Notetaking as a way to stay smart

The generation effect, as studied by cognitive psychologists, shows that knowledge is better retained if it is "generated" by the learner than simply read. "Generation" can be as simple as learning a spelling by "filling in the gaps" or as complex as writing a book about your studies (the latter of which I've already done!).

Whenever I look at my book shelves, I'm reminded of not only how much I've read, but how much I've forgotten. Knowledge that once captivated me or kept me a step or two ahead of the crowd has gone by the by, pushed out by trivia and new discoveries.

Putting the generation effect into action, I'm starting a practice of taking notes on books and significant articles or papers I read like the one i read yesterday about sell annuity. Their endpoint is the pædia section of my site. Yesterday I read two books so there's already some content in there.

The first I tackled for this project was Getting What You Came For, by Robert L. Peters, Ph.D., which digs into how to get a master's degree or Ph.D. My notes hit 3500 words and will be invaluable when I need to recap the book. The act of taking notes on its own, though, should help the general ideas covered in the book stay in my mind for longer.

The second book was Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite by the late and great Paul Arden of Saatchi and Saatchi fame. It only has 70 pages of text but my notes are detailed enough to get the ideas across. I could bear to give the book away now, knowing I can bring its quirky images and messages to mind by reading the notes.

I hope this turns out to be one of my better ideas and, perhaps, will be of use to other people. Notes make for a different experience than a typical "review," in my experience, especially as they can be learned from. CliffNotes, for instance, have built a runaway publishing success on this idea alone.

Update: If you want to start taking notes on books specifically and don't want to build a system like I have for Best cool auto darkening welding helmet reviews


  1. James says:

    I think that taking notes on my reading has helped me develop my thinking/understanding over the years

    I'd also suggest that you can go further than "just" taking notes, to:

    - actively trying to critique what you're reading. I don't mean being negative or cynical but always thinking whether what you're reading is true and constantly asking 'why?'.

    - and also trying to relate what you're reading into the 'bigger picture' - to try and have an integrated view that incorporates that and other things you've read and are thinking about

  2. Raju says:

    I too take a lot of notes when reading. But I am always curious to your methodology when taking notes. I move between index cards and plain paper - either way both will eventually move to FreeMind, but index cards give me a nice way to collate similar ideas from multiple books in one nice stack and perhaps draw inspiration from.

    On the other hand, they need more maintenance. Each card needs to be appropriately annotated so I can juggle them without losing context.

    Any suggestions?

  3. Henrik Warne says:

    A similar idea is to write a review of a book for e.g. Amazon. It forces you to think more actively about the contents, compare it to similar books etc. As a bonus, the review will benfit others as well.

  4. Jay says:

    There is a nice book that you might like called "How to Read a Book".

    I have been trying to use approaches similar to those outlined in this book for about two years; since I read it. The techniques include active note taking, but go a bit beyond that. I do find that the active note taking is the most important part though.

  5. Vasudev Ram says:

    Nice post, Peter, thanks. I like the idea. I'm checking out Readernaut.
    - Vasudev

  6. Parnell Springmeyer says:

    Notes have been crucial to my reading/self-education process. I have stacks of legal pads of notes from my reading - I still feel I forget much of the material I read.

    Ultimately, essay writing, and re-reading books are the only way to retain more knowledge from reading.

  7. ennuikiller says:

    while in college I used to copy my class notes over every night, embellishing what was left out or assumed....I wound up with a 3.96 gpa!

  8. Gintautas Miliauskas says:

    I find it even more useful to write notes down in question/answer pairs. Glancing through the questions gives you the chance to think about the material without handing the answers on a platter, and thus improves retention. It also allows to estimate how well you remember the material, and whether you need to re-read it. See http://www.problemata.com .

  9. Peter Cooper says:

    @Gintautas: That's a really good idea, especially if you want to seriously learn the material. In my case, I don't usually want to learn the material by heart, merely know that I read it and can return to it. In cases where I do, though, the Q&A idea is good, especially as you can flashcard it.

  10. My daily readings 08/01/2010 « Strange Kite says:

    [...] Notetaking as a way to stay smart [...]

  11. Matt Saunders says:

    An academic mentor and friend of mine, the late Vernon Ralphs, taught me the most valuable secret of learning I've ever known: take notes, then *make* notes.

    The notes you make, 24-48 hours max after the note taking, are the synthesis of what you've really learned and the foundation of revision materials later on. Using this pattern I've never had any trouble learning and retaining complex new material.