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When you take notes you forge a deeper connection to your field

Study habits — Why take notes? To remember, to understand or to become one with the subject matter? All three, in fact, according to a professor of educational sciences. And according to a handwriting expert, your note-taking techniques have their roots in Antiquity

Most of us take notes. Some of us with great care, others a little less.

I’m the type who takes a lot of notes. I’ve come up with five tips on how you can improve your note-taking, but what do the experts say about it?

Torben Spanget, a professor of educational sciences with the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark, says taking notes so serves three purposes.

Firstly, your notes can serve as an archive for when it comes time to sit an exam. »In other words, they help you remember. They are your memory.«

People refer to themselves in terms of what they are studying. ‘I am a physicist.’ ‘I am in the humanities.’ Each note you take is a microscopic step in that process of identification.

Torben Spanget, professor of educational sciences


That’s how Spanget himself uses notes. »When I was a young student, I wrote down everything that went up on the board. I made a complete copy of the lecture.«

But, there are other, more important reasons for taking notes than to provide yourself with a memory aid. »That’s what you have your textbook for,« Spanget says.

The second reason for taking notes is that it allows you to reflect over the material.

You use your notes, according to Spanget, to process the new terms you are introduced to during your studies. »You learn new terms as words, but they have a long backstory.«


Your method of taking them – by hand or typing them on your computer – doesn’t make much difference.

»If you are more comfortable using a computer, then you should do it that way. A lot of people today don’t write anything by hand, so, if you are more comfortable with doing it that way, then you should do it that way,«  he says.

The third – and most important – reason for taking notes is, according to Spanget, that your notes help you internalise the subject matter. Through note-taking, you turn the information you receive into knowledge.

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»When you write sentences using the new terms, you accept what you have learned. As we do that, we form our identity. We are introduced to a lot of academic terms that we don’t know and that we need to master. Some of us are afraid to say them or write them, because they aren’t a part of their vocabulary yet. Using them feels contrived.«

But, the more you take notes, the more you come to associate with your field.

»You can’t study something without identifying with it. People refer to themselves in terms of what they are studying. ‘I am a physicist.’ ‘I am in the humanities.’ Each note you take is a microscopic step in that process of identification.«

Ancient techniques

When your instructor stands in front your class sharing their brilliance with you, your first reaction is probably to try and jot down every word they say. Unfortunately, few can take notes so quickly.

But, there is a note-taking technique developed in Antiquity that was created precisely to allow someone to write as quickly as a person could speak and continues to be used today. Known as stenography (or shorthand), it was used until 1968 to provide a record of all meetings of the Folketing, for example. Nowadays, however, audio and video recordings have largely replaced the written record.

According to Anne Mette Hansen, an expert on Medieval handwriting with the University of Copenhagen, examples of note-taking can be found way back in history.

»Stenography goes back to Antiquity,« she says. It was the Romans invented it in the form of a stenography known as Tironian shorthand.

And if you put an asterisk in the margin of your notes to indicate that something is particularly important, you are, according to Hansen, doing something that people have been doing for a long, long time.

In some manuscripts from the Middle Ages, you can find are what are known as manicules, small drawings of hands that point at important sections of the text to draw attention to it.

I often write ‘NB’ instead of drawing a pointing finger.

Anne Mette Hansen, expert on Medieval handwriting


»Myself, I often write ‘NB’ (from the Latin nota bene, or ‘note well’, ed) instead of drawing a pointing finger. The old ways of annotating are incredibly durable,«  Hansen says.

Although she has modernised one aspect of note-taking, she still prefers doing it the old-fashioned way: by hand.

»Some people feel that it is important to have something tactile; they need to be able to touch their notes. Or they have a special connection to their pen. I’m like that,” she says. »I need to use a special type of mechanical pencil when I take notes. That just works better for me. I’ve used index labels when I’ve needed to really get a handle on the material. When the subject matter is has a complex structure.«

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