How to Become a Masterful Note-Taker: 8 Lessons From Research

Use a computer. Underline. Take a break. Read them later.


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The value of note-taking--or notebooks at least--gets a stock market capitalization in the coming weeks with Moleskine's planned IPO. The Italian stationery firm has boosted the profile of note-taking at companies around the world. But is all of the scribbling on nicely bound paper actually helping business people? And what are the best ways to use note-taking--in notebooks and on digital devices--to actually boost your productivity?

Here's everything you need to know about taking notes at work, but never bothered to ask:

1. Don't Just Take Notes. Read Them.
Many of us take notes in meetings and never go back to read them again. Does that do enough to organize and cement our memory of the essential takeaways? Likely not on its own--re-reading notes later does make a difference, according to experts. Research published in the Teaching of Psychology Journal in the '80s concluded that students were messing up on their tests not because they'd taken bad notes, but because they weren't re-reading them before the exams. And researchers at Keele University in the UK found that three-quarters of academic studies on note-taking concluded its chief value was storing information so it could be consulted later. The takeaway: if you have a bunch of pads or notebooks filled with meeting notes that you never consult, your note-taking isn't providing the most value over time.

2. Paper Is Becoming Obsolete ...
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Samuel said that if she turns up to a meeting and sees a paper notebook tucked under her colleague's arm, she's not impressed. Seriously not impressed. Samuel is a digital note-taking extremist. She believes electronic notes are vastly superior to their analog equivalents. She dismisses the argument that having laptops and tablets in meetings tempts distraction, saying it's the meeting leader's responsibility to keep his or her audience sufficiently hooked on their every word. Not everyone agrees with her.

3. ... But Not All Digital Note-Taking Is Superior
There's little research into the benefits of digital note-taking over handwritten notes. The bulk of studies focus on whether typing out notes or copying and pasting them-taking whole chunks of text from pre-prepared digital materials and pasting them into notes-is better. A team from Carnegie Mellon looked at best practices for designing note-taking technologies and found that typing out notes improves later recall, while copy and pasting text into notes is actually detrimental to learning because it encourages wordiness.

The US Air Force Academy teamed up with West Virginia University to work out the art of electronic note-taking. They were particularly curious to learn whether scaffolding notes horizontally across a row of cells, or down a column made a difference in terms of subjects' ability to recall the information. It didn't.

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Anna Codrea-Rado reports on management and design for Quartz

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