So I've been having issues lately on note-taking. Written below is a slight stream of consciousness on what I have been doing, my struggles, and potential solutions (I'd like to know about your opinions regarding whether my solutions are good or if you have any solutions of your own)

Currently, I am self-learning my High School Economics textbook in order to have a full review done before my online college classes begin.

Basically, I read the section I want to take notes on. After that, I try to summarize it the best I can bolded words here and there. However, one issue is that I tend to still sort of copy information into my notes. Thus, my notes get a bit lengthy and crammed. I don't want to copy, but many times many of the sentences are worded really well. I think I seem to get stuck into the "better be safe than sorry" mode where I'm unsure if the specific wording is important to memorize in order for me to re-explain it in those specific words for a possible future test. This also inevitably occurs when it comes to taking notes on lecture-slides. If I can kill two birds(copying nicely worded might-be-on-test information on textbooks and/or powerpoints) with one stone, that would be awesome, but at least hoping to fix the textbook note-taking problem first..... Solution: Perhaps I should read the section multiple times, and force myself to summarize in my own words on a separate sheet of paper, and then re-look what I missed/what specific wordings I feel I should use, and then officially write proper notes in an official notebook?

Usually, when I take notes, after reading the section I go straight to writing my notes into my official notebook. After writing all those notes, I'll realize that when reviewing through these notes later I'll make new connections or realize I'm vague or after going into sections some new information will make me re-think the way I've written past notes. Unfortunately, I have this giant block of written text from this section, and trying to draw little arrows to add my insight in order to 'correct' my already-written notes is really hard to do and aesthetically unpleasant. I just get left with this mess. Going onto the next page and making all these symbols to reference certain sentences of passages of my previously-written notes is also messy and unfulfilling. Solution: Perhaps similar to above I need to avoid going straight into my official notebook and instead let myself just do summaries on random pieces of scratch paper. I need to be patient and possibly do this for the whole unit. Then I go back re-read all the sections, re-read my scratch-paper summaries, and try and write my official notes with any new insights and connections I've made along the way.

Note: When I say 'official notebook' I mean more like my 'main' notebook where it is ago to resource for my notes and where everything I've written should preferably be organized, clear, and not vague. The problems that are occurring above are sort of degrading the quality of the official/main notebook that just make future-reviewing hard or the satisfaction that I have everything clearly written in one single-burst impossible.

I see all these note-taking methods of taking beautiful notes, but for me time is of the essence as I hope to finish reviewing my Economics textbook before college starts. To me the problem is not the aesthetic design of how I take notes.. I don't need the Cornell Method or Mind-mapping.. I'm just trying to fix some fundamental problems that prevent me from taking good notes that I can then use to leapfrog into spaced-repetition, voice recording myself discussing my notes, etc to truly get them in my memory/head and diminish the need for the notes overall (since I hate having piles and piles of un-reviewed notes that I hardly review)

Sorry for this extremely long question and post. I'm really stuck on this and it would mean the world to get some help. If you believe I have posted this question in the wrong place, please let me know. Thank you!

  • Is the "official notebook" something for a teacher, or just your own use?
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 15:10
  • @Buffy Just for my own use. To clarify, it's my "main notebook" it's what is my go to resource for my notes and where everything I've written should preferably be organized, clear, and not vague. The problems that are occurring above are sort of degrading the quality of the official/main notebook that just make future-reviewing hard or the satisfaction that I have everything clearly written in one single-burst impossible.
    – user126252
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 15:52
  • 1
    This all seems a bit over the top to me (effort put into writing notes), but something that might help is to include the use of index cards, which can be arranged in various orders, individually rewritten and replaced as needed, etc. Also, you can use different colors for exact phrases/sentences from published sources (red ink pen) and for things in your own words (blue ink pen) to help with unintended plagiarism when writing term papers, your honors or other thesis (if exists), your own publications and such. Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 16:33
  • 1
    Would a technical solution be of interest? I spent my whole HS/college career trying to solve this and related problems with paper notes and never found a good solution. Then recently I purchased an iPad and installed the notability app -- game changer.
    – cag51
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 16:35
  • @cag51 I'm aware of electronic drawing boards, apple pens, and iPad. However, this is a bit of an investment for me (I recently purchased an expensive MacBook Pro). I always found typing-up notes to not be helpful in gaining understanding because physically note-taking felt like "connecting neurons" and "Actively learning"... However, digital notetaking (such as using an apple pen on an iPad, which is still "writing things down") allows me to rearrange notes, but it's too much of an investment right now... is there any way I can turn my MacBookPro into a digital drawing board like an iPad Pro?
    – user126252
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 23:59

1 Answer 1


Let me make a few suggestions:

First you want to understand how the mind works in order to know how to optimize your study. It turns out that to learn, we actually need to physically change the brain, reconnecting neurons. For the science behind it see: The Art of Changing the Brain by James E Zull. The implication is that we learn by reinforcement (repetition) and feedback. The feedback is to assure that what we have "learned" isn't actually wrong.

Having a complete set of notes on paper (or in your computer) doesn't imply that you have actually learned anything. You have to make the connections in your brain so that you can both recall things and put them to use.

Reinforcement is actually increased and enhanced if you take notes in your own words, rather than copying them. The original words can give you feedback if you are studying on your own, but using your own words implies that you were more engaged when you were note taking and not just copying without thought.

So, paraphrase and then check.

The second bit of advice is to periodically go over your notes and summarize them in a smaller space. What do we now see, having read a bit more, as the most important ideas in our notes? You can take this to several levels.

Another trick is to use index cards to effectively capture the essence of an idea in a very small space. See this answer to a different question for an explanation of something called the Hipster PDA, which is both an effective tool for note taking and for summarizing. Don't write too much on a card, though. The idea is to filter things down to the essence.

And cards are especially efficient as they can be rearranged (to combine ideas) and also easily carried to help you with the reinforcement. You can carry a dozen cards and review them while waiting in line, for example.

There is nothing inherently wrong with long form copying of sources for your own use, but there are more efficient ways to assure that you actually learn from your reading and not just move it from one bit of paper to another.

Reinforcement and feedback.

  • Do you think this will work for economics (note-taking for economics), which uses graphs many times in its textbooks.. these graphs may take-up space on my index cards and end-up cramming what other writing I would do on the index card (sometimes I may be forexample explaining what the graph means on one index card)?
    – user126252
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 0:09
  • Use the back of the card for notes on graphs, perhaps. And the main idea is to get the knowledge into your mind, not on the card.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 0:14

You must log in to answer this question.