Taking Hand-Written Notes

This is a post that discusses the importance of taking good, hand-written notes, which are -importantly- phrased in your own words.

As a corollary, it is also a post about why slides are inferior in comparison.

That’s about all that needs to be said. The rest of this article is an explanation of why.

What are the benefits of taking your own hand-written notes?

  • It makes you think more slowly and deeply about the material
  • It builds a mind-muscle connection
  • Many students forget things. Since I obviously can’t predict what every individual will remember and forget, it’s your job to help yourself remember.
  • Writing equations down is far superior to simply staring at them (again: mind-muscle connection)
  • Putting ideas into your own words forces you to internalize the material by translating them from “my way of talking” to “your way of talking”

Mind-muscle connection: what does this mean? When you only use your eyes (staring at slides or someone else’s notes) you are only using the neurons between your eyes and your brain.

When you write things down, you are using not just your sensory neurons, but your motor neurons also. In other words, 2 systems are working together at once (your sensory system and your motor system). Your whole body is working together in concert to internalize what you have learned.

Clearly, this is superior.

Putting things into your own words: why is it important?

If you have never read a college-level textbook in molecular biology or systems biology, I suggest you give it a try. Man, that stuff will put you to sleep instantly.

The way that biologists speak is very different from the way that a computer scientist or engineer speaks! Very different.

To understand biology, the engineer or computer scientist has to translate concepts from “biology language” into “engineer language”.

Hopefully, this is an over-explanation and this whole thing is obvious…

Let’s talk about slides.

Who asks for slides?

I will share with you my experience with in-person school (as opposed to this article, which is intended for students of online courses).

Students who ask for slides generally:

  • Study the least amount compared to other students (false belief that staring at slides will imbue them with knowledge)
  • Don’t take personal responsibility (they didn’t bother to take notes, now they want someone else to make up for it)

The general characteristics of these students were: lazy, falling behind, not studious, etc. In other words, they were bad students.

Thus, my first instinct when students ask for slides is always to encourage the student not to be one of these bad students, and to build good habits instead.

This of course, is not to imply that you are one of those bad students. I state this only to explain my knee-jerk reaction and to share relevant “statistics”.

No, slides will not help you.

Only you can help you, by learning how to write things down like a normal, productive person!

Excuse #1: “Everybody learns differently”

One objection (in fact, the only objection) that students ever have to my suggestion of taking your own hand-written notes is that “but but but… everybody learns differently“.

This is a very poor excuse.

Go over the benefits of taking hand-written notes once again. You will agree with me that these are indisputable.

Claiming that you personally learn better with slides vs. taking notes is equivalent to claiming:

  • You learn better when you think less about the subject
  • You learn better by staring vs. building a mind-muscle connection
  • You learn better by not writing things down
  • You learn better when ideas are not in your own words
  • You are better at solving math problems without writing down the equations vs. writing them down and manipulating the equations by hand

Clearly, all of the above are highly unlikely to be true.

Thus, your claim that “everybody learns differently” is not based on how the human brain works. I dare anyone to tell me that any of the items above are true for them, with an explanation of why it works that way.

Still waiting for someone to give me a good explanation… 😉

Excuse #2: “I will use slides in addition to taking my own notes”

Some students may see the above excuse which I have easily rebutted, and come up with a second excuse in return:

“But but but… I will use the slides in addition to taking my own notes! There! See? Now you can’t claim I am a lazy student! Now, give me the slides!”

Obviously, the only reason for this excuse is because the previous one was rebutted. Students tend to do that when they get very insistent on something. Doesn’t matter how much logic and reasoning you throw at them. They are just all about excuses.

When I encounter such a student, believe me, I can identify you immediately.

Problem with excuse #2: There is no reason you need slides to take your own notes.

Students have been taking handwritten notes for generations. There was no need for “slides” or “handouts” (as we used to call them back in the day).

You simply showed up to the lecture, listened and took notes as the lecturer spoke.

In fact, you kids have it much easier today because you can pause, rewind, speed up, or slow down the video as needed.

If you are saying that even with this modern technology, you are somehow unable to take good notes… then man, compared to past generations, that is just sad!

You’re unable to hold a concept in your brain for the few seconds that it takes between the time the lecturer said something and the time you write it down?

That is weak! Train yourself and train your mind to be as good as your forefathers – who took notes in real-time (without the benefits of pause, rewind, etc.) with ease!

How to get the slides

Now, that being said – I do offer slides – at a price.

Firstly: be aware that no slides actually “exist”.

I do not use Powerpoint or PDF. Therefore, they are not “files” I can simply upload to a website – they are hosted in the cloud.

(No, I cannot give you a link to my private cloud files either).

Thus, in order to give you the slides, it does take some manual labor to prepare them for you.

Furthermore, there have been incidents of plagiarism in the past.

To prevent plagiarism, the slides will have to be watermarked with a unique identification personalized to the student.

Legal action can and has been taken against those who partake in plagiarism.

Since this requires manual labor, I will charge you for this labor.

If anyone is serious about obtaining slides, I am happy to oblige at my usual hourly rate.

It is like any job – if you want someone to personally do work for you – you should be ready to pay their asking price.

Unfortunately, I cannot budge on this as it would be unfair to existing clients and past customers.


The Universality of Writing Things Down

To end this article, I will share a video of a nice MMA YouTuber who discusses the importance of writing things down in order to remember what you learned in class.

This YouTube link will skip to the relevant section of the video: https://youtu.be/rJTM9QXbVt0?t=309

What’s the point of this? The point is to show you that this idea of writing things down (hand-written) is universal.

I truly can’t believe I have to explain this (kids today are too spoiled with their little gadgets), but writing things down really, really works.

It works for martial artists, it works for machine learning, it works for everything!


Update: Yet another study in support of handwriting

Handwriting Is Better Than Typing When Learning a New Language, Study Finds


More discussion:



Update: More support for handwriting’s ability to help learning

This is from the StackOverflow Blog. The hits keep coming!

Why writing by hand is still the best way to retain information