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Note-taking methods: Find the method that works for you
There are two types of people: those who take notes, and those who don’t.
It’s tempting to say that the people who do take notes are the ones who end up learning more, remembering more and who find it easier to recall what they’ve learned when they’re writing their exams. But that isn’t necessarily the case.
It takes more than a bunch of scribbles to learn. It takes good structure, good penmanship (or at least a handwriting that is semi-readable), and a good process to make proper use of those scribbles.
So if you haven’t already, now’s the time to find a note-taking method that works for you.
Before you start, decide if you’re old school and prefer to handwrite your notes, or if you prefer taking them on your laptop. Perhaps your teacher has rules about this, or perhaps it’s completely up to you.
Either way, it’s good to know that some methods are easier to apply when you’re notes are taken on the computer where you’re able to go back and edit or where you can more easily set up certain structures. On the other hand, writing things on a piece of paper also has its upsides, and some find that the physical act of handwriting makes it easier to remember things.
There’s only one way to find out what works for you: Try out the different methods and choose the one that works best!
The Cornell Method
Effective because: It helps you organise everything from main points to details in one place, making it easier to get an overview and to review the material when it comes time for exams.
Good for: If you’re a fast and organised writer, this is the method for you.
How: Divide your paper into 3 sections: Notes, cues, and summary
- The notes section is the only part you fill out during class. Here you write down all the main points and details as you go.
- The cues section you fill out right after class, or as soon as possible. Here, you write down the most important parts of the lecture, including important keywords and any potential study questions.
- In the summary section, you write down the most important takeaways or main points.
Tip: This method is best for handwriters, but you can also set it up as a template on your computer. You can test out how well this method is working for you by covering up the notes on the right side of the page and using the cues to see how much you remember from the notes. You can even try to explain the topic from the cue to yourself or another person to test your understanding of the subject.
The Sentence Method
Effective because: It lets you write down all the details of a lecture in a chronological order. It may be good for topics you find more difficult, or for lectures where you don’t know the structure beforehand. This does not mean that you should transcribe the entire lecture - you should still focus on the important points and on noting them in a way that you’ll be able to understand in the future.
Good for: Fast writers and detail-oriented people. If you like notes with all the details, and prefer to sum up the key points afterwards, this is the method for you.
How: Start with a main topic and write down details in sentence form as you go, preferably in bullet points. Add more main or sub topics if necessary.
Tip: Unless you have a fast and flawless handwriting, this method is best applied on a laptop. Get acquainted with note-taking tools like OneNote, which allow you to take notes more easily than a regular Word or Google doc.
The Outlining Method
Effective because: It creates an overview (or outline as the name implies) of the topics. For that reason, this method can effectively be used for large topics with a lot of keywords.
Good for: Anyone who likes to keep a good overview.
How: Start by writing down the main topic. Fill in each subtopic and any important keywords underneath, making new subtopics as you go.
Tip: If you need to remember long lists of special keywords (perhaps words that are difficult to remember), create acronyms that spell out words that you can remember. For example, CSOMC is a way to remember the note-taking techniques in this article. You can turn that into a more memorable sentence like ‘Cool scientists occasionally make cookies.’ Check out our article on memorization methods to find more tips and tricks on this topic.
The Mapping Method
Effective because: It helps you understand the relationships between topics by mapping them out in a visual manner.
Good for: Visual learners. If you like to see how things are connected, and you enjoy minimal note taking, this is a good method for you.
How: Start by writing down the main topic. From there, add subtopics and add any important notes underneath each of these. You can make as many branches as you need.
Tip: As you add topics, you may discover new relationships between these, or you may want to add more notes than the regular A4 page allows. To avoid running out of space, you can use an app like Mindnode or Evernote to allow customisation as you go.
The Charting Method
Effective because: It gives you a structured overview of long lists of topics and details. If you’re receiving information in an unstructured order, or the lecturer moves back and forth between a certain number of topics, this method can provide you with the option of filling in information without running out of space.
Good for: If you’re good at keeping a structure, this may be a good method for you.
How: Divide your paper into columns. Each column represents its own topic, and beneath these you can write key points. If you run out of room for columns, simply draw a horizontal line, and create a new set of columns. You can also create a chart, giving you the option of filling in categories both horizontally and vertically. This is easiest to do on a computer, but can be done by hand too - especially if you know how many columns you need beforehand.
- Use symbols, abbreviations and acronyms for words or concepts that you frequently use to speed up your note-taking.
- In hand-written notes, use coloured markers or regular pens to highlight or underline important keywords. This can make it easier for you to remember them, or to help you quickly get an overview of what your notes contain.
- Most notes you probably won’t look at before you review them for exams, so make sure you can read and understand what you’ve written. If you don’t use a laptop to take notes, you may need to practice your handwriting.
- Use your own words so that you can understand what it says at a later time. However, if you come across good phrases or keywords, remember to write these down.
- If you’re a visual learner, make small figures or drawings of the concepts. They can, for example, be used to show relationships, or to understand and remember different types of certain concepts.
- Try to limit your notes to one topic per page, or at least start a new page when you start a new topic. This will help you keep a good overview of the topics.
- If you use your laptop to write notes, get to know the keyboard shortcuts. For example, instead of clicking the B button to make the text bold, simply use the shortcut Ctrl+B. Find lots more useful keyboard shortcuts here.
Finally, you don’t have to follow any of these methods to make good notes. You can pick and choose, or invent your own. The 5 methods above are simply the most common ones out there, but there are endless opportunities. You can also combine them and use a mind-map within a Cornell type note, for example. Or you can just use some methods for some subjects and others for other subjects.
It’s up to you!