy for making information meaningful.

What does that mean? What does it mean, to make information meaningful? It means to connect new information to existing knowledge. The more connections you make, the better you will understand the information.

Connection is the heart of what makes information meaningful.

Why is it important to make information meaningful?

Because connection is the key to remembering. The more connections you have, the more entry points you have to the information, therefore the easier it will be to retrieve.

Facts that you already know very well and have no trouble remembering act as anchor points.

The more anchor points you can connect to, the more meaningful the new information becomes, and the more easily you will remember it.

Think about it for a moment. When you are told something new, you only understand it to the extent that you can relate it to something you already know.

Here’s a quote from The complete idiot’s guide to Microsoft Office:

After you select the data source to use, the Mail Merge Helper displays the Label Options dialog box, asking you to specify the type and size of the mailing labels on which you intend to print.

Now if you don’t know anything about computers this will be complete gibberish and there’s no way you’re going to remember it. If you have some experience with Microsoft Office, but have no experience of Mail Merging, then you will sort of understand what’s going on, but not have enough anchor points to really understand it — and you’re not going to remember it either. But if you are already au fait with Mail Merging, and merely want to know how to do the labels, then you will have a well-organized, strong cluster of facts already recorded in memory, and the new fact will slot in easy peasy. You’ll understand it, and you’ll remember it — to the extent that your existing cluster of information about Mail Merging was strong and well-connected.

It’s like learning a new word. Pediment, for example. If you were told this was a triangular part crowning the front of a building in the Grecian style — assuming you don’t already know the word, and assuming you have no particular knowledge of architecture — you’re not likely to remember it without repeatedly coming across it. You might make the connection pedimentimpediment, but since there is no meaningful connection between these words, this won’t help you remember the meaning of pediment. It might help you remember the word itself, mind. But to remember the meaning of the word, you need a meaningful connection. That might be provided by the suggestion that pediment is derived from a corruption of pyramid, which as we all know, is triangular, and is also a building.

The more connections to existing anchor points, the more meaningful the word becomes; the more easily remembered it is.

Connection is the key to remembering.

The more connections you have, the more entry points you have to the information.

Therefore, the more easily it will be found.

Connection is the heart of what makes information meaningful.

How does notetaking help make information meaningful?

Here we came to the nub of the matter. Notetaking doesn’t have to make information meaningful, but it is mainly valuable to the extent that it does.

So this is how you judge your notetaking skills, and how you judge the value of a particular strategy in a particular situation —

Ask yourself: does this help me make connections? Does it help me connect the facts together? Does it help me connect the new information with information I already have? Does it make any connection with facts I already know very well, and am unlikely to forget?

Conditions for effective note-taking

  • Slow or self-determined rate of presentation
  • Well-organized material
  • Material that is not too difficult or complicated
  • Skill at note-taking1


  • Baine, D. 986. Memory and instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
  • Barnett, J.E., DiVesta, F.J. & Rogozinski, J.T. 1981. What is learned in note-taking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 181-192.
  • Peper, R.J. & Mayer, R.E. 1978. Note-taking as a generative activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 514-522.
  • Schneider, W. & Pressley, M. 1989. Memory development between Two and Twenty. New York: Springer-Verlag.

1. Adapted from The Memory Key.

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Better learning through handwriting

One of the points I mention in my book on notetaking is that the very act of taking notes helps us remember — it’s not simply about providing yourself with a record. There are a number of reasons for this, but a recent study bears on one of them. The researchers were interested in whether physically writing by hand has a different effect than typing on a keyboard.


Mangen, A. & Velay, J. (2010). Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing, Advances in Haptics, Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh (Ed.), InTech,  Available from: Press release at

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The changing nature of literacy. Part 2: Lecturing

This post is the second part in a four-part series on how education delivery is changing, and the set of literacies required in today’s world. Part 1 looked at the changing world of textbooks. This post looks at the oral equivalent of textbooks: direct instruction or lecturing.

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The changing nature of literacy. Part 1: Textbooks

As we all know, we are living in a time of great changes in education and (in its broadest sense) information technology. In order to swim in these new seas, we and our children need to master new forms of literacy. In this and the next three posts, I want to explore some of the concepts, applications, and experiments that bear on this.

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Finding the right strategy through perception and physical movement

I talk a lot about how working memory constrains what we can process and remember, but there’s another side to this — long-term memory acts on working memory. That is, indeed, the best way of ‘improving’ your working memory — by organizing and strengthening your long-term memory codes in such a way that large networks of relevant material are readily accessible.

