Basic notetaking strategies – Making Cognitive Connections

Learn when to take notes, as well as some tried-and-true notetaking strategies. Find out how to avoid some not-so-useful approaches. Finally, learn how to grab the most important, “big picture” information about a book.

Notetaking is a skill that most of us take for granted. We take notes in school, in meetings, when reading, and many other times throughout the day without really thinking about it. It is a strategy most individuals use to help remember important details. If you take a minute to think about it, taking effective notes requires a combination of many cognitive skills, including:

  • attention to detail
  • categorization
  • sequencing
  • identifying relevant information
  • divided attention

It’s no wonder that so many individuals living with cognitive challenges find notetaking such a difficult task. In fact, many individuals just don’t take notes because it is such a struggle. I have heard individuals make excuse after excuse as to why they don’t take notes. For example:

  • “I’m working on my memory; taking notes would be a ‘crutch.’”
  • “Oh, I’ll remember that; I don’t need to write it down.”
  • “I know how to take notes; I just don’t like to.”
  • “I was the best notetaker in my office. Everyone came to me for my notes. Now it just frustrates me.”

The reality for many is that they may have been excellent notetakers prior to their cognitive difficulties (e.g., a brain injury or stroke). However, now they may struggle with any number of cognitive challenges that make notetaking difficult, if not impossible. I often ask my students if they took notes to help them remember details prior to their injury and the response is almost always in the affirmative. Then I ask them why now, after their injury, they are resistant to taking notes. It often boils down to the idea that they don’t find the notes they take helpful and/or complete enough and, therefore, they end up just not taking notes at all. It is especially frustrating for those who may have been very good notetakers previously.

The next few newsletter articles will focus on a variety of notetaking techniques (e.g., Cornell notes, SQ3R, outlining, graphic organizers), different notetaking strategies (e.g., get the big picture, pay attention to keywords) and the cognitive skills involved.

Notetaking scenarios and strategies

Let’s take a look at just a few typical scenarios in which a person might need to take notes:

  • Someone gives you directions to her house.
  • The doctor changes your medication during an appointment.
  • You are in a class where there will be a test.
  • You are in a meeting with your vocational rehabilitation counselor.
  • You just left a movie and plan to discuss it with friends at dinner.
  • You are reading a novel and want to remember the plot and/or characters from one reading session to the next.
  • You are reading a textbook in preparation for a class.

Each of these scenarios might require a slightly different approach in terms of the detail needed as well as the overall organization of the notes taken. In addition, the importance of the various cognitive skills may vary based on the specific notetaking scenario.

For instance, if someone gives you directions to her house, your notes might include:

  • A label at the top identifying the purpose of the note (e.g., “Directions to Michelle’s house”). Clearly labeling the note will help you find it when you need it. Cognitive skills involved include: attention to detail, sequencing, categorization, planning.
  • The person’s phone number in case you get lost and need to call. Having the phone number readily available as part of the note might be helpful if you are already frustrated because you are lost. Cognitive skills involved include: attention to detail, planning.
  • A list of the step-by-step directions. Numbering each step will help keep you focused and will make your note easier to follow [e.g., “(1) Take 405 South, (2) Exit El Toro,” etc.]. Visual learners should request landmarks (e.g., “turn right at Starbucks”) as they may spot landmarks more easily than street names. Cognitive skills involved include: attention to detail, sequencing, time management, planning.
  • The names of streets and/or landmarks might be underlined or highlighted in your notes. This will help you focus on the most relevant aspects of the directions. Cognitive skills involved include: relevant information, planning, organization.
  • A description of the destination house, such as approximately where it is in the block, its color, whether it is single- or double-story, etc. Cognitive skills involved include: attention to detail, categorization, relevant information, visual discrimination, planning.

Whether you are in a meeting with a vocational counselor, at a movie, or taking notes during a class, there are some standard notetaking strategies you can use that will help you focus on the important details:

