You’d think that as a total tech nerd with at least 3 keyboards within reach at any given time and a typing speed of about 120 words per minute, I’d type all my notes. Mmm no. The thing I love second to digital planning in Notability on my iPad: Handwritten notes in Notability! In this post, I’ll go over:

  • Why 80% of the time, I handwrite my notes on my iPad Pro
  • How I take digital handwritten notes in Notability
  • Some tips for Notability for long-form note-taking
  • How I create personal “book reports” in Notability for everything I read
  • Frequently asked questions for iPad note-taking

Ryan Holiday said reading without taking notes is pointless. I fully support that. Pin for later Notability: The best iPad note-taking app for handwriting notes

Handwriting notes is the best way to learn stuff and remember things for writing later

The detriment to being a fast typer: you transcribe everything. Typing everything I see or hear doesn’t help me learn more or write better. Yes, it works for the 20% use case where I’m in a meeting and I need to remember literally everything I hear in order to reduce back-and-forth questions with a client. But otherwise, typing everything I see or hear is a disservice to my brain. Here’s when I write my notes by hand:

  • When I read anything (a book, article, or PDF)
  • Listening to a podcast or audiobook
  • Watching a video or an online course
  • When in a casual meeting or conversation where information isn’t being downloaded to me

Handwriting notes is the best way to learn stuff and create new things later.

Book Notes Template - Light Neutral But let me be clear: don’t just sit there and copy quotes. Absorb the information and then take the time to write notes in your own words. I do this in the book notes template I designed where I record “10 Actionable Takeaways.” By doing so, you’ll have reusable bits of credible information where you won’t have to worry about using words that are too close to the original author’s. You already translated the thoughts and ideas into your own way of thinking and speaking. Just remember to cite your source when you use the information later, whether you’re writing a piece or plugging it into your personal knowledge management system.

A chunked approach to taking notes while reading: Read-pause-read

Let’s take the example of reading a book. A personal aside: I try to use an ebook whenever I can, even when borrowing from the library. Yes, I still love and prefer paper books, but borrowing a book with instant delivery works better for my schedule as a busy mom with a full-time job. Also, in an anti-minimalist tech-head fashion, I use my iPad Mini as my reader and my iPad Pro as my notebook. Anyway… on with the post. When reading an ebook, I read one chapter or section at a time, highlighting anything important or noteworthy to me. Highlighting on the Kindle app on the iPad Mini or Apple Books app is easy. I do not type notes in the book to go along with the highlights… that process is too laborious and pointless in my flow. After I finish a chapter or section, I pause to take raw notes. I don’t take notes as I read. If I do that, I end up writing down way too much. Often, authors say the same thing several different times: through an introduction, illustrated examples, a conclusion, etc. So, I find it’s best to take a deep breath, find a chunk of time to take in the information, and then also give yourself a chunk of time to synthesize that information in your own words before you move on to the next thing.

How I take digital, long-form handwritten notes in Notability when reading

Notability is my favorite note-taking app for digital handwriting for several reasons. When taking raw notes, I use my book notes digital PDF template and I use the raw notes section. I also put the current date on top so I know when I took the notes, especially after it gets exported from Notability into a PDF. But all joking aside, this template allows enough space so you can go back in and make notes in the margin, which is especially helpful for writing or moving the notes into a Zettelkasten system later on. Some tips for note-taking in Notability:

Get a Paperlike screen protector

The best way to get used to writing on your iPad is with a Paperlike screen protector. Yes, these are more expensive than other matte, paper-feel screen protectors you’ll find on Amazon, but Paperlike is worth it. Without a screen protector, your pencil will feel slippery while writing on the surface of the iPad, and that can lead to messy notes which might deter you from continuing to take handwritten notes on the iPad.

Build a small library of favorite pens

In Notability, do some quick testing to see what pen color and type you want to use. I use the monoline version in a near-black color, with the second thinnest pen tip. Once you have that selected, tap the + Favorites button and you’ll see it pop up on a sidebar for easy access. I also recommend adding the whole eraser and the rectangular selector tool. For more annotated notes, you can also add a “red” pen to your arsenal and a highlighter, if you wish. Make it your own!

Long-press for a zoomed in experience

The only way my handwriting looks neat enough to read later is when I zoom in. The best way to do this is to long-press with the Apple Pencil which brings up an adjustable box. I personally keep it as zoomed-in as possible but play around with the box size to see what works best for you. I love this feature because the box auto-advances horizontally to the next place in the note, and then will automatically go to the next line once you reach the end.

