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Note Taking 101

Developing an organized system of note taking is a critical part of college success. Taking great notes doesn’t just help us retain more material, it also helps develop higher order thinking skills. When we take notes, we are forced to arrange concepts in terms of priority, relevance and interconnectedness.

Done right, our notes can be far more than a tool for rote memorization and acing tests, they also help us to master the concepts behind the material. There is plenty of advice out there on how to organize and review notes for different types of subjects. But note taking protocols and guidelines from the pre-web era are of little help to today’s information-overloaded student.

That’s why we offer our own guide to the importance of notes and how to take them in the age of Google search and distance learning:

Note-Taking is a Muscle

Note-taking, like other forms of study, is a skill set. Unfortunately, few high school students are truly prepared for the level of information processing demanded of them in college. The best way to prepare for college-level coursework is to develop college-level standards of note taking and organization. To start:

  • Handwrite your notes. Scholarly evidence supports the link between handwritten notes and memory retention; handwriting reinforces the neural pathways that help you remember new concepts. Over time, the practice of taking good notes will help you quickly identify salient points and flag unclear concepts for further investigation.
  • Annotate texts as you read them. Taking notes in the margins of your textbook prior to the lecture can spotlight concepts you need more of an explanation on, and outlining highlights from your professor’s lecture can not only serve to answer those questions but to identify important material you’ll see again on a test. You can even use your syllabus to sketch out a rough framework for note-taking before you begin to study.
  • Teach yourself to hear and recognize key points. As your instructor speaks, he or she may drop hints that an important nugget of data is about to be delivered. When you hear phrasing or cues like the ones listed below, pay special attention to the information that follows:
    • Usage of a number: “There are three main branches” or “The second most often seen is the…”
    • Usage of an example or hypothetical situation
    • Reference to an item or passage in the textbook
    • Usage of “the following” whether it be steps, ideas, or people
    • Change in volume or tone of voice
    • Elaborate gesticulation or dramatic explanation of a point
    • Reference to anything written on the board or in a PowerPoint
    • Transitional language such as “consequently” or “therefore”
  • Revisit and review your notes regularly. Your completed notes are your best tool to prepare for exams and other assignments in class. It’s long been proven that information contained in written notes has a 34% chance of being remembered, versus only 5% of material not written into notes. Repeating concepts or ideas out loud while studying has been proven to increase memory retention even more. If you’re uncomfortable reciting information aloud, simple memory rehearsal has been found to significantly increase the amount of information that can be recalled on demand.

The best way to teach yourself how to create great notes is to practice. This will help you realize what kind of note-taking is best suited for your learning style. For example, aural learners often find it useful to tape class lectures while they take notes. Playing the tape back can help to reframe notes you jot down in class. Of course this is an effective and comprehensive review for any student who has the time to review this way. It’s especially useful for reviewing fast lectures. You can listen to the tape, rewind key passages and fill in the blanks in your notes as you form a coherent outline.

Organized Notes are the Only Useful Notes

Your notes are useless if they lack organization or a structure you can follow later. Most commonly, notes are taken in an outline or what is to as a mind-map format, which we define below.

A template of the Cornell method

A template of the Cornell method

Notes in outline format often rely on bullets to show hierarchy among related concepts and information. As you’re outlining, it’s a good idea to leave white space on the page, especially if you are unfamiliar with the topic. This allows room to add bulleted explanatory notes or corrections later. Some students prefer to leave a blank column to one side of the page, later using that space for questions or to clarify the rest of their notes.

Some students prefer a more structured outline format known as the Cornell Method where students only use the front of each page. A column on the left side of the page is 2.5″ thick. Additionally, a 2″-deep row or box is left empty at the bottom of the page. Students using this method place lecture notes in the remaining large box on the right. The space in the column to the left is reserved to call out crucial points and to self-test, while the blank row at the bottom is reserved for a summary. The self-testing ability of students using the Cornell Method is unique among these note-taking strategies and is a known predictor of success on tests.