Oddly enough, one of the best ways of watching the effect of long-term memory on working memory is through perception.

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Concept maps

Broadly speaking, a concept map is a graphic display that attempts to show how concepts are connected to each other. A concept map is a diagram in which labeled nodes represent concepts, and lines connecting them show the relationships between concepts.

There is one type of concept map you’re probably all aware of — mind maps. Mind maps are a specialized form of concept map popularized very successfully by Tony Buzan.

A mind map has four essential characteristics:

  • the subject is crystallized in a central image
  • main themes radiate from it as branches
  • the branches comprise a key image or key word
  • the branches form a connected nodal structure

The essential difference between a mind map and the more general concept map is that in a mind map the main themes are connected only to this single central image — not to each other. In a concept map, there are no restrictions on the links between concepts.

Also, the connections between concepts in a concept map are labeled — they have meaning; they’re a particular kind of connection. In a mind map, connections are simply links; they could mean anything.

Mind maps are also supposed to be very pictorial. In Buzan’s own words:

“The full power of the Mind Map is realised by having a central image instead of a central word, and by using images wherever appropriate rather than words.”

Concepts in a concept map, on the other hand, can be (and usually are) entirely verbal. But the degree to which you use words or pictures is entirely up to the user.

In fact, this insistence on images is one of the things I don’t like about mind maps (I hasten to add that there are many things I do like about mind maps). While images are certainly powerful memory aids, they are not for everyone, nor for all circumstances.

Mind maps and concept maps are really aimed at different purposes, and perhaps, different personalities.

The chief usefulness of mind mapping, I believe, is when you’re still trying to come to grips with an idea. Mindmapping is good for brainstorming, for outlining a problem or topic, for helping you sort out the main ideas.

Concept maps, on the other hand, are particularly useful further down the track, when you’re ready to work out the details, to help you work out or demonstrate all the multitudinous ways in which different concepts (and a “concept” can be anything) are connected.

Concept maps are more formal than mind maps, and are better suited to situations where the concept is to be shared with others. Mind maps are considerably more personal, and are often not readily understood by others.

Both mind maps and concept maps are good at clarifying your thoughts, but because of the greater formality of the concept map — the need to be more precise in your connections — concept maps are better at showing you exactly what you don’t understand properly.

Which is why concept maps take a while to get right!

This is a very important point that I should emphasize — hardly anyone ever gets their map (mind or concept) right the first time. In fact, if you did, you probably didn’t need to construct it! It’s the redesigning that is important.

But concept maps can come in different flavors — from the more formal, to a visual display which simply use the basic idea of nodes and links. You can see a whole bunch of proper concept maps, constructed using cmap, at . And if you’re interested in becoming a cmapper yourself, check out .

And here’s a couple more links to help you learn more about concept maps: (this one has a number of conference papers available in pdf format).

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for October 2006

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Visual language

Visual Language, a term introduced by Robert Horn, refers to "language based on tight integration of words and visual elements". The visual elements include shapes, as well as images (e.g., icons, clip art).

What does this have to do with memory? Well, partly of course, because the appropriate use of images usually makes information more memorable, but visual language has considerably more to offer than that. To appreciate what it is, first look at some examples: Horn has examples at and another brilliant example is available from an information designer I deeply admire - Richard Saul Wurman - at

To truly appreciate these examples, you really need a full-text version of the same information, but hopefully you can imagine a prose text dense with the same information (realising that much of the information is contained in connections and juxtapositions as well as in the emotional connotations of particular images, all of which would, in a purely prose text, require explicit words to articulate).

There are many advantages in integrating word and image, such as:

  • clarifying meaning
  • reinforcing meaning
  • providing focus
  • facilitating comparisons
  • providing context

and many more ...

but I believe the great benefit of this approach is its power to SELECT and CONNECT.

Those who have read my book, The Memory Key, will be aware that I see these processes as absolutely fundamental to understanding and remembering new information. While there are many tools to help teachers and writers portray the information selected as most important (such as highlighting, and summarising), visual language stands out as offering a tool-bag of particular power. It also, of course, offers powerful tools for demonstrating connections between bits of information.

Look at Bob Horn's representation of an academic debate (can computers think and you will readily see the power of visual language to organize complex information and show connections.

Visual language thus offers a powerful set of strategies for studying.

