What is the best way to take notes when self-studying? I myself swing rather wildly between writing down everything and writing nothing. Obviously, neither is a good approach. I also have troubles with the neatness of my notes, especially because my handwriting isn't exactly pretty. What tips do you recommend for taking good, neat, understandable notes?

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    $\begingroup$ This may sound like an odd question, but what is your goal? Is the purpose of the note-taking to have a reference for later, or is it to get the most information into your mind as you read? Following the cognitive research, the latter goal can lead to a very different process than the first. $\endgroup$
    – Ben I.
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ @BenI. to be honest, both are useful to me. I went back and forth on this, and in general, I can figure out what's going on, but not necessarily remember it. I find writing notes helps solidify the information in my mind (along with problems/programs/practice, of course) and also is handy for a later reference. I can't tell you how many times I've had to check my linear algebra notes (for example) for the definition of an eigenvector or whatever, just because I don't use linear algebra often enough. $\endgroup$
    – auden
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 22:23

4 Answers 4


There are two reasons (at least) for note taking

  • creating a shorter, abstracted, version of your sources that you can save to return to later without recapitulating your whole education.

  • learning something about the topic - getting it in to your head.

For the former, you can type up notes as you go. Try to focus on the main points, not the detail. Leave lots of references in your notes so that you can easily return to the source as needed.

However, if your objective is to actually learn the material from an operational perspective - using it - then typing up notes doesn't help nearly as much. Writing out things long hand is much better - but you may need to practice with the pen. And the fact that it is slow is also an advantage, since you engage with the material over a longer period.

If you are studying for a field in which you want to become a professional, take notes by hand with a pen on good paper. In fifty years you will still be able to use those notes whereas the computer notes are likely inaccessible.

The reason for long hand writing (even printing) is that your brain is more engaged in the process than it is with typing. That is how you learn - engaging the brain, not the motor muscles in your hands (unless you are learning a physical act like rock climbing or a martial art, where muscle memory is equally important.

Moreover, to learn some subjects you need to also use the knowledge you are gaining. In math you solve a lot of problems. In CS you write a lot of programs. I History you pose a lot of theses. Whatever is appropriate, but it involves problem solving and creation in some way.

See https://cseducators.stackexchange.com/a/1168/1293 for additional comments, including the other answers to the same question.

If you search this site for "changing the brain" other hints will reveal themselves.

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    $\begingroup$ "In fifty years you will still be able to use those notes whereas the computer notes are likely inaccessible." Really have to disagree there. While there's a need to avoid proprietary formats, electronic notes have far more endurance through time than paper. You can back 'em up, search through them, transfer them, share them, parse them, translate them (via Google Translate-like services), etc.. By contrast, 50-year-old paper notes are a pain to recover; they take forever to navigate, they're often faded and the paper's wrinkly, they're usually in a box somewhere, etc.. $\endgroup$
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ As a researcher, I've kept all of my notes - paper and electronic - but honestly the paper notes are in a box in the basement. I mean, seriously, even if you know exactly what you're looking for, it takes forever to dig through them all to find that exact thing. But on the computer, I just do a directory search through all of my documents for keywords, and I have all of my related notes in seconds! It's so much easier. $\endgroup$
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ My experience is just the opposite. I've lost electronic goods, but been able to retrieve work from the early 60's that was on paper. But yes, it takes forever. Papyrus and stone tablets are still readable after millennia. But you can have the cake and eat it too. Work electronically but back up by printing to good paper. Keep it dry and away from mice, of course. Though I don't know the expected lifetime of laser printed work. I'd guess not permanent. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ Why backup to paper, or use it at all, though? Just backup on other devices, the cloud, etc.. Nothing short of the world ending will destroy remotely distributed copies, but any sort of paper can go up in a fire or simply be lost. Plus it's just not very usable and whatnot. $\endgroup$
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ My friend the archivist was discussing this a few years ago. She told me that the most crappy acid ridden paper, would last 50 years, and archivist paper could last a few hundred. If you write it on velum then longer. Where as she was struggling to get digital information past 10 years. Things become obsolete. You need to actively manage it, transferring it from one medium to another, and then be lucky enough to to suddenly loose it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:21

Optimal note-taking depends on the goal. For example, if all you want is to pass a quiz next week, then a quick, flimsy style's more appropriate. Here, I'll write about taking notes that a life-long learner intends to keep-and-extend into life as a researcher.

Always typed; never written

Electronic notes are vastly superior to hand-written notes because:

  1. They can be:

    • backed up;

    • transferred;

    • searched (e.g. Ctrl+F in documents);

    • modified (e.g. add sections, fix mistakes);

    • arbitrarily annotated (e.g. adding "Comments" in MS Office applications).

  2. They're cleaner and consistent.

  3. You can carry all of them with you always.

    • A library can fit into a storage device the size of a small coin (e.g. a micro SD card) and kept on a cloud storage account.
  4. Contain active content, such as:

    • links to websites;

    • spreadsheets (e.g. Excel sheets can be embedded in Word documents);

    • calculations (e.g. the MS Mathematics add-in for Word);

    • and also inactive content like images.

  5. Spell check and grammar check are helpful.

  6. You can use formatting.

    • Simple formatting like bold/italics.

    • More complex formatting is possible through features like "Styles" in MS Word.

