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Logan McDonald
Logan McDonald

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How I Take Notes

Last month I was on jury duty in Brooklyn for two weeks. I learned a lot. However, jury duty is not being offered for the truth of the matter asserted, but merely to show what lead to this blog post. Apologies for the legalese, I was hanging out with lawyers too much!

Anyway, at jury duty we had a lot of free time where we were trapped in a courtroom with no wifi just waiting around for instructions. I decided to take that time to learn something! I downloaded The Rust Programming Language aka TRPL and grabbed my favorite notebook and took them with me to court every day for the last two weeks. On breaks I read chapters of the book and I took notes.

Why Take Notes

Taking notes doesn't work for everyone, but I find it absolutely necessary to retain knowledge. Notes can be taking in loads of different ways and it's important to find what works best for you. Particularly, I make a point to handwrite most of my notes. There is something visceral and tactile about indexing handwritten notes that helps me remember the topics better. My coworkers kid me about when I first interviewed at Kickstarter, I brought a big notebook and took copious notes during all the interviews. I take notes in lots of different situations, but namely when I'm learning something new at work, when I'm at a conference, or when I'm primarily paying attention to someone else talking/writing.

I find several advantages to taking notes. First, it gives me a written record of everything I've learned. If I timestamp it well (and I usually put hours and minutes as well as dates!) I can get a log of my progress. Second, the act of taking notes well helps me remember what I've learned.

Now, let's discussing what taking notes "well" means.

The Cornell Method

I think part of the reason we hate having to take notes is the many wasted hours being forced to take them throughout school. Personally, I always loved to handwrite notes. However, there are conflicting studies as to it's actual impact on memory retention. Regardless of if you take digital or handwritten notes, there are techniques you can use to make your notes more effective.

One that I have loved over the years is The Cornell Method. The idea behind the Cornell notes is that you keep "cues" of the main body of the notes along one edge while you go through the materials. The reason I always loved Cornell notes is because you can make the cues whatever you find helps you remember the material the best, not necessarily keywords given in a textbook or by a lecturer. For example, I have a cues for my Rust notes that reference things in the Ruby API that are more familiar to me, so I can say things "like Bundler" for different Cargo commands, which cue me to remembering the context for the notes.

Here are some cues on my notes from Megan Anctil's 2016 Monitorama talk, for example:

Notes from Monitorama 2016

Lessons from Learning Science

Strengthening Recall

A reason that I love Cornell notes' cueing method is it helps with a practice in learning science called recall. The idea behind recall is that rereading information from notes or a textbook are proven to have little effect on longterm memory of the concepts in that material. However, forcing yourself to recall information with flashcards or cues does help. Also, spacing out your study of this material has been shown to help. This is called "delayed retrieval". When we force our minds to stretch for past information with the help of cues, we strengthen those memories to the information.

Low Stakes Testing

Another concept connected with notetaking that's been proven to help learning is low stakes testing. Frequent, low stakes testing allows us to practice remembering without the pressure of a live test. It gives us space to reflect on our mistakes and revist faulty places in our memory of certain content. If we take careful notes of our notes (i.e. cues) we can use these as a way of testing ourselves, which is pretty useful! All I do is go back to my Rust notes every couple of days and cover the side of the paper with the verbose notes and force myself to remember concept only from the cues.


Finally, I'm a huge fan of utilizing different sorts of patterns to model complex relationships amongst topics in my notes. Unfortunately for me, I'm not a great artist so usually these come out as squiggly blob drawings. I was inspired to start diagramming more in my notes (and pull requests!) by my coworker Sarah. She has this amazing talk on dev diagrams. Forcing yourself to make models of what you think the connections amongst different concepts are puts you on the road to constructing strong mental models to lean on for those concepts in the future.

A good diagram is a beautiful thing, but in my opinion a series of bad diagrams are just as cool. I love to draw out how I think a system works in my notes only to find it later and be like, "Wow that's not it at all." That's what can also make taking notes wonderful. It's not only a log of your learning. It's a log of your past mistakes. It's powerful because not only is it a source of information. It's a source of your own journey to find that information.

What's your note taking style?

In conclusion, I know it's not for everyone, but learning how to take notes has helped me improve how I learn, which makes me a better developer. Do you take notes? I'd love to hear your note-taking style!

Top comments (7)

greduan profile image
Eduardo Lavaque

For me my normal approach to taking notes is to not consider them permanent. Often I throw away all the paper I write on. Obviously if it's for documentation purposes, not.

Though more often than not I write documentation digitally and my notes are to help me organize or figure out a problem in my head, so they're more like sketches, as opposed to a journal. I found that what works best for me is to have a standard A4 notebook around for big idea sketches, flows etc., and for the rest have tiny notepads with easy-to-rip pages to make notes.

tracypholmes profile image
Tracy Holmes

Handwritten AND digital. I was only doing handwritten, but my brain convinced me note taking was taking up all of my time. So, I stopped. And definitely could tell the difference. So, recently took it back up. Things are moving slower, and I now have designated "notes and review" days. BUT I'm back to retaining things. And that's important.

I still use Boostnote for digital notes as I sometimes see code snippets, code tutorials, etc that I want to keep and it's just easier sometimes to do that at once. I'll then circle back and jot some notes down in my notebook.

Thanks for sharing!

rpalo profile image
Ryan Palo

This is neat! I always love to read about how people learn and different approaches.

I've found that whenever I'm learning something new, it helps me to take notes as if I'm going to have to turn around and give a lecture to someone else on the subject right after I'm done. It helps me to lock onto the key points, important hierarchies and structures, and things that are difficult for me to learn. It also helps me keep track of the things that I learned that really helped the material click for me. It also combats the "I understand this, I don't need notes" that turns into "I only remember the general overview".

Thanks for the great post!

jarrenb profile image
Jarren Bird

hey this is a great article. thanks for writing it. i've experimented with lots of different kinds of note-taking techniques, and i probably will continue to experiment forever. but recently i've started taking notes on note cards and i really like it. i timestamp all of my cards and usually give them a title that's really just a tag to help me find it later. i hadn't considered being specific with the time of day in the timestamp, though; i'll have to experiment with that. it sounds interesting. one comment from your article i liked in particular was the final sentence. to me, the idea that i could go back and, with notes that are helpfully formatted, kind of recreate a story about what i was doing at a particular time and place is very enticing to me. it's like journaling, but without following what i had always thought was the "standard" way of journaling--writing down an entry describing a life event. anyway, i love hearing about the ways other people take notes and trying to incorporate their techniques, so thank you for the article

noteadviser profile image

Great article, inspiring !

I take notes mainly to support my "result oriented", obsessive achiever' mind, with a template designed to help me keep track of tasks / assignments.
I also like to time stamp my notes, for the same reason you mentionned : it's amazing to come back months or years later, and witness the progress made (or how mistaken you were !). Adding digital ink, sketch, or screen capture works like "visual" tags for me.

For the other, more informal kind of notes I take, I will certainly consider applying the cues technique. Thanks for sharing !

changemyname profile image

Thank you, for sharing this article. I got to a pen and paper, or a tablet + digital paper, when I am trying to understand something, or when I try to develop my ideas. This helps me greatly when studying data-structures - it helps me see things from a different perspective. Otherwise I don't take notes when I study/read. I think the key to remembering, at least for me, is understanding a concept that's being studied.

tterb profile image
Brett Stevenson

I've used the Cornell method ever since my sophmore year of college and haven't looked back. This is why I also prefer "Law-ruled" notebooks because the margin is much larger than standard notebooks.