Some principles of visual language

There are six principles known as Gestalt principles, which are useful to know if you wish to draw effective visual representations:

  1. People tend to group together elements that are physically close to each other
  2. People tend to group together elements that are similar in some way (e.g., same color or size)
  3. People tend to see elements enclosed by lines as one unit
  4. People tend to see connected elements as a single unit
  5. People tend to group together elements that appear to be continuations of each other
  6. People tend to make figures "complete" when some elements are missing

This list is also a demonstration of the need for visual language - it's hard to describe these principles without visual examples; similarly, visual examples on their own would not be enough either. You can see examples of these principles at and [ note: the examples here don't precisely match those I give, which are taken from Horn]

The way I have chosen to describe these principles points to another principle that's important for visual language: one we might call the naming principle. Isn't it easier to grasp the principles, and most particularly, remember them, if you have names for these principles? Here are the names of the 6 Gestalt principles:

  1. Proximity
  2. Similarity
  3. Common region
  4. Connectedness
  5. Continuation
  6. Closure

It is always worth trying to find a one or two word label for any bit of information you wish to remember. For one thing, the very act of so doing will help cement the information in your memory. And for another, the label will help you find the information again.

This article originally appeared in the January 2004 newsletter.


Horn, Robert E. 1998. Visual Language. Bainbridge Island, Washington: MacroVU, Inc.

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Asking better questions

Questions — especially why questions — help us make connections to existing anchor points — facts we know well. But some questions are better than others.

To decide whether a question is effective, ask:

  • does it make the information more meaningful?
  • does it make the information more comprehensible?
  • does it increase the number of meaningful connections?

Consider our facts about blood:

  • arteries are thick and elastic and carry blood that is rich in oxygen from the heart.
  • veins are thinner, less elastic, and carry blood rich in carbon dioxide back to the heart.

We could, as is often advised, simply turn these into why questions. And we can answer these on the basis of the connections we’ve already made:

Why are arteries elastic?

Because they need to accommodate changes in pressure

Why are arteries thick?

Because they need to accommodate high pressure

Why do arteries carry blood away from the heart?

Because blood coming from the heart comes out at high pressure and in spurts of variable pressure

Why do arteries carry blood that is rich in oxygen?

Because the blood coming from the heart is rich in oxygen

Why are veins less elastic?

Because the blood flows continuously and evenly

Why are veins less thick?

Because the blood flows at a lower pressure

Why do veins carry blood to the heart?

Because blood going to the heart flows continuously and evenly

Why do veins carry blood that is rich in CO2?

Because the blood going to the heart is rich in CO2

What’s missing? Connections between these facts. The facts have become more meaningful, but to be really understood you need to make the connections between the facts explicit.

Look again at our original questions. See how they relate the facts to each other? They don’t ask: why are arteries elastic? They ask: Why do arteries need to be more elastic than veins? They don’t ask: why do arteries carry blood that is rich in oxygen? They ask: why do vessels carrying blood from the heart need to be rich in oxygen?

By answering these questions, we have built up an understanding of the facts that ties them together in a multi-connected cluster:

pictorial representation of this information

For simplicity, I’ve just focused on the arteries. See how the four facts about arteries are connected together. Meaningfully connected. In a perfect world we’d be able to close the circle with a direct connection between the facts “Arteries carry blood rich in oxygen” and “Arteries are thick”, but as far as I know, the only connection between them is indirect, through the fact that “Arteries carry blood from the heart”.

So … the world isn’t perfect, and information doesn’t come in neatly wrapped bundles where every fact connects directly to every other fact. But the more connections you can make between related facts — the stronger a cluster you can make — the more deeply you will understand the information, and the more accessible it will be. That is, you will remember it more easily and for longer.

If it’s well enough connected

If it’s connected to strong anchor points

You will simply 'know' it.

You’re never going to forget that you breathe in oxygen and that your heart pumps out blood. These are strong anchor points. If the facts about arteries are strongly connected to these anchor points, you will never forget them either.

Asking questions is one of the best ways of making connections,


Bad questions can be worse than no questions at all.

Rote questions that direct your attention to unimportant details are better not asked.

Effective questions prepare you to pay attention to the important details in the text.

The best questions not only direct your attention appropriately, but also require you to integrate the details in the text. Ask yourself:

  • Is this helping me to select the important information?
  • Is it helping me make connections?

When the subject is new to you

When you don’t have enough prior knowledge about a subject to ask effective questions, you are better off forming connections using mnemonics — either through verbal elaboration, as in our sentence about “Art (ery) being thick around the middle so he wore trousers with an elastic waistband” or by creating interactive images.