Play with a grid or dotted template for more organized notes

If you’re feeling particularly particular, you can opt for a grid experience so your indented bullet points line up perfectly. Fun fact: you can change the template of your notes at any time, so if you wanted to take notes in a grid and then later change it to a blank background, you can make your friends ooh and ahh at your incredibly neatly lined up notes.

Frequently asked questions for handwritten notes on the iPad

Question: Is taking notes on an iPad effective?

Taking notes on your iPad isn’t only effective, but it could actually end up saving you more time later down the road. By handwriting your notes on your iPad, you’re taking the extra step to write down the information in your own words so you’re more likely to remember what you learn. Plus, in many note-taking apps, your handwriting is searchable so you’ll be able to find your notes easily, unlike writing in a notebook. Finally, when you’re handwriting versus typing your notes, you’re more likely to take notes on the overarching concepts instead of transcribing an entire lesson or book, especially if you’re a fast typer.

Question: Is the iPad Mini good for note-taking?

You’d think with a smaller screen size the iPad Mini wouldn’t be as effective for note-taking. It’s not the case! Notability has features optimized for note-taking with Apple Pencil, you don’t end up missing the screen real estate when taking handwritten notes on the iPad Mini. I love taking notes on my iPad Mini when I’m out and about with my family or if I don’t feel like packing my entire backpack.

Question: What are other apps that are good for note-taking with the iPad and Apple Pencil?

You might know I love Apple Notes. I think it’s a great, simple app for personal knowledge management. Plus the extra features for Apple Notes hidden within the iPad are fantastic. Apple makes it especially easy to take notes quickly within Apple Notes with:

  • Tap to wake: You simply start doodling on a sleeping iPad with the Apple Pencil, and Notes opens automatically (even while locked).
  • Quick notes: Swipe up from the bottom right of the iPad anytime to access your quick notes to create a new one.

Yes, there are apps like GoodNotes and Zinnia, but Notability and Apple Notes have special places in my heart because of the seamless scroll and great user experience design. I’d love to know: how do you take notes? Let me know in the comments below. Jenny Lee Jenn(y) is a full-time writer in health tech, blogging here as well. On Hello Brio, she helps others learn how to reduce stress through simplicity and creativity. Mama, minimalist, INTJ. Tell her your favorite food is (GF/DF) burritos, and she’ll be your bestie forever. Apple’s iPad has many different uses, one of which is using it to replace a tablet of paper and a pen, or a sketchbook and a pencil. There are a few different ways you can jot down your latest idea or quickly draw an example of what you want to create on the iPad. You’ll, of course, need an iPad and the appropriate Apple Pencil for your iPad model. I’ll include a list of which iPad model uses which version of the Apple Pencil at the bottom of this post.

1. How to use an Apple Pencil with the Apple Notes app

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet The easiest way to start using the Apple Pencil to take notes on your iPad is to open the Apple Notes app, tap the New Note/Compose button in the top-right corner and start writing or drawing. You don’t have to select the Apple Pencil icon before you start using it. That icon only brings up additional tools for you to change the type of tool the Apple Pencil is set to, like an erasure or a marker, along with ink color. The Notes app is able to identify handwritten text, allowing you to copy your handwriting as text, or if you switch to the pen tool with an «A» on it, your writing will be automatically converted to text as you write. It’s pretty accurate, even with my horrible handwriting. To copy your handwriting as text, long press on the first word until it’s highlighted. Next, drag the highlight selector tool until all of your writing is selected and then wait for the menu to show up, asking what you want to do with your selection.

2. How to take notes from the lock screen

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet This is a hidden feature that I admit I forget about all too often. You can start taking notes using the Apple Pencil directly from the lock screen, even when your iPad is asleep. Instead of waking and unlocking your iPad, then opening the Notes app, all you need to do is tap your iPad’s screen with the tip of your Apple Pencil. A blank note page will open, ready for you to start writing or sketching. Once you’re done, the document will be saved to the Notes app for future reference. You can control whether a new note is created each time you use this feature, or if the last note you were editing is opened by going to Settings > Notes > Access Notes from Lock Screen.

