Dose anyone take notes in a technical class using a Mathematica notebook?

If anyone does, how does it compare to paper and are there useful commands? I have a hard time remembering ctrl/alt/esc commands. I normally type faster than I write but typing equations is a pain. Especially considering that Mathematica (without Wolfram|Alpha) doesn't show the steps to a solution, which I sometimes want to copy down.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe I'm old fashioned but I think that nothing can replace pen and paper for taking notes in a math class (except maybe writing on a tablet computer with a pen). If the professor suddenly comes up with a non-standard notation or you need to make a quick sketch, you will need a pen. $\endgroup$ – Szabolcs Jan 25 '13 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe a code for a piece of paper to draw on is useful then. $\endgroup$ – fizzix Jan 25 '13 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ Anything is possible if you spend enough time to get skilled at it... $\endgroup$ – rm -rf Jan 25 '13 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ I'm personally a sucker for Livescribe pens, which allow you to take notes on paper, while simultaneously recording audio. The recording is synchronized with your written notes, so you can later click on something you wrote and hear what the professor (or whoever) was saying at the time. $\endgroup$ – Michael Stern Jan 25 '13 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ I've seen many note taking styles in class. I wouldn't recommend Mathematica for class notes because it doesn't have multiple Undo. It will drive you crazy. Use LyX instead. You can customize every last keyboard shortcut to the max, and it's got everything a real editor needs. But with any editor you still have the problem that you can't copy down graphics. That's why in an ideal world you should use a pen based solution (either digital as @MichaelStern said, or on real paper). $\endgroup$ – Jens Jan 25 '13 at 5:04

I did this for a little while, for mathematics lectures. It's faster than typing them in LaTeX, and very shortly you won't have trouble remembering the ctrl/alt/esc commands (which you should definitely learn). For the most part it's faster than writing. Two pieces of advice:

1) Audio record the lecture (it's polite to clear this with the lecturer beforehand). You can use your computer to do it, and you already have it out. If there's something spoken that you can't get down because you are fiddling with the interface, you can make a note of the time (or evaluate a function that does so) and go back later to complete the notes.

2) Have a plan in place in the event that diagrams are drawn. One option: take a picture of the board (it's polite to clear this with the lecturer beforehand).

I stopped for several reasons:

1) Too many diagrams, and at the time I had no way to take a picture.

2) Typing and writing is less hard on your hands than typing and typing.

3) Writing is more natural to me, even though it is slower. It's easier to concentrate when writing.

4) When the lecturer writes something incomprehensible, it's easy to copy the shape and figure it out later (if it's not a good time to ask).

5) Sometimes it is nice to two sheets of paper out at once.

  • $\begingroup$ Very good advice +1. I've done (and sometimes still do) this using a (tablet)[itechnews.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/… as a mouse, which helped to draw uglily when nothing else worked. Ctrl+1, double ff to stick the freehand and you are ready to go $\endgroup$ – Rojo Jan 26 '13 at 17:33

I do. I am a graduate physics student whose been using mathematica for notes in my math and science classes for years.

A couple comments:

I am actually quicker at Mathematica than handwriting because I've spent the last 4 years practicing, however I only got this fast through practice. Specifically I TAed a Mathematica course for 2 semesters and had to work at it for about 4 months before I could keep up with my professors while typing my notes.

You NEED to know the keyboard shortcuts for this to work. If you can't remember what the shortcut for integral is (hint: *esc i n t *esc) you might as well be typing in microsoft word because the amount of time to look up will be the same.

Now the comparison:


  • You will always be able to read your notes (my handwriting was unreadable but I never have that problem with mathematica
  • You will always know the difference between similar symbols (for example I don't know many people who can distinguish k and kappa or row and p or 1, lowercase l, and uppercase I when writing quickly)
  • You have way more symbols available to you than when writing. In mathematica you have access to bold and italics as well as script, gothic, greek, and double struck letters. You don't have nearly this freedom with a pen and paper.
  • You can switch between pictures, text, and math equations quite easily
  • You can email your notes to a friend much easier than when they are written (just email them a PDF)
  • You save money on erasers and pens/pencils/ note paper
  • Your notes last forever and are neatly organized wherever you save them


  • If you don't know the symbol or even worse if mathematica doesn't have the symbol (I'm thinking of you Griffith's scriptR) then you cannot write it. This can be extremely frustrating.
  • You no longer have the liberty to draw whatever you want (coordinate planes) in your notes (there is a solution to this however)
  • If your notes become corrupted then you lose them forever
  • It is really hard to properly format matrices and tables (although it is possible, this is usually what causes my notes to become corrupted) especially if there are empty elements
  • It is impossible to use mismatched parenthesis, brackets, and braces in math mode
  • You cannot have multiple columns of text on the same page
  • Typing in mathematica is a skill literally nobody else uses so you won't be able to use it for anything except your own notes

Now that you've had the comparison here are some tricks if you actually want to try using Mathematica (these are window based, I think macs and linex have similar shortcuts):

  • know the keyboard shortcuts. While you are learning them you can refer to the palettes to access them quickly. Specifically the classroom assistant, the special characters palette and the basic typesetting palette
  • learn when to use the different environments. I use *alt 4 for document titles, *alt 5 for section headings, *alt 6 for sub sections, *alt 7 for text, *alt 9 with *ctrl+*shift+t and *ctrl+b for equations, and *alt 9 computational commands (which can be evaluated)
  • use *window+*shift+s for taking quick screen shots of part of the screen which can then be pasted into the document as a picture (this allows you to draw quick pictures in another program such as One Note or Powerpoint that can be pasted into Mathematica)

Good luck


My ideal setup

A (convertible) Tablet PC that can be used with a pen. You can then use OneNote to take handwritten notes while at the same time recording audio from the lecture. The nice thing about this approach is that your notes will be linked to the audio, making it easy to go back in time mentally. Whenever I've used this type of approach, it always amazed me how hearing the 'sound of the room' enhanced my ability to get back into the flow of the material/moment.

As long as your tablet is running a 'regular' (non-ARM) processor you can also then run Mathematica on you machine at the same time, switching back and forth between your notebook taking app of choice (Evernote is an alternative to OneNote). FYI, when taking class notes, I almost always used my tablet in 'laptop mode' so I could type or use the pen as needed.

Other setups:

If you only have a laptop, I'd recommend having Mathematica up and running, but I would not recommend it for typing notes 'on the fly'. IMO, it's always best to take handwritten notes (and research I've read backs this up). So likewise, if you only had a non-convertible tablet at your disposal, I'd recommend using it for taking handwritten notes (and recording audio, if possible/allowed).

After class you could type up and revise your notes in Mathematica as part of your study routine. However, the usefulness of this approach will IMO depend on the amount/type of mathematical content involved in the class. Explicit, well formed examples/problems work best, whereas purely symbolic examples/problems can lead to headaches rather quickly (depending on what your trying to accomplish and how good you are in Mathematica).

General advice:

Whatever you choose, don't let tools disrupt your workflow or derail you from what you actually need to accomplish. (Mathematica can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your level of expertise and your ability to stay on task. I've lost many an hour bouncing around the documentation center, playing, etc...)


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