3 Tips for More Effective Note Taking Methods

Close-up photo of a child's hand taking notes on a desk with colorful pencils

Do you diligently take notes in class but find they are little help when studying for a test? Or do you take very few notes because you’re not sure how or even why they’re so important? Or are you a parent who wants to give your student some note-taking pointers?

Today, we’re breaking it all down with tips and methods to help you (or your student) become a master note-taker—whether you favor pen and paper or computer. Let’s start with the following:

Basic Tips for Taking Great Notes

Taking great notes is about helping you to get organized, stay focused, understand and remember key points, and study more effectively for tests. It’s not about taking down every single word a teacher says or an expert writes. If you try that, you’ll be more focused on taking notes than on understanding the material.

To make note-taking as pain-free and productive as possible, you’ll want to:

  • Write the course name, lesson topic, and date in your page header to keep notes organized.
  • Paraphrase only the most important information to stay focused. Include:
    • Key points, dates, and concepts
    • Definitions or examples
    • Connections or references to previous lessons or even other subjects
    • Important people
  • Avoid writing complete sentences, so you can save time and keep up. Instead use short phrases, symbols, contractions, abbreviations, or your own personal shorthand. Common shortcuts include:
    • b/c = because
    • w/o = without
    • + or & = and
    • < = less than o > = greater than
  • Highlight any point the teacher, text, or video repeats. (Repetition is your clue that it’s important.)
  • Leave blank spaces between main ideas so you can insert additional information later.
  • Review your notes within 24 hours to ensure you understand what you’ve written and noting any questions you may have about the material.

Three Proven Note-Taking Methods

Students have different learning styles and different preferences for taking notes. The important thing is to find the method or combination of methods that works for you. Here are three to try, along with downloadable templates and examples.

1. Cornell Method:

Developed by a Cornell University education professor in the 1940s, the Cornell Method has since been used by thousands of students to simplify note-taking and test preparation. Here’s how it works step-by-step:

  • Format your page as shown in the example below, or download a Connections Academy® template here.

    Example image of a blank note taking templateDownload the blank template

  • Write your notes in the right-hand Notes column, focusing on the most important information covered—key concepts, dates, definitions, etc.
  • Now use the left-hand column to restate the notes in the right-hand column as questions or short key phrases. These restatements may take the following form:
    • Why/when/who did... ?
    • Why is it important that... ?
    • Define __________________.
  • In the Summary section at the bottom, boil your notes down into two or three sentences that capture the major lesson theme(s).
  • Review and edit your notes by the end of the next day to identify any outstanding questions.
    When you’re finished, your notes should look like this:

Example image of a completed note taking template
View the full example

By restating your notes in question or key phrase format, you’ll deepen your understanding of the material and retain more information. As an added bonus, you’ll have a ready-to-use study guide for tests. Simply cover your notes on the right and try to answer the questions on the left. You can also recruit your Learning Coach to ask you the questions.

2. Mapping Method:

If you’re more of a visual learner, this method may be right for you, as it relies on graphics and structure to connect key ideas. In this method you:

  • Start with a key phrase that identifies the main topic. Place that phrase in a box or bubble in the center of your page. (It works best if your page is in landscape orientation.)
  • Now draw a line from that topic box and write down a phrase that summarizes the first main fact or idea covered. Draw a box or circle around that phrase.
  • For each fact or detail directly related to that idea, write a phrase summarizing it, circle or box the phrase, and draw a line back to the idea box.
  • Repeat these steps for each main idea covered in the lesson, textbook, or video.

When you’re finished, it should look something like the example below from a class lesson on the Inca civilization. You can also use color-coding to readily distinguish between types of information such as dates, people, examples, definitions, or theories.

Even if you don’t wish to use the Mapping Method for note-taking, you may want to give it a try as a study aid. For example, after reading a chapter, close your book and map out all the main ideas and supporting details you can recall. It’s more fun than writing a summary, and the process helps dislodge information lurking in the back of your memory.

Example image the mapping method for note taking
View the full example

3. Outline or Bullet Method:

If you like a highly structured approach or you’re already skilled at outlining, this method may be ideal. Using indents, numbers and letters, or indents and bullets, it organizes your notes in a logical, easy-to-scan hierarchy. With the outline method, you simply:

  1. List the first main idea or theme
    a. Indent the next line and add the first point related to that main idea as letter a.
    b. Continue adding other related points as letter b, c, and so on.
  2. Repeat the above for each main idea and related facts that follow.

When you’re done, your notes should look something like this:

Final example image of a completed note taking template
View the full example

If you don’t want to bother with numbers and letters, just follow the same format and substitute bullets for numbers and letters.

As we said earlier, the best note-taking method is the one that works for you.

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