3. How to use Quick Notes on the iPad

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet Starting with iPadOS 15, Apple added a feature called Quick Notes to the tablet. Quick Notes lives as a popup that slides out of the bottom-right corner of the screen, letting you add links to whatever Safari page you’re currently on, or you can begin writing with your Apple Pencil and save it for future access. Trigger Quick Notes by swiping towards the middle of the screen from the bottom-right corner. The last Quick Note you were using will show up by default, or you can tap on the compose button and create a new note. All of your Quick Notes will be saved to the Notes app in a folder labeled Quick Notes.

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If you want to change which corner you use to trigger Quick Notes, open the Settings app, then select Apple Pencil and look for the Pencil Gestures section.

iPad and Apple Pencil compatibility list

The $129 second-generation Apple Pencil will work with the following iPad models:

  • iPad mini (6th generation)
  • iPad Air (4th generation and later)
  • iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd generation and later)
  • iPad Pro 11-inch (1st generation and later)

The $99 first-generation Apple Pencil will work with the following iPad models:

  • iPad mini (5th generation)
  • iPad (6th generation and later)
  • iPad Air (3rd generation)
  • iPad Pro 12.9-inch (1st and 2nd generation)
  • iPad Pro 10.5-inch
  • iPad Pro 9.7-inch

Not at all. The Apple Notes app comes preinstalled on your iPad and is completely free. Not only is it available on your iPad, but if you own a Mac or use an iPhone, your notes will sync between all of your Apple devices using your iCloud account. Tough call. There’s something intimate about writing notes on paper instead of a screen that helps me, personally, with retaining information. However, I also tend to lose or misplace notebooks. And it never fails, whenever I need to access a specific note from a meeting, my notebook is missing or is in my office when I’m nowhere near it. Taking notes on the iPad is an easy and convenient way to have all of your information with you at all times. It may, however, take some getting used to on your part. When I was studying medicine I took loads of notes on my old gen one iPad and also made a ton of handwritten notes as I’m pretty old school. Having something digital that could be used in lectures, on the wards and at home to centralise notes and studying was really helpful but the early iPad models had their limitations meaning I never really used them as much as I’d like. Fast forward to today where we have the apple pencil, M1 chips, XDR screens and millions of great learning apps and it’s a completely different story but it can be tricky figuring out a workflow that works for you which is why I wanted to share mine.

Why I Use The iPad Pro 12.9 For Taking Notes

So if we break things down there are really two ways of making notes. You can hand-write your notes using pen and paper and use things like colours and spider diagrams or you can type the notes up using anything from Word to note-taking apps like Evernote. From a personal perspective I can of dip in and out of both these methods of note-taking as they both have pros and cons so let’s look at what these are.

Pros and Cons of Hand-Written Notes

If you pushed me my preference is probably for handwriting notes. Handwriting is good because there’s a lot of evidence that if you handwrite your notes that increases retention of knowledge and actually aids understanding of topics. A 2014 study published in Psychological Science by researchers Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA found that when people type their notes, they have a tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can word for word. The students who were taking longhand notes in the studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing led to better conceptual understanding of the topic. When you handwrite your notes you categorize the topic into spider diagrams; you can use different colors; you can draw arrows or circle things and you can do all these things that mean that you’re processing more of the lecture or whatever you’re taking notes on and distilling it into the important bits in your handwritten notes. The fact that handwriting is quite slow means you have to be selective in what you put down which means you’re more inclined to distill and actually use your brain to make the notes. The main disadvantage of handwriting notes is that I used to end up with lots of disorganised pieces of paper and they were difficult to organise and search through compared to digital notes with a ctrl-f find function. Also if you’re like me and a doctor your handwriting is probably pretty bad and it can take a minute to figure out what you’ve written.

The Pros and Cons of Typing Notes

Typing your notes solves the problem of organization and quickly finding things as everything is synced and in the cloud. Typing also ensures that the information is clear and ordered logically with links to other resources where appropriate to aid understanding of a topic. The main problem with typing as mentioned in the previous study there is a tendency to just transcribe what the lecturer is saying and you’re quite passive and not really taking much in. My typing speed is pretty fast and so I fell into this trap on occasion before opting to bullet point notes and create active recall questions as I’ve mentioned in other posts and in my weekly newsletter that goes out every Sunday. In the Psychological Science Study into note taking researchers Mueller and Oppenheimer cited that note-taking can be categorized two ways: generative and non-generative. Generative note-taking pertains to «summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,» while non-generative note-taking involves copying something verbatim. And there are two hypotheses to why note-taking is beneficial in the first place. The first idea is all about encoding and says that when a person is taking notes, «the processing that occurs» will improve «learning and retention.» The second, called the external-storage hypothesis, is that you learn by being able to look back at your notes, or even the notes of other people. Because people can type faster than they write, using a laptop will make people more likely to try to transcribe everything they’re hearing and have readable notes for external storage and returning to but they are not engaging with or understanding the material.

