Taking notes when your sole goal is learning

Until this weekend, I thought the ongoing note-taking discussions, here and elsewhere, were not for me. They did not fit why I read.

I read for two reasons:

  • One is work-related. I’m a journalist (thought lately I’ve turned those skills to a kind of marketing copyrighting, called “brand journalism”). For that purpose, I’ve been taking notes professionally for more than 35 years. I take notes on written materials, PowerPoints, and–especially–interviews, presentations, and panel discussions. I know what I’m doing and I know why I’m taking those notes–to produce an article. (Although even in the last several years I’ve made significant changes to my note-taking techniques. I record interviews and events more often, and use transcription services. And in the second half of last year I started adding a step to my note-taking–intermediate notes that I call “running notes,” inspired by CGP Grey.)

  • I also read for my own education. In that case, I just want to learn about the subject of the book and article, whether the subject is insider information and speculation about WandaVision, or Joe Manchin’s stance on the filibuster, or the decline of the Roman Republic.

In the second case, why take notes? And what would I take notes about? Let’s say I’m reading about the fall of the Roman Republic–I could see taking notes if, say, I was mainly interested in the Gracchi brothers. I would read several books about the fall of the Republic and take notes about all the Gracchi bits. But that’s not my agenda. I just want to learn about the fall of the Republic. What do I take notes on then? The ENTIRE BOOK is about the fall of the Republic–where would I begin.

But lately I’ve been thinking I do not retain enough of what I read. In the past couple of decades I’ve probably read dozens of books about Roman history. For that kind of investment, I really ought to know more about Roman history than I do.

And this weekend I thought, say, I bet if I took notes…

So how do you take notes when you have no purpose to your reading other than learning? What tools do you use? What techniques? And how do you decide whether to take notes and whether to just, y’know, read?

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I have a similar problem. Life throws A LOT of text my way, and has not yet created the 28 hour day for me to digest it all. I’m not a writer or a journalist, and generally only have limited time to digest the avalanche of information coming at me every day.

I would like to somehow capture the gist of what I (am supposed to) read and be able to reference it at will.

My goal might not be learning, but related: referencing or reproducing.

So also in my case: how? How am I going to make the most efficient use of the little time I have to store information for later use?

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A key benefit of making notes while reading is that it causes you to engage more deeply in the reading. At least, for me, it forces me to stay focused on the text and to relate it to the other things I’m thinking about.

A serendipitous set of circumstances led me to not having basically no other responsibilities while I completed my Master’s program a few years ago. Since I had nothing else to do, I tried to dive deep into the material. I read probably about 40 hours per week that year. All PDFs, all the time. (Thank Jobs for the iPad!)

That was tough. Not only did my thumb hurt from all that scrolling, but staying thoughtful while studying that much was a real challenge. Highlighting was the only thing that kept me focused on the article at hand. At the same time, making notes about my questions and ideas as it related to the material helped me consider the broader context.

Unfortunately, I have more responsibilities these days. Still, those habits have stuck. When I’m not highlighting I get distracted. When I’m not trying to make notes about the thing I’m reading, nothing comes of the reading.

If only the current note-taking systems or apps were popular then… So many of those notes exist simply as handwritten pen input on those PDFs! (And no, handwriting recognition tech has no hope of helping me.)

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I’ve read a good many books, and I don’t remember much about any of them. Unfortunately
the same with my academic reading, I’ve read many papers, but there is no product, no residue for me to put into my own writing. (I’m fixing that issue now with linked notes in Obsidian.)

This is also why I decided to take notes on recreational reading.

Very few people learn by just sliding their eyes over the words. There needs to be some struggle, some attempt to recall the material, and to relate that material to other material you already know or have notes on. Isolated facts are incredibly difficult to retrieve - it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. By taking notes and adding links, you attach threads to those needles, and by following the threads, you can find the needles.

Note that highlighting is just focused sliding your eyes over the words. Highlight, write a note (ideally with your hand) and put that information into your own words. If you can’t do that, you don’t understand it and need to know more. From those notes, you can write more notes that combine conceptually-related notes. You could also practice retrieval using Anki, Readwise, or a similar spaced-repetition program.

Many people fall into the familiarity trap. They’ve read, say, 15 books on the Roman Republic. While they’re reading 16, they see things that are familiar to them, but other than reading about them in yet another book, they will have no way to recall the information. This happens a lot to students studying for exams - they read, reread, highlight, read again, (SQ3R, SQ4R, etc.) until they are convinced they know the material - but they don’t. It’s just very familiar.

Now if you really want to know the material - teach it. Use the Feynman Technique, prepare lessons, teach your cat or an imaginary friend.

I recommend the Feynman Technique whatever you do. Take out a sheet of paper. At the top write “The Roman Republic.” Write everything you know about the subject. This will expose the gaps in your knowledge. Your brain hides these gaps, making you think you know something when in fact you don’t. (I think this is a survival mechanism so we don’t walk around terrified by how much we don’t know or understand about the world.)

I would also recommend Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes, and Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, also his book The Great Ideas, which is a syntopicon of ideas from 108 classic books of Western literature.

