Do you feel like your note-taking skills could use some improvement? Does it feel like you are aware of the information in class, but when you look back over your notes it is hard to decipher what you were recording? Please do not worry, there are some simple steps you can take to improve how you take your notes so they can best serve you in your learning. Effective notes will help in your understanding of the concepts, retention of the information, and potentially reduce stress during exam preparation.

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The Benefits of Good Notes

Good notes can be transformative in your learning process, leading to increased retention and recall of information later as well as a reduction in in the stress associated to exams or assessments in your classes. If you are able to organize your approach to note-taking from the start, it can save you time and energy in reviewing the course content and in your test preparation strategies.

How To Take Good Notes

With the right preparation and strategies in place, good notes taken in class can be monumental in helping students to not only record the information given (Remembering and Understanding in Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid), but can foster deeper learning – ideally achieving higher Bloom’s taxonomic levels (e.g., Applying, Analyzing). In order to take good (effective) notes in class, the first step is Preparation. Coming to class prepared to learn will enable you to follow the content that is covered and have the awareness of the context of the information presented. Here are some strategies to help prepare you for taking good notes in class:

  • Previewing the course material. This allows you to develop the awareness of what material will be covered and how this potentially relates to the material previously addressed in the class. (See Study Strategies for more on this strategy)
  • Use the Course Syllabus. This can help serve as a road map for the course, providing an outline for the topics or concepts to be covered.
  • Reviewing previous class notes. This can help to serve as a refresher for what material was covered in class before, and potentially help to provide the context for the new content to be addressed.
  • Organization is key! Taking some advanced preparation steps to organize how you take your notes and how to store those notes to use later is paramount. Think about what will be fit your needs when taking notes and how do you want to use those notes later when completing homework assignments, writing a paper in the class, or studying for an exam. Having individual notebooks or separate notebook sections for each class can help to keep those notes in an organized fashion and in the chronological order to which they were taken – which can help when reviewing over previous class notes in preparation for an upcoming class.

Keep in mind that taking good notes in class can help ensure you are actively engaged in the learning process – helping focus your attention on the topic being addressed as well as draw connections to previous class discussions.

To Type, Write, or Both?

This may (or may not!) come as a shock to some, but the way you take your notes in class can influence the effectiveness of your notes for reference during your study sessions. There may be confusion on your part if it is more effective and/or productive to type your notes using a computer or tablet in the classroom, verses writing your notes by hand. The answer is… it depends. If you are in a course where there is a quick pace, a fast discussion covering over a lot of material at once, then it may be more productive on your part to write your notes by hand. If the material being covered is primarily written on the board by the instructor (i.e., equations and formulas in a STEM class), then it may be more productive/effective to also write your notes by hand.

However, some of the tablet technology now allows you to “write” out your notes like you would using a pen and paper – so if that is more conducive to your learning then try it. If typing your notes allows you to capture all of the content being covered in an organized and methodical fashion, then go ahead. But keep in mind, when using technology in the classroom there can be an increased temptation to get off task (i.e., browsing the internet or looking through social media). Even if you do not think that little moments here and there are distracting from your ability to focus in the classroom, you can inadvertently be distracting your neighbors. If you want to read more on this topic, go here: Technology and Student Distraction – Harvard Bok Center

What Method is Right for Me?

Below are five different note-taking methods that have been shown to be effective for students to organize their thoughts, capture the breadth of material covered in class, and ease the burden on their learning process.

Cornell Method

This method helps you organize your notes into a more uniform and methodical way. By sectioning off your notes into three main sections (Cues, Notes, and Summary) you will be able to quickly synthesize much of the information in one place.

How to: Set up your notes page into three sections: Cues, Notes, and Summary.

The Cues section is a 2.5” margin on the left side of the paper. This is where you write down the major points, ideas, prompts, or questions you may have from the class discussion.

The Notes section is a 6” section in the middle and right side of the page. This is where you record the main points and details discussed in class. You will need to work on paraphrasing your notes in this section. Verbatim notes are not as effective in developing deeper learning compared to the exercise of you putting the information into your own words – distilling down the information to the key points or issues.

The Summary section is a 2” section at the bottom of the page that you complete after class – providing a summary of the lesson, class discussion, and highlights from the topic(s) covered.

Suggestions when to use: This method is most effective when notes are taken by hand. To have effective Cornell Notes you are strongly encouraged to have done some previewing of the course materials so you are aware of the breadth of material to be covered and how best to outline or structure your notes accordingly. Cornell Notes are applicable for any discipline.

ExampleHere is an example of Cornell Notes.

Mapping Method

This method is a highly visual way of formatting your notes and can be beneficial when understanding the relationships between multiple sources of material, content, or curriculum is necessary.

How to: Set up your notes page by major topics, with subtopics branching off of the main/major topics – allowing you to provide further information and detail.

Suggestions when to use: This methods is useful when needing a more visual way to organize your notes – allowing you to learn about the relationships between topics. It is helpful to do some previewing of the material ahead of class for this note-taking method, because it will allow you to have an idea of how much space you will need when establishing the relationships across multiple topics.

ExampleHere is an example of Mapping Method Notes.

Outlining Method

This method is potentially the most commonly used note-taking approach – using headings with accompanying sub-headings and bullet points to help organize the different topics covered.

How to: Begin your notes with the main overarching topic as the center heading. Each topic covered starts as a header on the left-hand size of the page, with corresponding subtopics as subheadings that are slightly indented to the right. Be sure to list any detail or fact provided about that topic below the corresponding heading or subheading, with a slight right indention.

Suggestions when to use: This can be beneficial when covering material with a lot of detail. This method can allow for your notes to be easily organized. You can also easily turn your bullet point notes into study questions.

ExampleHere is an example of Outlining Method Notes.

Charting Method

The Charting Method uses columns to organize your notes – helpful when the topics covered have a lot of information or facts to know.

How to: Create a new column header for every new topic covered. All information provided on that topic will go underneath that column header. Multiple columns can be placed on a single page, helping you see the breadth and depth of information covered on each topic and for each class period.

Suggestions when to use: This method is helpful when covering material with a lot of detail and/or facts. This may be helpful in a humanities course where dates, locations, a description of the person, place, or thing is necessary to know.

ExampleHere is an example of Charting Method Notes.

Sentence Method

The Sentence Method consists of quick, paraphrased notes on the material covered in class. This can be most helpful in fast paced courses that cover a lot of material.

How to: Paraphrase the information provided in class – distilling down the content into the most important points in one to two sentences at a time. Therefore, each sentence (or few sentences) is a separate topic. This note-taking method can incorporate headings for each main topic covered.

Suggestions when to use: This method is beneficial when the course material is covered more of a conversational style by the instructor or the class as a whole. Writing down the main points given rather that word for word will allow you to follow the progression of thought. It will also help you to realize what is the most necessary information to record.

ExampleHere is an example of Sentence Method Notes.

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