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.
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.
The 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)
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.
Example: Here is an example of Cornell Notes.
The 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.
Example: Here is an example of Mapping Method Notes.
The 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
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.
Example: Here is an example of Outlining Method Notes.
The 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.
Example: Here is an example of Charting Method Notes.
The 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.
Example: Here is an example of Sentence Method Notes.
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
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