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Thanks, John. I was thinking about you when I wrote the initial post in this thread.

As for highlighting: Some of my college textbooks are 95% highlighted. Useless! And yet I had no way of figuring out what needed to be highlighted.

I was smart enough to get decent grades in college (when I decided I needed to start getting good grades), by listening in class, taking notes that I never referred back to, reading the assigned reading once, and then getting by on bullshit and brute force. However, this only got me so far, and then I hit a wall.

CGP Grey talks about this on a relatively recent Cortext podcast, and it was a revelation to me.

(Rosemary, sorry for the B-word above. I couldn’t think of an alternative that has quite the same meaning!).

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My current round of lectures to my undergraduate students uses the analogy of tools in a basement. You’ve collected all these wonderful tools in your basement. But you have no context to know where it is or is not used. So, when you are asked to solve a problem, you go to the basement in the dark, grab a screwdriver, and hope that it will eventually help you pry open the jammed doorway (because somewhere, someone told you that you could use a screwdriver in a pinch). Too bad for you that you grabbed a Phillips head on a long thin shaft.

A critical reason to take notes is to successfully catalog the information that is thrown at you. Reviewing notes is the critical step to be successful in understanding the information. And that is before you apply it and have to defend yourself for your choice.

To speak to the topic … I tend to read sparsely to catalog key information and process it all at the same time. Bad habit worth breaking I might say. But I have recognized (though Obsidian) the potential to take notes that are accessible to review for learning.

So, don’t take notes on reading to learn. Take notes because you want to come back and learn what you just read.


JJW

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My favorite system is a 4-color pen and a moleskin notebook, sketching drawings and mind maps, etc. But there’s no good way to connect handwritten notes to other notes. So I started doing more in Drafts which feeds Obsidian. I still feel it’s lacking.

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I take notes because I need to write and read stuff to learn it. I can’t watch videos and learn nor do I do well with spoken lectures but if I read it then write it I’m ok. Often I never even need the notes, for me it’s the act of writing that matters most.

I have typically used Levenger Cornell style paper and 2 colors of pen, blue and red. I like the Pilot G-2 gel pens for good cheap notetaking. I have used and like nicer fountain pens but I’m not one to go down the pen rabbit hole. When I take notes as I am reading on topics or concepts that I want to remember I write a few words and usually put in a page number for reference. I do notes in blue, things I want t oask about, look up or need more clarfication on are in red in the left margin. I use red circles and arrows to identify key phrases, words or things that will trigger a memory for me. (and yes I sometimes have a paragraph explain’in what each one is about but not usually on the back :sunglasses: ) I try toread them once after I am done but then they can either get scanned, filed in a paper file or tossed.

What I have been experimenting with is using GoodNotes on my iPad with the Apple Pencil. I find I like that almost as much as paper and ther eis the chance that Ican get 85-90% of the stuff I write recognized as text for further use. I’m moving more and more to that for my typical notes. That works great for reading paper books. Kindle books are an issue because I readthos eon my ipad and can’t easily use GoodNotes at thesmae time without feeling cramped. I have tried highlighting and then adding notes but I don’t like them to go to the Amazon cloud for Amazon purchased books and the only way to use and save kindle highlights on kindle books not purchased from Amazon is to send to kindle via an Amazon server. That is also an issue for me. I don’t have a good solution yet for kindle books.

I just read most fiction and I take notes on most non-fiction. But there are exceptions. I took notes and actualy highlighted key phrases in nearly all of Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s books. There are just way too many clever phrases that I find highly entertaining. Like this sample " He had that smug look he gets occasionally–like an ancient vulture in sole possession of a recent battlefield. An all-you-can-eat extravaganza for one.” — Plan for the Worst by Jodi Taylor

I just can just see the expression on the character’s face with that description.

Or this one “We had six teams and the smart money was on the Wardrobe Wanderers, who were generally reckoned to be unstoppable and led by Mrs Enderby herself, decked out in a high-necked blouse and long, full skirt. Her bustle was assumed to be weaponised and was being given a wide berth.”
Note: Re croquet match

Having attempted to wear a proper bustle once they are weaponized without any additions, and if you’ve read the Jodi Taylor books then the phrase takes on whole new depths of meaning.

I’ve tried sketchnotes but I am just flat not that good at drawing, I get too picky and want to make the letters and drawing perfect and forget to focus on the material I am trying to learn.

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I write a journal specifically on “what did I learn today?”. The guiding question helps me synthesize what I’ve read and experience and ensure that I have instilled that knowledge. It helps me reflect on the value of learning and having new knowledge. Plus, having those entries help me read it back. I do write notes as it helps me remember what I’m learning but reflecting back on what I learned and asking myself “what I learned today” also help me find gaps.

For some reason, I use Agenda for this to separate it from my other note-taking apps or journal apps (personal journal, mental health journal, film diary, etc.) I think it’s important to pick a separate app for this to differ in mindset in the act of writing or journaling.

