I have always refrained from making notes from my childhood. But now, my adviser wants me to make notes of what I study saying that it would be very beneficial for me in future. So, following his advice, I started making notes. But it turns out that it is quite boring and time consuming. And I feel that even if I want to look into something later, I can look it directly from a book. So, my questions are:

  1. How does making notes help you in your research or possibly teaching?

  2. What other pros/cons are there?

  • Concerning the warning your saw, I don't know where it comes from. I know that on Meta we were talking of having one concerning "assignments", but I don't recall any discussion about having a warning for subjective question. Your question seems like a good fit, maybe the double usage of "you" made the automatic check think it was a subjective question.
    – user102
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 8:51
  • 3
    I associate being ordered to take notes with pre-college work. By the time one is in college, let alone graduate school, you ought to have figured out for yourself what the best way for you to absorb information is, and have the discipline to do it. If that involves notes, that's great, but if it doesn't (and there are plenty of people for whom taking notes isn't a useful studying tool) then it doesn't.
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 14:30
  • As an advisor, I actually support his viewpoint, in the sense that your notes on what you read can become a part of your research record (which, as a researcher, you must create and maintain). However, the "notes" could be: "Read paper X. Good points: A, B, and C. Weak points: Q, R, and S."
    – aeismail
    Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 6:39

6 Answers 6


It's an old adage that "You don't truly understand something unless you can explain it completely to someone else". Writing notes effectively forces you to explain the topic to yourself. Oftentimes, when writing over notes from a class or from what you've read, the simple process of re-explaining it to yourself will clarify points that may have been confusing earlier.

For this purpose, I try not to write notes as I'm reading, but rather I'll read a section and them summarize that in my notes. Having read the full picture, I can then ensure that my understanding of the topic is more complete, and my notes should reflect that.

On a different note entirely, repetition enhances retention, and writing notes is at the very least doubles the number of times you'll see it (once in the book, and once as you write it), which should help your remember it that much better.


I take lots of notes — when I'm reading papers, listening to presentations, preparing for class, writing a paper, preparing a presentation, attending committee meetings, etc. I rarely look at the notes later (in fact, I often take notes on papers I'm reading on a whiteboard), but the act writing them forces a certain kind of organization in my brain that reading/watching/listening/thinking alone doesn't.

(As a graduate student, I was religious about keeping the notes I took in class. 20 years later, I still consult those notes occasionally when I teach the same material.)


I'm not sure what kind of answer you are expecting, but it should not be surprising for you to learn that people assimilate information in different ways.

Myself, I have a good visual memory and remember a lot by looking at the board/presentation when at a lecture. When the presenter is only speaking without showing anything, I have much harder time remembering everything, and am distracted easier. Note-taking definitely helps, but only when I know I won't be getting any other study materials, or the materials themselves are deficient.

Later on, when I study and read on my own, I can recreate mentally how the board looked like and quickly relate terms and phenomena that I'm reading about with what I heard earlier. This speeds up learning significantly for me.

This is what works for me -- other people have completely different ways of studying. I'd suggest you do it in a way that's comfortable for you. If you don't see the value of taking notes, just don't do it, period. Present your case to your supervisor and explain that you have your own way of organizing information, and you should be able to do so in a way that's comfortable to you. The supervisor should be trusting you enough to let you do so -- in graduate studies, students should have much more freedom to explore their ideas and work on their own without much hand-holding. Otherwise you have a much more important problem to solve -- how to avoid being micromanaged by your superiors.


As others have mentioned, notes help some individuals remember things even if they never reference them again. So I won't stress that point anymore, although I agree with it, especially for class notes.

As for notes on your reading, notes on papers are extremely useful. Depending on your field, you might end up reading lots of papers from which the details of methodology don't matter, but the key results do. If you make note of the results, then you can reference them without having to reread the papers.

Sometimes, when I am doing modeling work and doing background reading on experimental results I will take this to the extreme. As I read the paper, I will takes notes (in Mendeley or a personal wiki) and at the end include a section called "cite this paper in the following contexts" in which I will proceed to write down contexts where I expect these results to matter in my future work.

When I am writing my own paper, I might remember "there was something I read about the involvement of this in the amygdala". I do a quick search on my wiki, and from my notes have access to the relevant papers in a much faster way than going through the countless papers I might have read looking for the result.

Note taking makes my research (especially writing) more time efficient down the road


Taking notes helps me focus attention on a talk or paper. I seldom go back to notes, but when I do it's very important, and you can't guess in advance when something you'll need to remember will come up.

I currently keep notes in three different ways:

  1. Written notes in chronological order. This was my original mechanism (lab notebooks) and was very useful for me as a graduate student. Currently I do this rarely, mostly at meetings, but have found binding the notes in order is still useful and helps me remember and organise my thoughts.
  2. My bibliography file. At meetings & talks where possible I have my laptop out and download citations in real time as they are mentioned & write down keywords & ideas & who recommended what paper. I also do this when browsing social media. I use bibtex so including annotations is easy, and getting the full citation only has to be done once.
  3. Electronic notes on my laptop. This lets me search for the notes if I can remember a few key phrases. It also lets me edit papers directly when I have ideas. I have a lot of paper & grant outlines filed neatly on my hard disk in folders with papers related to them. This can be very handy. Again I use latex and make comments cross-referencing between note files, papers/grants under construction & citations.

I keep notebooks with short notes and references so that I am not stuck saying "umm, I remember reading something close to that several months ago". Instead, I've got them in notebooks with a brief summary of what the article was about. These notebooks are more of my own index of research, yes, you can always look up in "the book" or "the article", but what you need is a memory aid that helps you remember where to look them up. You could probably use something like delicious or mandelay; I'll probably set up my own wiki.

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