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Note Taking Strategies

Note Taking

Note-Taking at University

 The purpose of note-taking in lectures and tutorials is to record your understanding of the ideas and concepts discussed in class for future uses such as essay writing, preparing to read, and studying for examinations and tests.

How can you improve your note-taking skills?

  • Listen Actively - Avoid the passive listener mentality which says you have to "get it all"; instead, listen for key ideas, main details, and transitional phrases which point to the focus of the lecture.
  • Simplify It - Point form phrases, abbreviations and symbols can be used to save time writing, unless there is a definition that would be better understood written in full sentences.
  • Watch for Clues - Verbal and non-verbal cues such as body language, voice tone and pace, repetition of ideas, and the time spent on subjects can indicate important ideas to write down.
  • Build Understanding - Notes are important records that form the basis for regular review, exam preparation, critical thinking, and it gives an opportunity to actively engage with the material.
  • Be Selective - Write notes in your own words and be careful not to write down every single word the professor says. Choose information according to your purpose, course syllabus, themes, what you want to learn, and any ideas you want more clarification on.
  • Organize - Organize your notes according to topics and sub-categories while leaving some extra space to return to your notes to add more information, and use them test yourself later.
  • Review Regularly - Review regularly to draw connections between course material and themes, and big ideas. Doing this regular review can assist you in "seeing the big picture" and makes note-taking part of your studying.

Strategies for Effective Note Taking

The Cornell Note-Taking System is a simple way to develop organized study notes soon after absorbing information (in lecture or by reading) without the added work of re-writing vast amounts of material. This organization of ideas is helpful for self-testing, retrieval practice, and developing a deep understanding of the material.

The first step is to divide your page into two vertical columns; the left column will be one third of the page while the right column will be two thirds of the page. The left column is called the review column, where you will find key words or main ideas while the right is for writing your notes in. When note-taking, you will first take your notes in the right column, and then return to your notes post-lecture to complete the left column.

Below is an example page of Cornell style notes:

You'll notice that the review column has been filled with key words and questions. After your note-taking session in the right column, you can return to your notes to complete the left column. The words and phrases you place here are meant to represent your selection of the key points of a lecture or reading. The questions you enter either serve to help you clarify unclear ideas and to elaborate on the notes by connecting ideas together. You can connect ideas from the same lecture or with ideas from other notes in your course.

The contents of the key word column are your study notes and can be used to practice your recall of the material. Simply cover up the notes column of the page and use the keys in the key word column to trigger your memory. If you have difficulty recalling the information successfully at first, and need a tip, simply look over at the detailed information in the notes column.

Mind Maps are diagrammatic ways of organizing key ideas from lectures and texts which emphasize the interconnection of concepts and illustrate the relative hierarchy of ideas from titles, to main concepts, to supporting details. Because they are diagrammatic, they have the potential to capture a lot of information on a single page. They help show the conceptual links between ideas and allows for additional material to be added without the need to crowd the page.

The Mind Map below has been constructed from the review column of the Cornell notes shown above.

This is an image of an example of how a mind map can look. At the top there is the main idea in a speech bubble icon. Supporting ideas and details are placed underneath the main idea in their own respective bubbles that are connected with arrows. This is one example of how a mind map could look, but you can also structure the information so that the main idea is in the middle and the supporting details are around in a circle.

In this Mind Map the central topic has been placed at the top of the page and the supporting details have been organized into branches below. Mind Maps allow you to review and engage with your study material in a quick way. The available space also allows you to continuously add images or new connections to the mind map as you learn more.

Mind Maps allow for a great deal of information to be summarized in one place in a way that emphasizes the interrelationships among ideas.

A common practical approach to lengthy notes undertaken by students is to rewrite the notes into "study notes", notes typically composed of briefly written statements which captured only the main ideas necessary to recall your course information. And usually these notes were helpful in bringing together a whole term's work, especially because as you made them, you consolidated your information.

Constructing an outline is not all that different from making those good old study notes. If you have been using the Cornell notes system, then you already have the raw materials for building an outline. Simply collect up all the key words and phrases and then structure them in a formal outline. A formal outline contains headings, sub-headings, detail points, examples, and so on arranged on a page with varying degrees of indentation to illustrate the relative position of the idea in the overall hierarchy of ideas in your course.

An image of a notebook paper that shows an example of what an outline could look like. It is structured with a main heading that reads, 'Main idea #1" followed by two bullet points that are the supporting details. This structuring of information helps in separating information into key points.

What do you mean generate questions? See, you've got the hang of it already!

Generating questions is a great way to test yourself before a test and to prepare before your reading and note-taking. You can use past test or quiz questions you have had in the course, or prepare your own based on lectures and readings. Pay careful attention to the overall course themes and how they intersect with supporting details.

You are probably well accustomed to asking the most fundamental questions -- definition or summary questions. They begin with "What is the meaning of ...?" or "The basic idea of ... is...". These question frames are easily filled with content words from your courses and can serve very easily to get you started asking yourself questions.

In addition to definition and summary questions are analytical questions such as "What are the key aspects of ...?" and "How does ... relate or compare to ...?". Finally, there are evaluation questions such as "What are the strengths and weaknesses of ...?' and "Do I agree or disagree with ... when he or she says ...? Why or why not?". These evaluation questions prompt you to think at the level of putting the ideas of your course into real life applications and then determining their effects, good or bad.

Lecturers will often give a series of examples and illustrations for the main ideas they wish to emphasize. These examples will often take the form of experiments that support a hypothesis or theory or an anecdote that reveals how the idea is applied or manifests itself in real life. For the most part learning these examples will be helpful to you in your course -- you may even find a similar example used in a question on an exam or assignment.

By creating your own unique example, you will be able to retain the information better. This is a form of the study strategy elaboration, where you take the information you are given one step further to apply it and make it your own. This is key to your long-term understanding of concepts and if you can create your own example or put the information into your own words, it is a good indicator that you understand the material.

Another very helpful review strategy that you can engage in is to write a summary paragraph based on your notes. Ideally, you would write a summary paragraph from memory using the key words and phrases you chose from your notes. You would do this in such a way as defines the terms, relates them together, and links them to the rest of the course material. As well, you could consider how the ideas might be applied in either a "real world" context or in your discipline. Summary paragraphs work well as practice for short answer and essay style exams and can go a long way to getting you started writing towards an essay or report.

You may recall that the purpose for taking notes is to prepare a permanent record for later use in writing, thinking, and preparing for exams. It is with this latter purpose in mind that we now turn out attention to review strategies that in some way make use of the notes you have made from class or your texts.

Treat your notes like a draft and use spaced practice to review a little bit at a time for a long period of time to help your long-term understanding. Each time you review your notes, try to apply the information in a new way. For example, put the information into a map mind, draw images that represent concepts, test yourself, or write down the information you can recall from memory with your book closed.

Additional Resources

Cornell Notes TemplatePDF
Downloadable template for taking notes in the Cornell format.
Note-Taking Template for Course ReadingsPDF
Worksheet for taking notes from course readings.
Note Taking Brochure (pdf) PDFDownloadable brochure for note-taking strategies.
Note Taking Video (19 min) Learn effective note-taking methods from a Learning Skills Specialist.
Note-Taking EssentialsLearning Skills Workshop