      • Tip: If you don't have it already, you should add styles like code style to your default style set in your favorite word processor.
  7. Neatly organized with other note materials, like:

    • Downloaded journal articles.

    • Spreadsheets/databases.

    • Source code.

Date everything

Everything should be dated; ideally, you'd prefix all filenames with a time stamp of when they were created (originally - not just when the actual file was transferred/copied/downloaded/etc.).

As always, use ISO 8601 for time stamps and other dates.

xkcd 1179: "ISO 8601"

-"ISO 8601", xkcd

Dates are important for a few reasons:

  1. They help you trace through your notes to find something that you recall but need to reread.

  2. Especially in research, understandings constantly change.

    • You want to know if your notes or downloaded papers are from a month ago or 10 years ago; it really matters.

    • But you still usually want to keep old stuff. It can help you both trace conceptual histories and aide you in recalling something that you've seen before.

  3. Can help you establish the context other authors are in.

    • If another author writes a lot in a field, their own understanding will evolve in time. If they contradict themselves over the years, comparing dates can help, because their more recent opinions are generally the result of having gone through a shift in understanding and likely to be more well-considered than their earlier opinions.

Try to keep the formatting future-proof

You want your notes to endure, so avoid systems that might break in a few years as best you can. Sometimes document formats like PDF make sense despite being proprietary, though it's best to avoid relying on them as much as possible.


  1. Avoid relying on third-party solutions whenever you can't easily-and-reliably convert away from them at any time without losing the prior content.

    • MS Office applications can often save to open-format variants, so they're an example of something that you can migrate away from.

    • But, MS Office add-ins that rely heavily on VBA or other Office-specific mechanisms are far less reliable and migratable, so avoid reliance on them as much as possible.

  2. Avoid third-party solutions that you can't verify for security.

    • You may not care about security now, but as you get further into your career and start developing content that you need secure, the potential for a backdoor (whether intentional or due to bugs) may force you away from software that'd otherwise have been nice to use.
  3. Print webpages to files, e.g. using print-to-PDF that many browsers now offer.

    • Websites can go down or have their content change. Sure, you might be able to try to look them up on an archiving service with varying degrees of success, but that slows you down. So, do save/keep the links, but also cache a copy of the current version that you've found useful.
  4. Remotely back up.

    • Keep your notes on various devices - not just separate files on the same computer.

    • Thumb drives aren't known for their reliability, so don't rely on them as absolute security measures, but if you copy to several thumb drives stored in different locations, that's one cheap way to get a significantly reduced risk profile.

    • Cloud storage accounts can also help.

Absorb non-electronic notes

If you do have non-electronic note materials; e.g., hand-written notes, images, lab book notes, or handouts from a class; if they're potentially important, try to get them on the computer. Scanning them or snapping a picture with your phone can be better-than-nothing.

Optical character recognition (OCR) can help make some hand-written notes into electronic copies. It's not particularly reliable or stress-free just yet, but as long as you have something for future OCR to work on, it remains an increasingly useful tool.

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if you've had to retrieve notes from fifty years ago. Your prescription for safekeeping is good, but only if you follow it faithfully. Libraries have a lot of trouble with electronic records. So yes, do all this, but never fail. Attend to it, say monthly. The cloud won't save you either. Companies fail, taking your stuff into the aether. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ You may wish to add comments about LaTeX to your answer - it's a very nice, non-proprietary, math-friendly editor. Otherwise, this is a fabulous answer - I should start doing this! Currently, I just have a heck of a lot of messy paper notebooks. $\endgroup$
    – auden
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ While I share the enthusiasm for legible typed notes, it's worth to issue a warning against solely relying on typing.There's some evidence from psychological studies suggesting handwritten notes are better for actual learning opposed to conserving content because you are forced to summarize what's said. Also, e.g. in lectures, computers are highly distracting, not only for yourself but for your peers as well. Personally, if I'm not in a programming class, I prefer to take handwritten notes and type or scan them later. Takes a bit more time, but is usually worth the effort (at least for me). $\endgroup$
    – user2031
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ The interesting discussion which was occuring here should be continued in chat. $\endgroup$
    – thesecretmaster
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ 1330300800 is 2012-02-27 (not 2013-02-27) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 13:12

I find note taking to be the most useful when it's done in the bullet journal way in real time. Make points while listening closely, write down the few terms which resonate, leave space for the rest(which you can write as revision after class). Make the notes well spaced, so that you can also add a few key points which you learnt yourself.


From what I have read.

Most of us agree that digital information is more accessible. Some of us agree that paper is more durable. Some have stated that writing will produce better memories.

I will just add a few bits.

  • Don't waste your time trying to make notes, for reference, that are already in the books. Use books and the internet for this.

  • Write down anything that surprises you.

  • Write down references.

  • Summarize your notes every evening, then again at the end of the week, then again at the end of a term. Each time making them shorter.

  • Now that we are going to summarize our notes, we can start by writing on paper in lessons, and summarize to computer.

  • If we use a computer, then use open formats.

  • If we use a computer, then use a revision control system.

  • If we use a computer, then synchronize our data everywhere. In computer security there are two main concerns

    • Don't let the wrong people get hold of confidential/secret information: for this use encryption.
    • Don't lose information, for this copy data everywhere.(use a synchronization system that treats data as immutable).

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