Note-taking seems like one of those skills you’re just expected to have. No one really teaches you how to take effective notes, or even why it’s important to do so.
When I was in undergrad I wrote copious amounts of notes. Seriously, I just wrote down everything the lecturer said! I didn’t really think about why I was doing it, except that I was terrified of missing something important. (Plus, this was back in the days before lectures were available online!) It took me years to really figure out why I needed to take notes. Once I’d done that, I was able to find a method that best suited the kinds of notes I needed to take.
Figure out how to take effective notes as early as possible. Trust me, you’ll have a much easier time at uni!
Why do we take notes?
You might think of note-taking as being simply a form of transcribing information for later use, but really, it’s far more complex than that. Note-taking allows us to output information that is being input. Basically, this is the difference between passively receiving information, and actively acquiring it, and this output process is very important in terms of how much of that information we retain, its complexity, and how it becomes embedded in our cognition.
External and Internal Memory
In many ways, effective notes function as a form of external memory, or what is called the external storage effect (Kuepper-Tetzel, 2017). Notes allow you to return to information in order to study the material later. This might be in order to write an assignment, or in preparation for exams, or for later use in life in general. However, while acting as a form of external storage, note taking also aids in the memorisation process, and thus becomes part of your internal storage – your brain. Simply put, when you take notes, you remember much more of what you’ve learned.
But more than this, note-taking is an effective information-processing tool. It contributes to how we carry out a range of intellectual processes, such as problem solving and decision making (Boch & Piolat, 2005). This is also called the encoding effect. Notes allow information to be coded. This relieves some of the pressure on our memory processes, which makes complex thinking easier. When we take notes, we engage actively with the content of a lecture or a class, which increases our comprehension.
Problem Solving and Cognition
Furthermore, by having notes function as an external memory system, we allow more cognitive (thinking) space for actual problem solving (Boch & Piolat, 2005). There are a few reasons for this. Taking notes is cognitively demanding, which basically means it takes a lot of brain power. Thus, cognitive resources need to be made available in order to produce notes.
When we are listening, we must be able to take in what we hear, extract key information and make connections between those ideas and we already know, and then paraphrase or extract key information to write it down. By taking the pressure off your internal memory, you give your brain the space it needs to make these connections. Yet, the process of having that information travel through your ear, into your brain, and out through your hand again has simultaneously increased your comprehension, even though you’re creating an external memory tool. Pretty effective, huh!
Finally, taking notes also helps you stay focused and to pay attention during class. Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s easy to drift off in a lecture, and that’s not a great use of your time!
So how do we take effective notes?
There are a few major styles of note-taking, and I’ll take you through those in a moment. Firstly though, I want to go through some of the most important basics, beginning with the age old question (well, digital age old question?): long-hand or typing.
Long Hand or Typing?
Research is split on this one. Typing can be beneficial because it’s faster, allowing you to return your attention to the instructor quicker. One study showed that those who wrote by hand recorded almost half of the amount of notes as those who typed. Other studies, however, argue that longhand is better because these notes tend to be necessarily more paraphrased (due to time) and therefore lead to deeper processing (Kuepper-Tetzel, 2017).
This deeper processing is the really important part. When typing notes, students tend to copy the lecturer verbatim – this means they wrote exactly what the lecturer said. Your brain is only capable of processing so much at a time. If you’re writing faster, you tend to process both the structure of the sentences and the meaning of the words at the same time.
Longhand, however, because it’s slower, forces you to concentrate on the meaning rather than structure and language. It also forces you to paraphrase, which studies show is the most effective method for retention and deeper processing. However, if lecture material is very complex, you might reach your cognitive limits when paraphrasing and be unable to process information properly at all (Kuepper-Tetzel, 2017). Think of it as brain fry. So, basically, if your lecture is very complex, typing might actually be more effective. The trick is to make sure you go back over your notes and ensure you’ve understood all the relevant information. You may even consider summarising your notes after the lecture.
Keep your notes brief!
This is probably the most important part (and the bit that I was terrible at as an undergrad!): keep your notes as brief as possible! Use dot points and key words and consider creating an abbreviation system for yourself. Reduce the main points to what is essential, and avoid too much detail.
Also, as much as possible, try to use your own words. Paraphrasing not only makes your notes much shorter, but it ensures that you’ve understood the content of the lecture.
If the material of the lecture is available in the slides, textbooks or readings, just keep to the main points of the lecture. Use these as a reminder of the content of the lecture, and a guide to where you can find out more later on. Note any questions, notes to yourself about things to look up, or connections to make later on.
