Note-taking is for rapid capture and quick reference later. It is instant.1 Note-taken information touches only the surface of our memory entry and is poorly assimilated. In general, it has low retrievability. What we wrote down as a short note for recall tend to fade away quickly over time.(Ahrens; ch. 10)
On the upside, note-taking has the benefit of freeing our mind from the burden of constantly holding on to a certain thing. It liberates the mental resource required to sustain this remembrance and allows us to focus on other tasks/matters, such as creative work (Ahrens; ch. 9).
Note-making is about connecting thoughts and perpetuating understanding into knowledge. By working through your comprehension, we force ourselves to check whether we have grasped the gist of our material (Ahrens; ch. 8). We mobilise digested information, actively recall what we have retained, and craft our own version of knowledge. We internalise and adapt useful cold facts (Abstraction) to usable arguments in a meaningful way for topics of our interest (Ahrens; ch. 10–11). Stitching up pieces of information build connections across time frame and contextual boundaries of their origins. In this way, we generates more anchors for active recall, creates a network of understanding, and assist knowledge application. It is akin to the Generation Effect of active learning.
To make effective notes, write objectively, as if we are explaining a concept to a third person. This neutral, standardised way of note-making may seem unnatural but will help us spot similarities, differences and nuances amongst ideas durably (Ahrens; ch. 12). It will grow to become recognised subconsciously.
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Even though not every note may appear to be useful for the moment, note-making also prepares serendipitous discovery and insights for your future thoughts (Ahrens; ch. 2). It is similar to the ‘verbund’ concept in chemistry, where by-products are used as resource elements for another intended production later on (Ahrens; ch. 13). Thanks to the networked connections, you would have a lot more entry points (hence a higher chance) to stumble upon previously associated ideas. You will also be more confident with your ideas as your connected notes make a thought-through trove of supporting arguments (Ahrens; ch. 7).
Last update: 2021-02-13
Ahrens, Sönke. [How To Take Smart Notes]: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Sönke Ahrens, 2017.