The Best Way To Take Notes

Now moving forward to why I now use the iPad Pro and Apple pencil it’s because this method combines the advantages of both handwriting and typing notes and eliminates the disadvantages. I use EverNote and you also have all the search and sync functionalities that make typing notes really effective. With the only real disadvantage of the iPad Pro being that it’s pretty expensive even on the education discount pricing. This is the latest iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil 2.0 but I’ve also got a 2018 Pro and Apple Pencil 1 which is much cheaper so is worth considering if you’re a student on a tight budget. Now that being said if the price isn’t a blocker and you’re thinking of getting an iPad or if you’ve already got an iPad then you’ll want to watch the rest of this video because I’ll be giving you some tips on how I use Evernote the new OS and other tools to take notes in different scenarios.

The iPad Pro 12.9 vs Other iPads For Note Taking

So let’s talk about about which iPad I’d recommend for note-taking whether you are a student or a professional. I opted for the iPad Pro but there are lots of other options out here at the time of this video including the iPad Air and normal iPad both of which also have apple pencil support and there is even the iPad mini. I’ve put the prices over here as cost is often the main limiting factor. The standard iPad is about half the price of the Pro version and for most people who are just using an iPad for note-taking with pencil support this is a great entry option to go for where the mini is a bit too small. I picked up the 12.9 inch Pro version when it was released as I also use it for video and since it has the M1 chip it is really great for this higher-end function and allows me to use it more like I would a MacBook. I opted for the largest screen size possible as it allows me to have multiple tabs open at once which, as we’ll see in a second, is really key for taking notes. The iPad OS allows for the iPad screen to be used as a second screen or to mirror the screen of your Mac too using Apple’s Sidecar tool. You just click this one button and it will immediately make your iPad a second screen and I honestly cannot overstate how valuable having a big screen has been for me it improves my productivity and my efficiency so much as you can have an essay or blog that you’re writing open on one screen and then all of the internet research that you’re doing on the other. That extra screen real estate is really important. Similarly the iPadOS comes with multitasking and allows you to have multiple tabs open next to each other on screen. This is again a game-changer when taking notes or researching things or practising active recall questions as I can quickly jump between taps and compare. The screen on the 12.9 Pro is also an XDR display which not even the 11 inch Pro comes with and it makes a noticeable difference in image quality over the other iPads which have apple’s liquid retina screen. In terms of how it feels to write on screen with the apple pencil it’s the nearest feeling to writing on paper I’ve experience. I also picked up the magic keyboard for the Pro which is really nice and allows me to basically use the iPad Pro like I would a Mac. The only drawback here is the iPad operating system and file management which is nowhere near as robust as the MacOS so the Pro hasn’t fully replaced my Macbook Pro yet. My takeaway here is that if you can afford the larger screen size you definitely won’t regret it but if you’re on a budget the smaller screens are still great for note-taking basics.

The Top iPad Note-Taking Apps

So what apps do I use for taking notes? Well for me I use Evernote across all my Apple devices as it’s pretty streamlined and I’m not a fan of spending huge amounts of time highlighting things or making them look pretty with Apple Pencil art and find it quick to use. I have also used Notability and Goodnotes which are more stylised and again if you’d like a full comparison of the best apps let me know in the comments below. Both Evernote and Notability have some key features like being able to import PDFs and images to annotate and the ability to scan documents which is great if you are making notes about a book or want to screengrab a lecture slide. Both also let you import a range of files from cloud storage apps like Gdrive or Dropbox to then annotate which is really helpful especially for PDFs. When using the Apple Pencil Evernote will convert my handwriting into text pretty consistently and the sketch tool allows for more creative drawing. Notability is probably a little better here in terms of pencil and drawing options and it has some more aesthetic notebook layouts. But I’m pretty basic and prefer the ability of Evernote to get me straight into taking notes across all my devices. Evernote also allows for audio note and creating tasks from notes both of which I find really useful if I’m on the move or have an idea and want to record something or set a task reminder for later. I also use Evernotes’s clipping tool to store web articles and links across devices to create this centralised knowledge storage system or second brain. Whichever note-taking app you choose the key is choosing something that is easy enough to keep you consistent to build up your knowledge base. Now I want to talk you through some of the use cases that I find and how I use Evernote to take notes in those use cases so let’s start with lectures