  • Use headings and/or subheadings—Headings can help to categorize and organize the information.
  • Write down the main ideas—Don’t try to write down everything; just focus on the important points.
  • Be prepared—If you are going to a meeting with your vocational rehabilitation counselor, review what was discussed during the previous meeting. If you are going to a movie, do some research online to get the general plot, character names, names of actors, etc.
  • Leave white space—Leave some blank space where you know you may be missing information. In addition, leave lots of white space to fill in information, thoughts, or ideas after the fact.
  • Write out questions ahead of time—If going to a doctor’s appointment, identify and write down questions you might have regarding the appointment. Leave white space for the answers.
  • Focus on words that are in bold—If reading a textbook or an article, note the words in bold, specific vocabulary used, or table and charts.
  • Use abbreviations whenever possible—Establishing and using abbreviations (such as “MCC” for Making Cognitive Connections or “N” for north when taking down directions) can save a lot of time and energy when trying to take notes. Be sure to include a legend somewhere in your notes until the abbreviations become second nature to you.
  • Answer the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How—It is not a bad idea to try to answer as many of the standard journalism questions as possible when taking notes. For instance, if you are taking notes in preparation for a doctor appointment:
    • Who—Name of doctor (e.g., “Dr. Lopez”)
    • Where—The location of the appointment (e.g., “her office in Long Beach”)
    • When—The date and time of the appointment (e.g., “Wednesday, January 14, 3:00 pm”)
    • What—What is the purpose of the appointment (e.g., “I have been having frequent headaches”)
    • Why—Why am I concerned (e.g., “My headaches have increased from 1 time per week to 3-4 times per week”)
    • How—How have I dealt with the change (e.g., “Once I realized I was having more headaches, I started keeping track of them by writing them down in terms of frequency, intensity, and how they affected me by day”)

Common notetaking problems

There are some commonly used notetaking approaches that almost always prove unsuccessful for those with cognitive challenges. The following table describes a few examples, possible challenges associated with the technique, and strategies/solutions that might help.

Challenges & specific strategies to address them

Questionable Notetaking Approach
Specific Strategies and Solutions

Jotting a quick note on a scrap of paper
It is very easy to misplace or lose a small piece of paper.
Use the Notes app or the Notes field in the Calendar and/or Contacts app of your smart device (e.g., iPhone, iPad, Android phone, etc.).

Notes written on Post-It notes
Post-It notes can lose their stickiness.
Use the Notes app of your smart device.

Write down just a keyword or two
A keyword or two might not be a sufficient trigger for a person with cognitive challenges to remember the overall purpose or details of the note.
Include as much detail as is necessary for you to recall the purpose and details related to the note.

Getting the big picture of a book

Whether you are preparing to read a textbook for a class or purchase a book in a bookstore or online, taking just a few minutes to get the big picture of the book can be very helpful. The concept of previewing at the book level involves taking a “quick peek” at some of the book’s content and key organizational features, i.e., What is it about and how is it organized?

Have you ever been in a bookstore and found a number of books on the same topic and needed to make the choice of which one to purchase? Do you usually jump into reading a text without paying attention to the overall organization of the book? Previewing helps you to get a general idea of what the book is about before you actually begin reading the book chapter by chapter or before you purchase a book. This technique has saved me lots of money, because it helps me to quickly get an idea of a book’s contents and structure so I can choose the best book for my specific needs!

There are several steps to previewing a book. After each step outlined below, you will find emphasized in italics the important information you should jot down when pre-reading textbooks. NOTE: Not all books include every one of the components involved in previewing.

Title Page

The title page is designed to provide you with information regarding the author(s), the publisher, the copyright date and the edition of the book. This information will be very important when using the book as a reference in a report for school, when determining how current the information is, etc. For instance, you probably don’t want to purchase a book on computers that is three years old—computers change so quickly, the book is already outdated.

From the title page, you should get the author’s name, publisher’s name, edition of the book, and copyright date.

Foreword and Preface

The foreword is typically written by someone other than the author of the book. It provides the reader with a different perspective of the book. The preface, on the other hand, is written by the author and explains why the author chose to write the book and what the author thinks are the main ideas of the book.

If there is a foreword and/or a preface, you should jot down a few main ideas that jump out at you, especially those that clue you in to the book’s focus.


The introduction explains what the book is about, the organization of the book and what you might expect to learn from reading the book.

Record several (three to five) main ideas provided by the intro regarding the book’s subject matter, its organization, and what you think you’ll learn by reading the book.

Table of Contents

The table of contents provides some detail as to how the book is organized. It lists topics and subtopics involved in each chapter of the book.

Again, capture some big picture information about how the book is organized (e.g., main subdivisions of chapters, often represented by unit titles) and perhaps about how detailed the Table of Contents is.


The index is a valuable alphabetical reference of topics and people written about in the book.

Note how extensive the index is and how it is organized (e.g., does it index people separately from concepts?). How useful do you think it will it be for you?


The glossary is a mini-dictionary at the back of the book. It makes finding the definition of key words within the book a snap.

Same as with the index—how extensive is it and how is it organized? This way, you can determine how useful it will be to you as you progress through the book or the associated class.


The appendix includes additional information related to the book. The appendix might include charts, graphs, surveys, survey responses, full text of important documents, etc.

Note what specific appendices (if any) are available, in case you need them later in the course.