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Note taking for me depends on what i am reading. Non work related but still study material is when i take notes. Stuff that isn’t just for consumption but text that requires one to think, requires one to take notes ihmo. A book/paper is mostly a one way street i.e. from its author to you. If you just read and stay quiet, it is easy to start accepting ideas without giving these a real shake. I prefer to write my notes, agreements and objections, questions and suggestions, in the book at the place of relevance. If i need more space, i use additional paper that i fold into the pages.

These books turn into a living thing for me. When i return to them years later, i see my own perspective from long ago, often times different then now - that grounds me.

Work related, technical stuff i don’t take notes for - or at least sporadically, a drawing /diagram here or there. When preparing for paper writing, i use a text editor, combo devonthink and scriverner to hold on ideas but that is not note taking to learn.

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I just take notes in OmniOutliner. which is just a “simple” outline program. I would have some idea or fact I wanted to remember at a higher level in the outline and then if I wanted to expand on my notes on the idea I would put it at lower levels.

It is a very simple system, just one step above notes in a text editor.

  • Why did the Roman Empire fall
    • Barbarians
      • Goths
      • Mongols
    • Mentally ill leaders
      • Nero

But you can move your notes around. If you want to copy text or pictures you can. And you can hide the details and get a better overview by just looking at the high-level topics.

But what I like about it is that it is very simple conceptually, And I am not spending time evaluating 10 different notetaking applications and falling in love with one clever idea after another and endlessly searching for my soulmate.

Sometimes (as someone suggested) the highest level is just the date that I learned something and my notes are organized that way. Like a diary of learning.

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For me, this topic (which is a lifelong challenge, so far) is about marginalia – notes taken in the margin. There is a long and wonderful history of marginalia. (The Folger Shakespeare Library considers the marginal notes in their collection of the printed plays and other books to be as important as the printed text.)

The point is that the note is adjacent to the printed text – they are joined “forever”. I love making marginal notes. They seem to stick in my head more, they are more than merely underlining or highlighting, and they are always present in the book to reference and think about. Very important, there is, I think, more retention from handwriting than typing. I can pick up a book with marginal notes I made decades ago and bring to mind exactly what I was thinking when I see the notes.

Electronic notemaking frustrates the benefit of marginalia. The reader software, like Kindle or Books, does not make it easy (or even possible?) to make handwritten marginal notes. I was in the habit of buying everthing for Kindle, but in the past few years I buy more and more printed books just to be able to annotate them in the margin with my own notes.

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I see much of the same problem. E-books while great for its portability and even search features, lack the space reference of printed book marginalia. That really helps recalling!

That said, I’ve been able to recreate some of it via MarginNote. Dealing with PDFs and having the ability to draw and create/rearrange excerpts is great for processing those reads and allow me to create a future note on Obsidian. It’s also somewhat clunky, devs are Chinese (I guess), not very fluent on English and its exporting features are far from great (man those exported PDFs are huge)… but its been doing the job for me for a good 3+ years.

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Oh, yes, I should have mentioned MarginNote. It is, indeed, a bit weird, but for working with library of PDFs or non-DRM ePUBs – often concurrently in the same notebook – it is wonderful. Excels as well on iPad with Pencil.

Not, however, a solution for Kindle or Books-store purchases.

One disagreement – a developer’s nationality and fluency is not an indicator of quality.

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By no means I meant to imply this.

I think their software is the best in its class! Also that they do a wonderful job in looking for and implementing new features. That is completely out of question!

But there is also no doubt that sometimes, I feel there is a lot of meaning that gets lost in translation on their own Forum. That – the translation – is the problem. Not their nationality at all.

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It’s really easy to make marginalia notes in the kindle app on the iPad at least. As long as you don’t care that those notes are stored on the Amazon servers. And you can get them out with readwise easily into markdown etc.

To do it read a book on kindle and then create a highlight of some text with as little as a period at the end of a sentence or a word. Click the paper with pencil icon in the highlight popup that shows up when you finish. You can use Scribble to write but it will translate into typed text. When I am willing to do this I also add my initials and the date just so I know when I created a particular note.

My problem is that those notes and annotations end up in Amazon which I do not like. But if you are ok with that it works well.

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Coincidentally, a few days ago I bought a lap desk which lets me read comfortably on the 19.9" iPad. It’s even good for ebooks, when the iPad is attached to the Magic Keyboard.

Until this discussion, when I read with that configuration, the Magic Keyboard was just a stand for me to prop up the book. But now I’ll be able to take notes easily too!

As I said, “handwritten marginal notes”. Of course I know how to use scribble-to-text or type notes. been using Kindle since gen 1, but that’s not anywhere like the experience of handwritten marginalia.

Wha??? Had to go and look to see if I had missed the release of this monster!

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Me too, on the Kindle 1st Gen, husband still uses that as his way to read kindle books.

I agree it’s not exactly the same just on the feel of the paper and pen alone but it’s close.

Personally, I have to move to all kindle books that I can and come to grips with how to annotate them because even with over 350 linear feet of bookshelf space we are out of room for physical books. I’m sorting now and buying kindle versions of many just to save room. So far I’ve managed to reduce the collection by almost 16 feet but it’s still not enough. A lot of the ones I am keeping have no kindle versions at all.

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