The 5 Best Note-Taking Methods for Students in College

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Effective Note-taking in Lectures

Most students take notes during lectures, but why? What is the purpose of taking notes, and how can lecture notes help students learn better and improve their performance on graded assignments?

Note-taking can serve two related purposes: external storage and encoding. The first function, external storage, is probably what most students have in mind when taking notes: to ensure they won’t forget essential information and create a repository they can consult when studying for exams or otherwise reviewing the course material in the future. However, the process of taking notes can also facilitate encoding, or learning the course material in the first place. This can be done by encouraging increased attention and focus during lecture, promoting active engagement with the course material, and/or structuring key concepts and facts. The challenge is to take lecture notes that both facilitate learning and can serve as a useful resource for future review.

Methods of Note-Taking

There are many different methods or formats for taking notes during lectures. One of the most popular is the Cornell Method, while other methods include traditional outlining, mapping, and the “CUES+” Method. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages and may work better for some students or in certain courses. There is ultimately no right or wrong method to take notes, and many students employ some combination of these methods, implicitly or explicitly. However, there are certain strategies students can follow, regardless of their particular note-taking method, to take notes that will help them both learn and remember the course material.

The key to taking notes that will simultaneously facilitate learning and be useful for review is identifying and recording the most important ideas, concepts, and facts from the lecture in relation to the overall course. Identifying what is most important helps facilitate learning by forcing students to organize and contextualize the material, while also enabling efficient review by generating a repository of ideas and information that is likely most relevant for exams and future recall. Focusing on what is important means that you should resist the temptation to attempt to transcribe everything the professor says; while you might be worried you will miss something important, attempting to produce a transcription of the lecture undermines the encoding purpose of note-taking because it requires minimal active engagement and critical thinking.

Of course, identifying what is most important is often easier said than done. During lectures, students are bombarded with information, frequently at a rapid pace, and few professors self-consciously include information they do not deem important for some reason or another. Identifying what is most important is therefore somewhat of an inexact science and also a skill that must be developed over time; good note-takers are therefore not “born,” but rather “made” through continuous learning and practice, even if note-taking skills come more naturally to some students. The good news, however, is that almost every lecture provides students with an opportunity to build these skills, and there are some evidence-based strategies that students can employ to be identify important ideas and information and improve their note-taking skills, including:

  • Prepare before the lecture by completing any assigned readings or problems (unless advised otherwise by the professor), reviewing your notes from previous lectures, and any slides or notes provided in advance by the professor. This will help you anticipate information that might be important, draw connections with earlier course material, and identify gaps in your understanding.
  • Listen and watch for cues from the professor and/or in any slides or notes that signal what might be important. These cues include:
    • Direct statements by the professor such as, “This is an important point”
    • Writing on the board
    • Changes in the professor’s tone of voice
    • Pauses by the professor
    • Pointing or other gestures
    • Repeated terms or phrases
    • Terms such as “In conclusion”, “to sum things up,” etc.
    • Ideas or concepts referenced in the reading or in previous lectures
    • Terms in larger font, bold, italics, underlined, or highlighted in slides or notes
    • In addition to these cues, anything that you don’t understand is important to record in your notes, preferably with a clear reminder to ask the professor, teaching assistant, or another student. If you don’t understand an idea or concept, it is difficult to determine its relative importance for the course, so you should always record things you don’t understand.
    • Think carefully about whether to use a laptop to take notes. Laptops can be useful tools for note-taking, but recent research suggests (perhaps unsurprisingly) they can be distracting, both to you and other students. Furthermore, because most students can type significantly faster than they can write, taking notes by laptop tends to encourage transcribing the lecture word-for-word, rather than critically thinking about what is important—even if students have been advised against transcription.

    The Outline Method

    The outline method offers a highly organized and logical format that requires minimal editing and review after class. This method is also especially useful if learners need to record and digest large amounts of information.

    Intuitive in its structure and implementation, the outline method logically presents information. The main topics of a lecture are situated on the far left of a page. Subtopics are added below each topic, indented to the right. Below each subtopic is space for supporting facts, notes, and questions, again indented to the right of the subtopic heading.



    This structure may prove difficult if students need to record graphs and formulas The outline method is not especially helpful for discussions or free-form, structureless lectures

    When should you use this note-taking method

    This is also one of the most-effective note-taking methods for college students when it comes to jotting down heavy content which includes stats and other information. It also works great when you want to cut down on the amount of time you spend on editing and reviewing during test time. We suggest using the method when you need to memorize a lot of information but don’t recommend to apply it during classes or lectures. Creating charts with the charting methods takes time. It makes sense to use this method when summarising whole lectures as a preparation for exams or during intensive study sessions.

    When the lecture content is intense, the mapping method works best. It helps organize your notes by dividing them into branches, enabling you to establish relationships between the topics. Start with writing the main topic at the top of the map. Keep dividing it into subtopics on the left and right as you go down.


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