How to Take Notes with Technology: Far Beyond the Cornell Method with Cognitive Productivity

There are several good reasons to take notes about information you process. Most people don’t, because they lack note taking systems or the motivation to use them. Technology has made note taking both easier and harder. Easier, because one now has more tools than ever to take , organize and find notes. Harder, because there is now what seems to many to be an unmanageably large amount of information to take notes about.

Moreover, none of the tools are entirely satisfactory in themselves. For example, note taking apps such as Evernote® and Microsoft® OneNote® have major drawbacks, such as locking your information in an opaque, proprietary database (remember Lotus Notes?) whose contents cannot be accessed using standard file management utilities. To use Sharon Bratt’s expression, they have low “pedagogical utility” —despite their appeal for certain problems, they are the opposite of what you need to stretch your mind when “delving” potent content.

Furthermore, most people are never adequately taught how to take notes. And if they do turn to study skills texts, do they really stand to gain? I have reviewed many study strategy textbooks used in universities, and they almost all merely parrot old methods of note taking. Allyson F. Hadwin, and Katherine L. Tevaarwerk of the University of Victoria systematically analyzed 53 college-level study skills textbooks. 48% of the books had no references. Of those that did, 88% referred to other study skills texts: Rather circular! They wrote: “Apart from two texts (VanderStoep & Pintrich, 2003, and Nist & Holschuh, 2003), both written by authors with educational psychology research backgrounds, we found little evidence of contemporary research and theories about learning being used to frame the content and presentation of these texts.”

To my knowledge, these texts universally fail to provide adequate guidance on selecting and using technology. One gets the sense that their authors, themselves, are not particularly competent with technology. I have yet to find such a textbook written by someone who has an advanced degree in computer science. [Note 1] Yet the technical problems of note taking are now non trivial. So, students are literally left to their own devices.

Nevertheless, we should take notes at least about some of the most useful, potent, high caliber content we process, otherwise we will either forget it exists or fail to use its “knowledge gems”. In other words, note taking is essential to cognitive productivity.

Chapter 12, Delve, of Cognitive Productivity provides detailed solutions to these problems (40 US letter size pages!).

  • It presents important research on how expert readers read.
  • It explains annotation concepts and tools.
  • It shows how to tag entire resources. (Yes, tagging is actually a form of annotation.)
  • It explains how to tag snips of text and images. This is a concept that Phil Winne (Professor & Canada Research Chair in Self-Regulated Learning and Learning Technologies) and I developed at Simon Fraser University, which I call inner tagging.
  • It introduces the potent concept of meta-doc, a structured, outline based note-taking schema I developed.
  • It provides a powerful new template for analyzing key concepts. This is something that serious thinkers occasionally need to do.
  • It shows you how to quickly create and access your meta-docs (your notes). That’s important because one of the main reasons people give up on note-taking is that they don’t have good systems for quickly filing and accessing their notes! [Note 2]
  • It explains how to delve various media: e-books, podcasts, audiobooks, videos, etc.
  • It even suggests how to organize your work space so that you can actively process information over long periods of time.

Meanwhile, Chapter 9 of Cognitive Productivity provides detailed guidance on organizing and managing information on your computer. Chapter 11 provides many tips for assessing knowledge resources in terms of their Caliber, Utility, Potency and Appeal: “CUPA” (meaning, helpfulness).

Note 1: My own Ph.D., incidentally, was in Cognitive Science, being in the School of Computer Science of the University of Birmingham, England. The approach I took in Cognitive Productivity was to combine cognitive science (including but not limited to educational psychology) and technological methods.

Note 2: I am about to add a free “extra” to the Leanpub edition of Cognitive Productivity: An OmniOutliner meta-doc template, which I will blog about shortly.


Beaudoin, L. P. Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. CogZest: Pitt Meadows, BC.

Bratt, S. E. (2009). Development of an instrument to assess pedagogical utility in e-Learning systems. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC.

Hadwin, A. F. & Tevaarwerk, K. L. (2011, unpublished manuscript). Are we teaching university students to strategically self-regulate their learning? An analysis of contemporary study skills textbooks. (35 pp.).

Nist, S. L., & Holschuh, J. P. (2003). College success strategies. New York: Longman.

VanderStoep, S. W., & Pintrich, P. R. (2003). Learning to learn: The skill and will of college success. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

3 thoughts on “How to Take Notes with Technology: Far Beyond the Cornell Method with Cognitive Productivity”

  1. Hi, enjoying your site/book. With regards to pdf readers/annotation tools I wonder if you have come across Highlights App for Mac? I use it a lot and it can be configured to automatically do much of what you talk about in your book – colour coding / categorisation etc and annotations and notes can be exported directly to a number of tools. Definitely worth a look!

    1. Thank you, Stuart. was released in 2014, after the initial publication of Cognitive Productivity. There are some strategies I recommend that can’t be implemented with However, I agree it’s a useful app. Its sync feature in particular is a major benefit. We will cover it in our next book, based on Cognitive Productivity, that will be published in 2016. Cheers, Luc

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