Onenote is a great tool, and it really limits its usefulness when basic features aren't supported across platforms. Frankly, it's embarrassing for a company like Microsoft to not be able to add simple features to their Android app, when Microsoft is now supposedly 'all in' on Android. 6) Install Anki; Let’s make some basic anki flashcards. Basic is the simplest of them all, that’s what I always use & feel comfortable with. Flashcard Content Creation using Google Docs / Word Online / OneNote Online –.
OneNote/Evernote: One-way interaction: you find and read information (your notes); it’s a personalized Google for indexing and organization
Onenote To Anki
SuperMemo: Two-way interactions: information finds you; you turn information into knowledge
Note: This is an unjust comparison if what you want from a note-taking system is just knowledge management: storing notes. However, if what you want is more than that, and is also about helping you learn (which I believe should be), then SuperMemo trashes any note-taking system by orders of magnitude. Read on.
1. Intended uses of any note-taking system (summarization, highlighting and re-reading)
Another similar discussion: 3 Fatal Reasons Why You SHOULDN’T Be Taking Notes When Studying
Two typical use cases:
You’re reading a textbook for your class. You write down a condensed version in OneNote/Evernote. After finishing your notes you re-read them “frequently” before exam (next week or month).
Another case: you take notes for every book you read. You have a note collection for all the books you’ve read over the years. You review them frequently or “once in a while”.
What are the problems?
Two Critical Flaws in Any Note-taking System
The above two cases can be broken down into two components:
1. Creating notes (by summarizing and highlighting)
2. Reviewing notes (by re-reading)
1. Creating notes
Refer to the following table. Summarization and highlighting are not effective.
2. Reviewing notes
I. Re-reading is not effective
II. Unsustainable review schedule
“Review frequently” is unsustainable in the long-term. When your note collection grows, it’s impossible to maintain a re-reading review schedule. Most people are not aware that you need to review them. Even if they do, in most cases it’s “maybe two or three times” (in a year maybe?) There’s no review-schedule system.
For instance, you have 30 books in your “Book notes” collection, when are you going to re-read each book note? If you’re a dedicated learner, without a review-schedule system, you will have to manually keep track of all the review schedules. Perhaps you alert yourself (by some calendar notifications) to re-read your book notes. Since “reviewing sporadically” means more than one time, say 3 times: 30 books x 3 times = 90 calendar events. This is the equivalence of implementing a paper-and-pen Leitner system: how are you going to maintain 10,000 paper flashcards? It gets tedious and very quickly impossible when your note numbers grow. In most cases all of your notes just sit there collecting (digital) dust after its creation.
In Why Obsidian Will Overtake Roam ([6:12]), He said, “Evernote shaped me into being an undisciplined hoarder, recklessly collecting other people’s thoughts.”
The same holds true when it comes to managing bookmarks. We stumble upon an interesting web page and don’t want to lose the information, thus we keep it as a bookmark. The digital pile of bookmarks isn’t any different from a tangible pile of papers we consider worth knowing. Here, too, kept isn’t read, though. - The Collector’s Fallacy
Here’s how Ollie Lovell puts it:
Originally I’d make notes in Word docs, but I’d never revisit them. Then I made them in google docs, but I’d never revisit them. Then I made them in Evernote, but I’d never revisit them. And most recently I’ve been making them in emails and emailing them to myself. This final method was a little better, but it still seemed a massive chore to revisit the copious notes I’d made at a conference, follow up all the links, and try to make Anki cards out of the good bits (often not deeply learning before memorising).
So creating notes by summarizing and highlighting is ineffective (#1). Reviewing notes (through re-reading) is also ineffective (#2.1) while at the same time unmaintainable and unsustainable (#2.2). So any note-taking system provides very little value and mostly is just wasted effort. In most cases, any note-taking system is just that: it’s nothing more than an organized note collection.
Any Note-taking System vs. SuperMemo
1. When to Review (Manual vs. Automatic)
2. Interaction (Passive vs. Active)
3. The goal of taking notes (An end in itself vs. Launchpad for flashcards)
1. When to Review
Scheduling when to review:
Any note-taking system: manually look for the information for review. But this brings up the problem with meta-judgment:
How do you know when you should review your notes?
You don’t know. We don’t know what we don’t know and what we need to know. Gwern’s Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning captures this paradox:
It doesn’t help that it’s pretty difficult to figure out when one should review - the optimal point is when you’re just about to forget about it, but that’s the kicker: if you’re just about to forget about it, how are you supposed to remember to review it? You only remember to review what you remember, and what you already remember isn’t what you need to review!
