Ignore Your Notes

by Site Author


Back in school, I used to take notes religiously. My implements of choice: a canary-yellow legal pad and a felt-tip pen. Each and every class meant pages of notes.

Surprisingly, though, I rarely found myself going back to those yellow pages. My precious legal pads, once filled, ended up ignored.

But, as it turns out, it is the act of taking notes that matters. In fact, one of the best ways to study is to jot down notes from memory, organizing your thinking on a topic. Then throw out those notes altogether, and jot down a new set from scratch.

That kind of practice exploits “the testing effect.” The most effective way to remember anything is to repeatedly retrieve it from memory. In that sense, it is not the notes themselves that matter, but rather the act of writing things down in the first place.

Psychologists have known about the testing effect for decades, but people tend to discover it on their own. Take, for instance, Nick Barnes, a British soccer commentator. The picture above shows a couple pages from his notebook. Before each soccer game, Barnes carefully creates two pages of notes, color coding each player’s stats and sketching their country of origin’s flag. The notes are a “cheat sheet” that provides him with material to discuss during the game. But then, to his surprise, Barnes finds that he uses the notes “sparingly during actual gameplay.”