Online Lectures and Courses

As a founder and CEO and just a massive learning nerd I’m always diving into online courses, webinars and remote training and for pretty much every university course there are now online lecture elements. If I’m watching a live webinar or pre-recorded course I’ll use the iPadOS multitask feature to have two tabs open side by side with the stream in one and Evernote in the other. I’ll then take down key notes with my Apple Pencil or make some active recall questions if I’m learning something and then I’ll add in a link to the recording to that note so I can refer back as needed. I’ll often add in timestamps here to help find things later and I’ll grab screenshots add them to the notes and annotate them to help illustrate points more clearly. This is where Evernotes handwriting recognition feature comes into its own as I can stay engaged writing down notes as I would on paper and then it converts this into nice legible text blocks.

In-Person Lectures and Events

For in-person lectures or events as I’ve covered in my how I take no notes video I will usually pre-read any lecture notes or the slides to get a general overview of the topic being covered and with Evernote I’ll upload any online materials or just link to them as part of my pre-lecture prep. When in the lecture itself I’ll use the iPad camera and either screenshot or record slides that are important and will actually write active recall questions as I’m listening into Evernote. As an example I was actually at an in-person event last month where I noted down key concept but also used the apple pencil and Evernote sketch function to draw a spider diagram around a key topic and then organised the note by the subject under a notebook in a logical order. Whether online or in-person I find that writing down notes with the pencil and creating active questions keeps me engaged and makes me think about topics rather than just typing down a dictated lecture or simply not taking notes and absorbing things passively. I can then come back to these notes anytime or add to them as needed.

Books and Handouts

If I’m learning from a book or I’ve been given a handout in a small group teaching setting I’ll usually use Evernote’s scanning tech to scan in a paragraph and directly create a note that I can annotate or edit. This is hugely helpful when creating a knowledge bank of book notes to remember everything that I read and I’ll often tag books by their category such as finance, business, self-development to help me find things really quickly. Equally if I’m in a small group teaching session and I’m working off a handout, workbook or practice sheet for something like a roleplay exercise for soft-skills I’ll use the same scanning function to scan in the relevant pages of the paper materials and then annotate on my iPad. Before doing this I lost loads of useful paper handouts or they just got crumpled up in my bag.

Real World Learning

When working as a surgeon and on the wards if I was doing simulation training, role-play or any kind of practical training there would often be times when I’d need to take notes and then look things up later. With the iPad I can quite quickly note down something that has come up as a learning point and then use mutlitasking split screen to google for further info and really understand the topic. Now that I run a number of ed-tech companies I’ll often use the iPad for taking down customer learning points from research workshops or for things like noting down employee coaching sessions. If you are a medical student and are observing in a clinical setting you can quickly have google search open next to your notes or the kindle version of your medical text book and quickly look things up that you don’t know. Patients and doctors are way more used to seeing students with iPads taking notes iPads are less conspicuous than laptops and easier to transport while being more professional than taking notes on your phone where people might think you are just on TikTok.

Day To Day NoteTaking

Finally I’ll use my iPad, Apple Pencil and Evernote for doing pretty much anything creative. If I’m planning out a YouTube video I’ll structure a note and then jot down ideas, highlight sections for adding in B-Roll and map out what I’m going to talk about. If I’m researching something for work or thinking about a new business idea the apple pencil and magic keyboard allow me to use the iPad Pro as a light-weight laptop that I can grab from my desk and spend some creative time planning things out. Equally if I’m talking with my team on slack or using collaborative tools like Miro to whiteboard and collaborate on ideas I might grab a screenshot of something annotate it or circle an important area and then quickly share it with the team. This has been a real game changer for me as sometimes it can be way quicker to explain something by annotating a screenshot or drawing a diagram by hand rather than explain things by typing. So those were some of the ways that I use my iPad Pro 12.9 along with Evernote to take notes. I hope you found that useful. To summarise we’ve talked about why I use the iPad Pro for note-taking over writing notes down on paper or typing them up and some of the evidence comparing those two note-taking methods. We’ve talked about the Apple Pencil and current iPad line and their pros and cons and we’ve dived into the apps that I use like Evernote and some of the use cases for taking notes with the iPad from my own experience.

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