What should I write down?
Figuring out what is most important can be really hard, particularly if you’re new to the subject area.
Look at your topic guidebook, particularly about what’s coming up – what are the topics of your assessment? What are the topics big ideas? Most topics should tell you the focus of each week. This is at least a clue as to what you should be listening out for.
Use the slides as a guide. Hopefully (but not always) the notes on the slides will be relatively short, so look to them for an indication of what the most important key words are. You can also use the titles of slides as headings for your own notes. Remember not to copy them too much though – you’ll have access to them later!
Watch the body language and listen to tone changes in the lecturer. If the vocal register or the pacing of the lecturer changes, this can often indicate either a shift in content, or that they’re saying something important. There are also often key signal words that lecturers will use. They might say things like, ‘the first key topic of our discussion will be …’ or, ‘there are several important examples of this …’ Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the style of each lecturer throughout the semester.
Whichever method you use, organisation is key! Remember that whatever you’re doing now is for the purposes of your future self, so make it as easy for yourself as possible. Trust me, you’ll thank you later!
Use a separate notebook for each topic, or get yourself one of these handy dandy notebooks with sections. It’s important to get this set up early. It’s far harder to go backwards than it is to have a good system in place from the get-go.
Leave the first page blank and turn this into a contents page. Write down the title and date of each lecture, and keep track of the pages by writing them in the bottom corner as you go.
At the top of each new page, write the date and the name of the lecture. Trust me, you don’t want to be trying to find your way through an unmarked notebook when it comes time for exam revision!
If you really like organisation, you may want to consider adding some colour coordination to this (I love colour coordination!) Using a highlighter or coloured pen to differentiate a lecture from a reading, or for different key topic ideas. Highlight key words throughout your notes, or use different coloured pens for different sections, eg main ideas versus examples.
Note Taking Methods
While this is all very well and good in general, sometimes applying it all can be difficult. This is where choosing a particular note-taking method can come in really handy. This will give structure to your notes and keep the consistent!
The Outline Method
The Outline Method is probably the method you already use without even realise you’re doing it! It is a hierarchical method of note taking and it’s really easy to keep organised. It is effective for providing structure, as it allows you to keep main ideas prominent, and keep information categorised and grouped.
- Record main ideas in a bullet list, using headings, top level bullets and then details.
- Set out new ideas as far left as possible, then tier relevant information to the right below this.
- You can use sub, and even sub-sub points to show how information is related.
- Use formatting tricks to help them stand out. For example, use bold for important key words, or astrisks. Basically, find something that will help draw your attention to the idea later on.
One of the main problems with this method is that as it is very linear, it doesn’t involve as much deep processing. The more we transform the information that we’re receiving, the more we retain it.
The Cornell Method
The Cornell Method divides your page into three distinct sections. This makes it easy not just to keep things organised, but to return to information later on. I’ve recently started using this method, and it’s excellent!
- Divide your page into three sections
- On the left, include a wide margin. This is for key words or questions that come up as you’re noting.
- The right section (about 70% of the page), is the main body section. Here, write notes as you normally would (perhaps using the Outline Method!).
- At the bottom of the page, include a summary section. At the end of the lecture, distill the most essential points into a short paragraph. This not only makes it easy to find relevant information later on, but makes you reflect on the lecture. This ensures you’ve understood the most important content, and will help you retain the information much better!
This method is not only very efficient and structured, it leads to deeper understanding and thus better results! You can easily review your notes later when it comes time to revise, as you already have a summary and key words to direct your attention.
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Boch, F. & Piolat, A. (2005). Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research. The WAC Journal, 16, 101-113. http://wac.colostate.edu/journal/vol16/boch.pdf
Kuepper-Tetzel, Carolina, http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2018/9/13-1, summarising Jansen, R. S., Lakens, D., & IJsselsteijn, W. A. (2017). An integrative review of the cognitive costs and benefits of note-taking. Educational Research Review, 22, 223-233
Jansen, R. S., Lakens, D., & IJsselsteijn, W. A. (2017). An integrative review of the cognitive costs and benefits of note-taking. Educational Research Review, 22, 223-233.
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking.Psychological Science, 25(6),1159–1168.https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581.
Schoen, I. (2012). Effects of method and context of note-taking on Memory: Handwriting versus typing in lecture and textbook-reading contexts.Pitzer Senior Theses, (Paper20). Retrieved fromhttp://scholarship.claremont.edu/pitzer_theses/20