However, mnemonics such as these — while perfectly effective — are only good for rote learning. Sometimes that’s all you want, of course. But if you’re going to be learning more information that relates to these facts, then you’re making a rod for your own back.

When you learn something by rote, it never gets easier. When you learn by building connections, every new fact is acquired more easily. And it’s progressive. An expert on a subject can hear a new fact in her area of expertise, and it’s there. Remembered. Without effort. Because she’s an expert. And what makes her an expert? Simply the fact that she’s built up a network of information that is so tightly connected, and that has so many strong anchor points, that the information is always retrievable.

Why questions, like any questions, are only effective to the extent that they direct attention to appropriate information.

Research confirms that it is better to search for consistent relations than inconsistent ones. In many cases your background knowledge may include information that is consistent with the new information, and information that is inconsistent.

By asking “Why is this true?” you focus on the consistent information.



  • Woloshyn, V.E., Willoughby, T., Wood, E., & Pressley, M. 1990. Elaborative interrogation facilitates adult learning of factual paragraphs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 513-524.
  • Pressley, M. & El-Dinary, P.B. 1992. Memory strategy instruction that promotes good information processing. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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Notetaking examples

What makes good notes?

To know this, we need to know what note-taking is really about.

Most people think its about recording information, and certainly that is part of its function — but the main value of note-taking as a strategy for remembering information lies elsewhere:

Note-taking is a strategy for making information meaningful.

Here are some notes on the water cycle:

Hydrological (water) cycle

Precipitation & flow: “whether they are typhoons or Scotch mists, mountain torrents or field ditches or city sewers, they are simply water sinking back to base level, the sea.”

Evaporation = the act of passively presenting water to the atmosphere to be soaked up + vaporized by the sun’s energy.

Transpiration= evaporation thru plants

plant draws water from grd thru roots up to open-pored vessels in leaves, from which it is vaporized.

Condensation: as warm air rises it cools -7C every 1000m until it can’t hold it’s cargo of water vapor any longer condenses into clouds, which cool further, condensing further into rain drops.

warm front: when warm air advances on cold it rises over it.

cold front: when cold air advances on warm + forces it to rise.

In this example, the notes are neat and tidy, with headings and indentations showing a degree of organization. Terms are defined. The notes appear to encapsulate the main ideas. A few abbreviations are used. So far so good — these are all widely cited recommendations for effective note-taking.

Here's a different approach.

(If you click on the links at the bottom, you'll be able to see better images.)

This one’s a picture. What is called in the trade a multimedia summary: a concise summary combining words and pictures. This has an advantage over the first example in that we can actually see the cycle, we can see the connection between the elements of the water cycle.

In the first example (a topical summary), we had the main points, but it didn’t go beyond the information presented in the text. Similarly, the above example (a multimedia summary), shows more connection but less detail, but also doesn’t go beyond the points given.

Now look at this one

There’s no more detail in this one, but it not only connects the ideas, it has taken the information another step. To the principle beneath the connection. To a higher level of abstraction.

You may think of summarizing strategies in terms of a matrix weighing amount of detail against degree of abstraction:



Degree of Abstraction / “Depth”





Amount of






Rather vacuous

Really bad

The best type of summary is one that combines a high degree of abstraction with a high amount of detail. Our third water cycle example has a high level of abstraction but little detail — rather vacuous.

This one has the details. It also has a mnemonic, to help prompt my memory for the elements of the cycle and remember their order. This information could equally well have been presented in a linear format.

Together, these two examples combine detail and abstraction to form an effective summary.

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Outlines and Graphic organizers

Graphic organizers

  • need more time to process than outlines
  • are of little value when the text is short and simple
  • are helpful for constructing super-clusters


  • are easier and quicker to process than graphic organizers
  • are better for shorter, simpler texts
  • are effective for rote-learning facts

Graphic summaries are summaries that reorganize the text. Two examples of graphic summaries are outlines and graphic organizers.

In an outline, topics are listed with their subtopics in a linear format, like this:

Branches of Government (U.S.A.)


