Taking notes may seem like a task that is intuitive. In fact, many students think they know how to take effective notes. In reality, though, not all note taking methods are the same. If you find that your study techniques are lacking, or you just want to make the most of your study time by learning more effective strategies for note-taking, then you’re in the right place.
In this article, we will examine seven effective note-taking methods that stand to make a profound impact on your study habits, and perhaps most importantly, your grades. As you peruse these strategies, keep in mind that they represent popular methods that have worked for college students over the years, but this list is not exhaustive. If you don’t see a technique here that suits you, keep researching and experimenting until you do!
Related reading: Typed vs. Handwritten Notes: Which is Better for You
1. The Handwritten Method
No one is knocking technology, here. It certainly has its place in the classroom and beyond. When it comes to taking notes, though, your laptop is actually not your friend. Here’s why: Typing out notes by hand is essentially too efficient. Yes, you read that correctly. Students who take notes by computer often get so good at it that they are able to type out every word of a lecture as it’s being spoken.
While this may sound like a tick in the advantages box, in reality, it can be self-sabotaging. Why? Because students who take notes by hand tend to remember information better, and it’s not by coincidence.
Studies have shown that the task of taking notes by hand is actually a much more complex cognitive process than simply putting words to paper. Because writing by hand is slower, students often develop a short-hand of sorts to keep up with the professor’s verbiage. It is in the development of this short-hand that real learning begins to take place.
That’s right—when taking notes by hand, learning starts to take place immediately. On the other hand, transcribing notes electronically does not have this same effect. For these notes to have much value, students must schedule additional review time after class is over. A 2014 study published in Psychological Science confirmed that students who took notes via laptop recalled less information than those who wrote out their notes by hand (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).
Pro Tip: If you’re a real technophile and can’t imagine using a pencil or notebook for well, anything, try using a tablet with stylus for taking digital notes. You’ll get the same results as the old-school method with a modern flair.
2. The Outline Method
The outline method of taking notes works in a similar way as the handwritten method. That is, it forces the note-taker to synthesize the information as they’re taking notes as opposed to simply transcribing the words of the lecture onto the page. To use this method, you’ll need to think critically about the information being presented in class and then organize it into an outline of main ideas for your study notes.
The outline method is one of the most popular note taking methods for students because it’s flexible enough that you can mold it to suit your learning styles and preferences, but it has enough structure that it almost always yields effective notes.
To implement the outline method of note-taking, simply write the title of the lecture at the top of the page, and then begin listing main topics and sub-topics as they arise. Leave enough room that you can go back and insert supporting details, questions, and related thoughts about each main topic.
3. The Cornell Method
A tried-and-true note-taking strategy, the Cornell Method is more of a holistic study strategy than some of the other popular note taking methods. With the Cornell system of taking notes, the student divides the page into three main areas. In the left margin is an area reserved for review time cues.
These cues can be main topics, keywords, or potential test questions and are intended to trigger your recall of the main points of the lecture. You can write your cues during the lecture, if you wish, or immediately after; just don’t wait too long or you’ll likely draw a blank.
Taking up the majority of the page’s center is the note-taking area. In this space, the student will take accurate notes based on the professor’s lecture and commentary. These notes can take any form you like, though we suggest writing them in your own words as opposed to simply re-creating the lecture word-for-word. This way, you’ll be mentally processing the information as it’s being delivered.
At the bottom of the page is a place for a summary. Here, the student will recap the main ideas of the lecture after class is over. This final step is crucial, so don’t overlook it. Summarizing the main points of the lecture while the key concepts are still fresh in your mind is critical for retaining the information.
Some recent studies have suggested that the Cornell method of notetaking has implications beyond simply recording information for later review. This research suggests the strategy may also have a positive impact on listening comprehension (Ramadhani, Muin & Hilmiyati, 2021).
4. The Mapping Method
Maps aren’t just for geography or brainstorming. You can create mind-maps while note-taking by starting with a bubble in the center and branching out with smaller bubbles for related sub-topics. This effective method of taking notes does much more than simply make a pretty picture from your lecture topics.
Instead, with the mapping method of taking notes, students can create powerful visual cues that can help stimulate their memory of course concepts later on. A 2016 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology confirmed that notes taken with drawings or other visual aids were more effective at prompting recall of information than notes comprised of words alone (Wammes, Meade, & Fernandes, 2016).
The mapping method is particularly useful in classes where the content is dense or complex. It’s also well-suited for recorded online lectures that can be paused, rewound, and reviewed since it can be one of the more time-consuming methods of taking notes. Finally, if you know yourself to be a visual learner, mapping may result in the most effective notes for your learning style.
5. The Charting Method
In addition to mapping, another highly visual method of taking notes is the charting method. With this strategy, the content of the lecture is charted out in a table format.
Similar to other strategies for taking effective notes, the charting method forces students to think critically about the information being presented in class so that they can categorize it and then record it on the chart.
A limitation of this method is that it leaves little room for writing, so students may need to develop shorthand or use abbreviations when recording main ideas, especially in cases where the lecture is information-rich.
Another drawback of the charting method is that it is somewhat dependent on your professor’s lecture style. For lectures that already have a clear structure, the charting method is ideal. On the other hand, if your instructor is more spontaneous or tends to go off on tangents in the middle of a lecture, it can prove challenging to categorize the information in chart form.
6. The Sentence Method
One of the easiest note taking methods is the sentence method of taking notes. With this method, students simply write sentences corresponding to key concepts of the lecture as its being delivered. Sentences are numbered and recorded in a very linear way, creating a comprehensive representation of the lecture for students to use during review time.
The sentence method of taking notes is very effective for fast-paced classes where you need to record as much information as possible in a short time period. However, the method lacks organization, which could cause problems when you go back to study your notes later. If you find that you prefer to have your notes more organized for study time, you can always combine this method with another strategy for taking notes like the outline or chart method.
7. The Flow Notes Method
The flow notes method of note-taking is sort of like a no-method method of taking notes. That is, there are few rules for this strategy, and there is no real structure either. As the name implies, the flow notes method requires you to get in the zone and go with the flow of the lecture.
Doodles, arrows, and self-made diagrams are common fare for this freestyle note taking method. The key concept here is to commit yourself to learning during the lecture and recording this learning as you go. Since this method is so unstructured, it’s important that you reserve some review time immediately following the lecture, less you forget the meaning of your whimsical scribblings.
No one is born knowing how to take effective notes. Yet, it’s often a skill that’s neglected in high school curricula. This is an unfortunate reality since success in college demands an aptitude for taking notes and taking them well.
The good news is that there are many different note taking methods that can yield positive results. The key is to find which method works best for you. This can take a bit of trial-and-error, but with a little patience and perseverance, you’ll likely find a strategy that feels comfortable to you and helps you improve your study techniques.
As a final note, don’t be afraid to combine the above note taking methods or alter them to fit your personal preferences. The takeaway here is to adopt a style of note taking that suits you best and helps you retain information optimally—not to follow a prescribed formula by the letter.