SuperMemo: Automatic scheduling for review (distributed practice): Algorithm to feed me the information based on priority queue and feedback
Distributed practice means a definitive review schedule: spacing your review schedule across weeks and months for a particular book note. Distributed practice only concerns with the when, not the how. In other words, even if you’re having none of the “flashcard-recall nonsense” and do zero active recall, SuperMemo will schedule EACH of your book note for re-reading weeks or months into the future. This avoids the “unsustainable manual review schedule” problem above.
Passive: Having a list of bookmarked websites or a seemingly-not-ending reading list.
Active: Importing them into SuperMemo so that they will show themselves in the future.
In any note-taking system you have to look for the information. In SuperMemo the information looks for you.
Reading an article I imported into SuperMemo over a year ago.
2. Interaction (Passive vs. Active)
Any note-taking system: Passive interaction
As I mentioned in the above “Two Critical Flaws in Any Note-taking System”: Summarizing is not passive but highlighting and re-reading are passive.
In a note-taking system, you don’t actively maintain your information. You don’t do active recall with it. Mostly you don’t rewrite, expand, elaborate or modify the content. All you have are pieces of digital notes laying there.
SuperMemo: Active interaction
In SuperMemo, you have an outstanding queue. Think of it as a conveyor belt: you are fed with your information. They are coming to you. For each piece of information you have to actively maintain it:
For topics (articles) [Incremental Reading]:
1. Ignore it by pressing Next (i.e., read another time)
2. Delete it (no longer needed)
3. Read it and then decide to:
I. Extract important bits
II. Set Reading Point (
Ctrl + F7) if you’re not finished
For Items (flashcards):
1. Recall the answer and provide grading feedback:
- Failed recall: (automatic schedule to try again)
- Successful recall: SuperMemo schedules it weeks, months, or years into the future
2. Rephrase, condense, remove unnecessary bits
3. Delete it
Do you see how much more interaction you have with SuperMemo than a note-taking system? Maybe you can do all these manually in a note-taking system, but it’s not “part of the standard practice”, the critical flaw being the lack of a review-schedule system. The typical use case, as I mention above, is “summarize and re-read it once or twice”.
Any note-taking system: You do something TO it. SuperMemo: You play with it.
Side note: Anki is in the middle between a note-taking system and SuperMemo:
Anki has the active recall component for items but no measure to deal with the source/notes (Incremental Reading). Without a scheduling algorithm for the source materials (Incremental Reading), you’ll most likely to batch import all of you notes into Anki and then make flashcards out of them at one time.
3. The goal of taking notes (An end in itself vs. Launchpad for flashcards)
Any note-taking system: An end in itself: Taking notes is the end goal
SuperMemo: For further processing (turning into flashcards)
The end goal of taking notes is not about having a polished set of summarized, highlighted and re-organized notes for passive review later. If you think taking notes means “having already gained the knowledge”, you’re in for a rude awakening. For example, Google is a massive information library, but having access to knowledge doesn’t mean gaining the knowledge. By the same token, you have access to a personalized materials… and it is just that. It doesn’t mean you’ve learned it.
If taking notes should not be the end goal, then what is?
It’s a launchpad for the next step: turning relevant information into testable materials (aka flashcards). You break down all the information into testable chunks so that you can test yourself. In this perspective, taking notes is about gathering relevant information for flashcards. The goal of taking notes should be making flashcards out of them. People think taking notes is an end in itself. No, it’s a means to the next step:
Learning sources (lecture PDFs, tutorial videos, reading materials) —> take notes —> flashcards
Incremental Reading: Take notes from the source —> extracts into flashcards
Taking Notes is About Selecting Relevant Information
In terms of the SOI-model from Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies that Promote Understanding, taking notes is mostly about the first step, the S: Selecting relevant information from sensory memory (from the instruction (your learning material)).
Taking notes is just a means to capture the information that you find important or relevant. For example, the notes you take for an important exam will be much different than the one you take from leisure reading. What you’re going to do with the captured information is another story.
Take another look at the above table. Flashcards is the direct application of practice testing (high utility), distributed practice (high utility) and interleaved practice (moderate utility). The best way to implement these learning strategies is through flashcards; the best way to use flashcards… you guess it, is through SRS (SuperMemo/Anki).