Executive Branch




Represented by:





Can recommend legislation; veto legislation; appoint judges



Length of term:

4 years; maximum term 8 years


Legislative Branch




Represented by:





Can enact legislation; override veto; reject and impeach judges; impeach President



Length of term:

2 years (House of Representatives) or 6 years (Senate); no maximum term


Judicial Branch




Represented by:

Supreme Court and other federal courts




Can declare legislation unconstitutional



Length of term:


Graphic organizers show the same sort of information, but in a more visual format, like this:

This is a tree diagram. Although graphic organizers can come in many forms, most commonly they are either tree diagrams or matrices. Here is a matrix of the same information:


Executive Branch

Legislative Branch

Judicial Branch

Represented by



Supreme Court


4 years

2 or 6 years



Can recommend legislation;
veto legislation; appoint judges

Can enact legislation;
override veto;
reject and impeach judges; impeach President

Can declare legislation unconstitutional

Basically, graphic organizers are visual outlines showing relationships. Both outlines and graphic organizers are useful strategies for hierarchical information. However, while an outline does pick out the most important information and does show hierarchical relations (and, as you may have noticed, can include more detail more easily), it is not as effective in showing the relationships between concepts.

Compare the examples. In the outline, the clusters within a topic are clear, but the relations between topics — between the clusters — are not. The graphic organizer, on the other hand, allows connections between clusters to be more readily seen. Notice how much easier it is to grasp the similarities and differences between the different branches of the U.S. Government when looking at the tree diagram or the matrix, compared to looking at the outline.

In general, graphic organizers are more effective than outlines — but not invariably. In a study involving text summaries, graphic organizers were superior only when the students had enough time to study them properly — but where the students did have enough time, those who had studied the graphic organizer tested just as well after two days as they had when tested immediately, while those who had studied the outline performed more poorly (and those who had only read the text were worst of all). In other words, graphic organizers are much better for long-term recall (which is, after all, what you usually want!). This appears even more true when the text is longer.

But graphic organizers can be less effective than outlines, and this may be because graphic organizers can make it too easy to see the relations, and the reader doesn’t need to work as hard to understand the material, with the consequence that the material isn’t processed to the extent that it needs to be for lasting memory. This doesn’t apply, of course, if you’re constructing the graphic organizer yourself.

Graphic organizers have an advantage over outlines in terms of cognitive load. Working memory is thought to have two sub-systems — one that is essentially visual, and one essentially auditory. When we read text, notwithstanding we are receiving the information through our visual sense, we tend to encode it through the auditory working memory (words are fundamentally sound-based). There is evidence that graphic organizers use visual working memory more than auditory, while outlines use auditory more than visual. The advantage of a graphic organizer, therefore, may lie partly in its reduction of cognitive load — that is, by spreading the load on working memory between both systems.

Additionally, of course, the use of visual information in addition to verbal information creates more retrieval paths, increasing the chances of finding the information again.

All of this means that if outlines or graphic organizers are provided for you, even if the same information is also provided in the text, it’s worth spending time studying the outline/graphic. If an outline is provided, consider re-drawing the information as a graphic organizer.

As far as producing these yourself is concerned, outlines are easier to produce than graphic organizers, which is why they are much more popular. Although outlines are in general less effective than graphic organizers, both are generally more effective than conventional notes.

In two studies comparing note-taking formats in a ecture, both outlines and matrix notes were usually more detailed, better organized, and contained more ideas. Matrix notes were also slightly more coherent. But of course, the material was compatible with a matrix format, which is not always the case.

Although a graphic organizer is more effective, an outline is certainly sufficient in the right circumstances. Because it is easier to construct than a graphic organizer, if the material can be adequately described in an outline, you should use it. This will depend partly on the material itself, and partly on your goal. If you’re simply aiming to learn the “facts” (i.e., you’re not trying to develop your understanding), then research indicates an outline will be just as productive as a graphic organizer. If the text is short (1000 words or less), an outline is probably better. But with longer and more complex material, it would seem that graphic organizers are worth the trouble. In such cases, research also suggests that several graphic organizers are most effective — a warning that we shouldn’t try to cram too much information into a graphic organizer.

Remember, too, that graphic organizers, like outlines, are not designed to provide full notes — so you shouldn’t be trying to include everything. It’s all about selecting what’s important.

This article is taken from my book Effective note-taking


  • Benton, S.L., Kiewra, K.A., Whitfill, J.M. & Dennison, R. 1993. Encoding and external-storage effects on writing processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 267-80.
  • Bera, S.J. & Robinson, D.H. 2004. Exploring the boundary conditions of the delay hypothesis with adjunct displays. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 381-388.
  • Kiewra, K.A., Dubois, N.F., Christian, D., McShane, A., Meyerhoffer, M. & Roskelley, D. 1991. Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 240-5.
  • Robinson DH & Kiewra KA 1995. Visual argument: Graphic organizers are superior to outlines in improving learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 455-67.
  • Robinson DH & Molina E 2002. The relative involvement of visual and auditory working memory when studying adjunct displays. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 118-31.

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