I am a Maths Ph.D. student. When I read any result like theorem or the concept used in it, in any math textbook or article, I understand it at that time, but as the days pass, I start forgetting them and then sometimes it gets very hard to recall the book or chapter or article name from where I had read that particular thing.
Should I take notes every time when I am reading a textbook?
Are there other Ph.D. students who take notes while reading a paper or textbook, or only I am feeling the need of it?

Kindly reply. Thanks in advance.

  • 7
    You should do what you feel helps you. If taking notes help, take notes. If it doesn't help, don't.
    – Ink blot
    Aug 7, 2018 at 7:05
  • I just want to know, is it only me who take notes, or there are other Ph.D. students too, who do this.
    – prince
    Aug 7, 2018 at 7:09
  • 4
    Why does it even matter what other people do?
    – Ink blot
    Aug 7, 2018 at 7:11
  • Yes, I take notes on everything: supervision meetings, papers, books, websites, videos, seminars, colloquia... go wild! Just make sure you have a good system for organising them.
    – astronat
    Aug 7, 2018 at 7:12
  • 1
    I have full notebooks from grad school that basically have copied textbooks in my own words. I know others that have no notes. It really depends on how you learn.
    – T K
    Aug 7, 2018 at 11:10

1 Answer 1


You just described the difference between short and long term memory. Seeing something, say in a lecture, will only get your short term memory involved. To have something retained for the long term you need to actually actively learn it. Listening, reading once, seeing a video are all passive.

Yes, take notes. There is evidence that taking notes on paper is better than typing the notes as you listen to a lecture, say, because it engages the brain in a different way. Good typists, for example, can copy text without really reading or understanding it. It is just a physical, rather than mental, act.

There is brain science that shows that learning requires physically changing the stricture of the brain - reconnecting neurons. See The Art of Changing the Brain by James E Zull, for example.

But taking notes is only the first part. Practice and repetition are needed for real retention. What can you do with the information you just heard in that lecture? For undergraduates we give them exercises to reinforce the learning and make the students active in retaining it. That happens less in doctoral studies. But among other things, especially in maths you can think about and write down how this connects to other things you know and have already retained. Make the connections explicit in your thinking rather than just implicit.

When I was in grad school (maths also) I made extensive notes in lecture on paper. I still have them 50 years later and have consulted some of them recently. I do wish I'd used better paper, actually. If I were to do it again, I'd use index cards with only a single idea on each card. Better yet, take notes on good paper and just after the lecture, extract the key ideas (three most important ideas) on individual index cards. Everything here is done by hand. I did some of this actually as an undergrad (not enough) and still have a box of index card notes.

You may think that using computer based notes is superior. That is questionable. You may think it is better for retention, but it isn't for retention in your mind. Even retaining things in a computer over 50 years is problematic, since media and operating systems change as do some formats. If you back up regularly you are safer but you may also need to translate the old formats to new as many software vendors have little incentive to support really old formats. Paper lasts as long as you can keep it dry and away from fire.

  • Regarding computer-based notes, see the research linked here: academia.stackexchange.com/a/61687/101 Aug 7, 2018 at 13:44
  • 1
    I've observed that the way I go about learning math as a grad student is probably no different from when I was in high school. Encoding and retrieving are fundamental to learning anything.
    – user74089
    Aug 13, 2018 at 0:01

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