23 Chapter 23: Note Taking – Styles and Strategies

The next aspect of note taking involves the collecting and recording of information to create your notes. Here you will look at several different note taking styles and some strategies to record notes effectively.  There is no right or wrong way manner of note taking. You may have a style of note taking that works well for you and there is no need to change it. Here are the most popular styles, some of them may already be familiar to you and some may be new.

Column Method

The Column Method (or Cornell Method as it is often called) is a note taking style that creates helpful organization of notes. To use this method, start by dividing your paper into three sections by drawing a margin about 1½ inches from the left to create a “cue column.” Toward the bottom of the page draw a line diagonally across the page to create a footer section. In the larger space to the right take notes on the material from class lectures, readings, or other events. After your notes are recorded, identify the topic in the cue column with either a topic name or a question. For example, if the notes you took were on photosynthesis, in the cue column write the word photosynthesis or the question “What is photosynthesis?” In the bottom area write a brief one or two sentence summary of the notes on that page. This will enable you to find notes quickly when you wish to review them, in the same manner that a tab on a file folder helps locate the file quicker than opening each folder and reading through all the files. Click here to see an explanation and a sample of this method.

Concept Maps

Sometimes it is helpful to have all the information related to a topic on a single page. This can be accomplished by using the Concept Map Method (sometimes called a Mind Map). For this note taking style, try to use a larger piece of paper. In the center of the paper write the main topic. Coming out from the center write all the main points related to the topic. You can connect the main points to the topic by drawing a line outward from the topic to each main point. From the main points write out any support material needed to better understand the main point. Support material can also be connected to the main points with lines extending out to them. This method allows you the benefit of seeing the larger picture of the topic and all its related material in one view. As you will see later in the study skills area, even if you do not chose to use concept mapping in class to record your notes, you can create one later on using the notes from another method. Click here to see a sample of this method.

Outlining With Standard Subdivisions

You have probably created outlines before to organize information. Many students find outlining to be an effective note taking style. With an outline you are able to break down information from larger headings into subheadings to better identify main points and support materials. While you may have had experience with outlines in the past, it is best to always be sure to create outlines using only standard subdivisions. Even if you feel that you will be the only one seeing the outlines you create in your notes, getting into the habit of consistently using standard subdivisions will help ensure that you will be able to do it effortlessly when asked to hand one in for an assignment. Understanding standard subdivisions focuses on two points, the proper sequence of identifying markers for the headings and subheadings and the reasoning for the division of headings into subheadings. The basic identifying markers are seen below. More options are available for larger, more complicated outlines.

Major Headings are identified by Roman Numerals (I, II, III, IV)

Primary Subdivisions are identified by Capital Letters (A, B, C)

Secondary Subdivisions are identified by Numbers (1, 2, 3)

Tertiary Subdivisions (if necessary) are identified by Lower Case Letters (a, b, c)

The second point related to standard subdivisions concerns when a division is needed. For better understanding let’s switch to a class where performing divisions happens often, Mathematics. If in Math class your teacher asks about dividing a whole into parts, the answer follows as logical. If you successfully divide a whole into parts, what is the smallest number of parts that you will end up with if you do actually divide it? The answer is two. Anything less than two would mean that you still have the whole and have not divided it. The same holds true for information that you wish to divide using standard subdivisions in an outline. If you divide Roman Numeral I, you must have at least an A and a B. You can have more, but anything less would mean that you haven’t actually divided the information. Click here to see a sample of this method.

Paragraph Method

Without a doubt, the paragraph method is probably the most familiar to students. It is used quite regularly and allows you to write a large amount of information in detail. It is probably most effective when material can be accurately separated by paragraph to ensure good organization. This method is often a popular choice for use during class lectures, even if you eventually elaborate and develop your notes further with another method later on.

Effective Note Taking Strategies

Taking notes is probably one of the best ways to help you process information that you are learning. Taking notes in any method requires you to analyze the material so that you can record it in a more digestible format for later recall. There are a number of note taking strategies that can provide beneficial results. Here are six to consider.

Notes (before and during class), Reduce for recall, Summary
An example note-taking template (Image Credit: Rawia Inaim)

Reducing to Key Words

Many students try to write down everything the instructor is saying – this is especially true for students who take notes with laptops. Unfortunately, this strategy does not help you to engage in critical thinking and identify important concepts. It is important to recognize and envision yourself as a student who is attempting to learn the material being presented rather than as a human recorder of data.

