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Did you know that scents can be used as memory aids? One study at found that participants could create a mnemonic loop by smelling familiar scents like lavender or mint, improving recall when their knowledge was tested hours later. Students may be able to boost their grades by chewing spearmint gum when they study!

Memory works in complex ways, and scientists are learning that memory can be shaped – and enhanced – through careful attention to the associations our brain makes when we create a memory. Today we’re going to talk about one helpful mental trick – and the emerging controversy over the best way to take notes!

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These days, tablets and laptops are all but mandatory in higher education and office settings, and  programs like Evernote and OneNote are soaring in popularity. Some university students have taken to using Googledocs to create and share collaborative lecture notes, including student-to-student questions and clarifications. Text-to-type programs allow for quick transcription for people who hate to type. You can take notes as quickly, expand and edit effortlessly, and index for future reference.

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But does all this efficiency come with a cost? A study by Pam Mueller and David Oppenheimer showed that using a keyboard – which allows you to passively record rather than actively summarize and process – cheats you out of the power of recall. Your computer may give you the ability to create a perfect record, but you’ll have a harder time adding the information to your own working knowledge base.

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Photo Credit: Scientificamerican.com

Some scientists believe that writing notes by hand helps you to strengthen your memory. Because you have to think more carefully about each sentence, you’ll have more time to process the information. You’ll also have to think more carefully about how to arrange the words on the page. Unless you write at lightning speed, you’ll need to summarize – and synthesize – in order to keep up, which means that you’ll be trading quantity for quality. All of these factors force your brain to take a more active role in processing the information, which helps cement everything you hear in your mind.

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However, handwriting isn’t for everyone. Many people – especially in the digital age – have illegible handwriting. Some may have repetitive-strain or ergonomic issues that make paper note-taking difficult. Note-takers may also be reluctant to carry around a notebook, or keep track of scraps of paper. “Analog” notes are also more difficult to share – they can’t be uploaded as a google doc or emailed to a colleague, and they must be transcribed before they can be refined into a finished report or response. Depending on your field and employer, you may even have an obligation to keep notes organized and archived.

So, how can you get the most out of your notes? You might want to consider a combination technique, so that you can maximize efficiency and active engagement. You’ll be able to take comprehensive, shareable, organized notes, and you’ll have the opportunity to process them during and after the note-taking process.  For example, use a stylus to take notes on a touchscreen, or a graphics program to annotate a scanned document or snapshot.

If you decide you’d like to start with a word document, you can still use this theory to increase retention. As soon as possible, return to the document for a review. You don’t have to spend much time reading over your notes, but try to give yourself at least ten minutes to consider key points. If you have any thoughts to add, type them in. You can also use this time to reorganize your notes, or add formatting that will help you digest them later.

You can also play around with color coding, highlighting, bullet points, and other formatting cues – this will help you develop conceptual connections between different pieces of information. For a hi-tech trick to promote critical thinking and recall, consider collaboration – ask a coworker if they’d be interested in working with you on a shared google doc. Dialogue may inspire you.

Combination techniques can work in reverse as well. If you take notes using a pen and paper, consider scanning them so you can annotate or highlight portions. If you make a habit of scanning paper notes, you’ll have a searchable archive instead of a handful of paper scraps and post-its.

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Photo Credit: Pbs.org

Another option is to use a bullet journal format, with separate sections and indexes for easy reference. This elaborate organizational technique will ensure that any notes you create are indexed for future use and formatted so that you can expand on them whenever you want. Bullet journals often combine organization with art and color. Artistic flair can make note-taking more enjoyable, and some studies have shown that sketching and diagramming can promote recall.  We don’t recommend doodling during meetings, unless you work for Pixar, but you may want to try personalizing notes with visual cues.

Note-taking is a skill most people polish throughout their lives, and many people benefit from introducing new techniques. If you can, experiment with handwritten notes. Even if the “old school” option doesn’t boost your recall, it’ll give you a chance to refine your note-taking technique and explore your ability to process information.

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