Knowledge Management in a Note-taking System is Just Busywork
Before SuperMemo, I was using OneNote. I had folders and sessions and pages of notes, organized and tagged. Here’s a screenshot of my OneNote from 2016. It’s the notes I took for the book--- Gasp!Make It Stick:
It’s true that OneNote (or Evernote) has a lot of functionalities that SuperMemo doesn’t have: synchronization, built-in OCR, modern and pretty UI design and interface, mobile version to “look up and review whenever and wherever you want”.
You can have the cleanest, most detailed, meticulously classified, instantly searchable, well-tagged and organized notes in a note-taking system, synchronized across all 5 devices. However, without the vital ingredient that is spaced retrieval practice (three points discussed above), it is pretty useless. All those are just bells and whistles because what matters is what you do with the information.
Any note-taking system is just a collection of blank pieces of digital paper that you can write on. There isn’t any inherent feature that promotes learning: active recall, distributed practice (scheduled to review later), feedback system to interact with your information. Without a rich interaction with your knowledge system, you’re more or less just a human version of Google indexing various information that is not knowledge.
You’re trashing on any note-taking system that is not SuperMemo.
I think they all belong to the same category (learning tools) so this comparison is not out-of-bounds (at least in my mind). SuperMemo is much more than a note-taking system, but nonetheless it also is a note-taking system. Besides, if there is one best learning strategy (there is), then any strategy that is not that, is sub-optimal. Refer back to the above utility assessment table:
Practice testing: ✔
Distributed practice: ✔
Interleaved practice: ✔
Only two techniques are rated high and SuperMemo (or Anki for that matter) has it.
At this point, I realized this discussion is a manifestation of our different beliefs about how to learn, in which it’s reflected in the tools we use:
Note-taking system: summarize and highlight from the source material; re-read “sporadically” or “frequently”
Spaced repetition software (SuperMemo/Anki): retrieval practice (active recall), distributed practice, interleaved practice
I’m not trashing on any particular note-taking system (OneNote or Evernote). To put it bluntly, I’m trashing on all note-taking systems. It’s just that the “standard practice” of note-taking is not useful or effective. By extension, the system that supports this goal is also not very useful and effective. To put it in another way, SuperMemo has completely revolutionized the way I think about learning, information and knowledge to the extent that now I think any note-taking system (OneNote or Evernote) is mostly useless.
Table of contents
If you're looking to level up your approach to studying, look no further. In this list, I've broken down all of my favourite apps that have helped me over the years, and I'm sure you'll love them as much as I do.
Flashcards – Anki, Quizlet
Anki Onenote Importer
The main flashcard software I use is an app called Anki. Anki is a very powerful flashcard program that allows you to make your own cards or download decks created by other people. Crucially it uses an algorithm built around active recall and spaced repetition and learns as you progress through your studies and revision. I cannot emphasise enough how important active recall and spaced repetition are for studying and so to have it built into this app really is fantastic. Personally, I found Anki particularly useful for two key things:
1. Firstly, memorising particular facts – for example, as a medical student I used it a lot for pharmacology – learning the names of drugs and what they do.
2. Secondly, I also used it to help memorise particular paragraphs that I could slot into appropriate essays.
One of my friends from university actually switched from making notes in lectures to going straight to making flashcards with Anki and he managed to finish top in our end of year exams. Perhaps one of the downsides of Anki is that it does require more work to create your cards but the spaced repetition algorithm that it uses, which you can customise, is absolutely fantastic.
Although I have less experience using it, Quizlet is an equally effective flashcard app for using across multiple platforms. One advantage that it can claim to hold over Anki is its superior user interface. It’s really simple to set-up and navigate, allowing you to easily create your own cards or download appropriate ‘decks’ that have been made by other students. The app is used by over 50 million students and teachers worldwide, so you’ll have access to literally millions of sets before you’ve even made your own. The downside is that the app is supported by ads – you can upgrade at a reasonably low cost but it means it’s not entirely free like Anki.
As you can see, they each have their pros and cons – I would perhaps try using both and see which one works better for you. Ultimately, they both do very similar things – I preferred Anki, but 50 million students who use Quizlet each month can’t all be wrong.
Note-Taking – Evernote, OneNote, Notion, Notability
Although evidence suggests that note-taking isn’t the best way to study, we can still derive benefit from taking notes to supplement our revision (which should be based around active recall and spaced repetition). I’ve used a range of note-taking apps during my time as a student and as a doctor, but these are my favourites.