When taking notes in class, focus on writing down key concepts, rather than recording all of the instructor’s words. By analyzing what you hear and putting your mind to work, you will be able to reduce the instructor’s words to the key points that will reflect your understanding of the information. For many students, this may be a good reason to take notes by hand, rather than with a laptop. In some studies, students who have taken notes by hand have outperformed those taking notes with a laptop on tests. Taking notes by hand also allows you to avoid distracting yourself and others with unrelated websites, e-mail, or social media during class time.[1]

Rather than taking word-for-word notes, consider writing an outline of the lecture’s most important points and how they fit together. Additionally, watch for other information that your instructor emphasizes, either verbally or with gestures, and add these key concepts to your notes. Leave a wide margin on one side of the page to write down key words and questions after the lecture. At the bottom of each page of notes, leave room to write a short summary of the information on that page. Your page layout might look something like the image on this page.

Use Symbols & Graphics

There are a host of symbols and graphics that you can employ to enhance your notes. Arrows, asterisks, parenthesis, underlining, circling, and many other symbols can help you better process  meanings and relationships in the material. You can even come up with your own set of symbols that have special significance to you.

Many students find doodling in their notes an engaging and relaxing way to keep their mind in gear. While doodling has benefits, it does have potential to lead to distraction. Try an alternative. Allow the material you are recording to inspire particular doodling of images that remind you of the words and concepts in your notes. For example if what your instructor says makes you think of a palm tree, doodle a palm tree in your notes next to the information that made you think of it. Later, this can become a useful tool of association to help you recall the information.

Use an “I’m Lost” Symbol

Nothing is more frustrating then when you become lost or confused in class. It can happen when you least expect it and can cause you to lose focus and adversely effect your attention for note taking. Whenever this occurs it is helpful to record the event in your notes by indicating the place where you got lost. Later, when reviewing your notes you will be alerted to the place where things went wrong so that you can either give it more attention or seek assistance from a fellow student or the instructor to help clarify why you were confused.

Separate Notes by Date

As has already been mentioned, there is value in separating your notes for organization. Separations can be done by paragraph, topic, spacing or other means. Beyond the separations you make for formatting, it is also good to separate and identify your notes by the date that they were recorded. This will give you a perspective of learning progression for the course. It will also be valuable for pinpointing the dates of any notes you may have missed or allow a fellow student to record from you on a date that they may have missed.

Use Different Color Ink

Color provides a wealth of opportunity for expression. Consider how drab fashion would be without a vast array of colors. While you are not creating art with note taking, there are meanings that can be better expressed through a diversity of colors. At the very least using different colors allows certain material to standout among others. Given that you can easily buy a pen that provides several colors with the click of a button, this is an easy enough strategy to employ. You can create your own color coding; blue for lecture material, black for discussion groups, green for information from the textbook, red for very important items, and even pencil for your own ideas.

Leave Blank Spaces

As mentioned above, leaving blank spaces in your notes can be a very helpful tool. Certainly there are times when an instructor will be delivering information more quickly than you can effectively record it, so it would be beneficial to have a space to write the information later. You may also wish to elaborate further on what you wrote in class, which would make available space nearby quite handy. It is also not uncommon to have an instructor offer additional material related to a topic covered several classes earlier and a blank space near the notes from that prior class makes for the best location to include it.[2]

Try it!

Don’t just take notes, make notes. This week, try to practice at least one note taking strategy you learned from this chapter. Use the questions you created to review and test yourself throughout the week.  How does this method compare with re-reading your notes?

Try this template to guide you through the process.

Licenses and Attributions:

Content previously published in University 101: Study, Strategize and Succeed by Kwantlen Polytechnic University, licensed as CC BY-SA.

Adaptations: Added content and relocated material

 


  1. Oppenheimer, D. (2017, January). On noteworthy notes: Not all note taking is created equal. Webinar presented at the Learning Specialists Association of Canada. Retrieved from https://lsac.wildapricot.org/page-18154 ↵
  2. Adapted from Ellis, Dave, (2006), Becoming a Master Student, Cengage Learning

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Foundations For Success by David Capriola is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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