One of the main reasons I don’t really use OneNote as much anymore is because I found Notion. Notion really changed the note-taking and organisational game for me. It really is a multi-functional and incredibly useful app allowing you to categorise topics, break down subjects into series of toggles and it’s probably become the all-in-one workspace for everything in my life – from planning YouTube videos to organising notes to keeping track of to-do lists – in fact, I’m trying to transform Notion almost into my ‘second brain’. I really cannot speak highly enough of Notion and I’ve done a number of specific videos about how I use Notion which you can find here and here. If there is one app that you decide to download from this list, then make it Notion…
Evernote has been a really popular resource for a number of years now which means that it’s a developed and trusted note-taking app. It’s packed full of different functions that enable you to consolidate your work in one place as well as categorise different subjects. One other useful feature is the ability to instantly (and easily) search for anything in your notes or files. This might seem simple but so often this is more difficult than it should be with these sorts of apps! Finally, it works across multiple devices which is always helpful and convenient as your information is always with you. Once again, it’s not actually an app that I’ve used extensively but that’s got nothing to do with the quality of Evernote.
OneNote is often the forgotten sibling of the Microsoft Office applications – it’s often in the shadow of its more well-known relatives – Word, Excel and PowerPoint. But it shouldn’t be. OneNote is a very powerful tool for capturing and organising your notes within an interface which is relatively simple to use. Personally, I relied on OneNote extensively when I was a student in order to keep track of all my handwritten notes which I would scan in and then add to using the infinite horizontal canvas provided by OneNote. If you haven’t checked it out before and you’ve got a Microsoft Account, then it’s definitely worth having a look.
Unlike the previous suggestions, Notability is a handwritten note-taking app. I’ve done a series of videos on how I took notes on an iPad using Notability and I still use the app today for both work-related things as well as planning videos for my YouTube channel or writing down ideas for blog articles like this. If you want a good note-taking app for your tablet, then Notability is certainly the one I’d recommend.
To-Do Lists – Todoist
Todoist is perhaps the most popular task manager in the world. It’s used by over 20 million people and has a range of really simple but highly effective functions built into an interface that is really simple to use. Like the name suggests, you can input to-do lists, plan your day, keep track of deadlines, organise modules and generally keep track of your work all in one place.
Revision Timetables – Google Sheets
Once I began to appreciate the power of spaced repetition and realised that retrospective revision timetables are far superior to the standard timetables most people rely on, I came to rely upon Google Sheets as it provided the perfect platform for a retrospective timetable technique based around spaced repetition. I have discussed more about what this particular system is in this blog post and in this video where I explain why retrospective timetables are highly effective and I preferred using Google Sheets specifically because it gives you access across devices – removing unnecessary friction of having to rely on having the latest software to open certain files. The other major advantage is that it’s free.
Pomodoro Techniques – Focus, Forest
I've actually written a blog post examining this technique (here) and, as I say in that article, ultimately, the Pomodoro technique relies on a timer and so you could use something as simple as a watch to put this technique into practice. However, certain apps have built-in functionality to allow you to work to the Pomodoro rhythm of working for 20 minutes, resting for 5 minutes and repeating that process for four cycles. Below are two apps that I've come across in my studies using this method...
Forest is perhaps superior to other Pomodoro apps because it incorporates both the Pomodoro technique with another means of keeping you focussed and not distracted by your phone – namely, you plant a tree whenever the timer begins and if you go off the app during the 20/25 minute period, the tree dies. It’s an interesting way to help keep you focused through using the Pomodoro technique as well as working on overcoming the distractions emanating from your phone by making sure you stay on the Forest app. I found it helpful and it’s really satisfying to see a forest sort of grow up the more Pomodoros you successfully complete without getting distracted! The only disadvantage – it’ll set you back an eye-watering £1.99
Anki Onenote Sign In
Focus is another app that my friend has used which is simple but effective (and free).
Journaling – Day One
You may be wondering why you’d want to be writing anything else if you’re hard at work revising but there’s actually quite a lot of evidence to suggest that journaling can have some really positive effects. For instance, how simply writing down a small list of things that you are grateful or thankful for each day can do more to boost your personal happiness than increases in salary. When you’re revising, a positive frame of mind is invaluable in reducing the friction of working and, perhaps, might make revision something which is enjoyable…perhaps…certainly I got some benefits from writing my thoughts down on a daily basis. Whilst some people prefer to use a physical journal, the app that I’ve used is…
Anki Onenote Download
Easy to use and simple to keep track of your notes. I’ve got a number of different ‘journal streams’ – for instance one recording my daily thoughts and another which records positive comments that I’ve received on YouTube or Instagram for instance. I’ve certainly got some benefits out of keeping track of things in this way so why not give it a go yourself…
And if this was helpful...
If you enjoyed my study app lowdown, check out my Apps and Tech pages too.