Alternatively, visual learners may find another form of note-taking, known as mind-mapping, most useful. In this format, a central concept or idea is placed in the center of a page. As the professor adds new ideas, a diagram is created that visually illustrates the connections between each item. This can be roughly drawn in class and filled in with more detail later. They can be hand-drawn according to templates that make sense to you or computer-generated via software. When done properly, mind maps will serve as a display tool that visually details the problem, concept or idea in ways that are especially relevant to group brainstorming sessions.

An example of how to organize a mind map

An example of how to organize a mind map

Standardize Your Notes

By now, it should be clear there are right ways and wrong ways to take notes, and these rules may differ from one student to the next. However, there are some basic tips that may be helpful to students at any learning level.

  1. Don’t write everything you hear; stick to main ideas.
  2. Keep notes in keywords or short phrases.
  3. Choose handwriting over a keyboard for better memory retention.
  4. Consider your objective in taking these notes. Are they for exam preparation? Specifications for a thesis? Your notes should reflect this goal.
  5. Be accurate; fact-check when necessary.
  6. Use consistent abbreviations or acronyms that make sense to you.
  7. Leave white space for additions and revisions.
  8. Always write notes on same size paper, preferably within the same binding or covering.
  9. Budget time directly after class to review notes and fill in with more information; brainstorm for ideas you may have missed at first glance.
  10. Take care of your body. Eat well and get enough sleep; one recent study links sleep loss with memory impairment.)
  11. Complete the assigned reading before class so you get more out of the lecture.
  12. Choose a seat with few distractions.

As you work on your own strategies, remember that taking notes during a fast-paced lecture or frenzy of web research is difficult. Don’t be too hard on yourself. There will be days when your notes are illegible, or when you’ve missed something or when you’ve just taken too many altogether. You can always rework your strategy or revisit your notes and rewrite them later.

Adopt Review Strategies

When you take detail-heavy, organized notes, you put yourself ahead of the game. The next question is how to revisit your notes. Studies show that 80% of our short-term memory is lost within 24 hours of a learning experience, so it’s essential you shore up against your own memory! Create a schedule that allows you to spend time reviewing your notes immediately after your class or research session is over. That way, you can fill in gaps in your notes and understanding while the material is still fresh in your mind.

Here are a few more ways to maximize your retention and application of the material you’ve learned:

  • Change your venue to study. New research has shown that contextual details, like the background chatter in a coffee shop or noise of a blender, may help our brains store additional information than if we spent all our study hours in the same place.
  • If your auxiliary class materials offer practice tests, take them. Research has shown that self-testing is one of the most reliable ways to prepare for an exam.
  • Stay methodical on test day. Some students find the SQ3R method helpful at test-taking time. The basic rules are to Survey the headings and section titles in the assigned reading, Question (identify) what is the most important, Read and annotate the material, Recite bits of the text out loud, and immediately Review notes after class.

Organizational Web Tools Can Help

Nowadays, there are dozens of software programs and mobile apps available for students who need help staying organized, especially when it comes to note-taking. Here are a few of our favorites:

Evernote is an iOS tool and is therefore only available for Apple products. This note-taking software allows you to type in notes, scan in handwritten text, and even tapes your professor’s lectures. Since you will have invested a pretty penny in a Mac product, you’ll be happy to know there is no extra cost for Evernote.

OneNote is Microsoft’s answer to Evernote. Available as a piece of the hulking Microsoft Office Suite, OneNote is a customizable note-taking program. It allows users to endlessly organize data and store it for later use. One of its most useful features is that for every snippet of information that is taken from the internet, OneNote also grabs citation data for the original source material.

WorkFlowy is actually a word processor, but its extreme customizability means you can turn it into a highly effective note-taking app. Nested pages can be built out from a single bullet point, offering great organizational data features. All data you enter is searchable, and you choose how much of your data you want to see.

Simplenote for Web and iOS crosses platforms to your iPhone. All notes made online or on your phone automatically sync; collaboration tools allow you to share selected notes. Numerous other apps integrate seamlessly with Simplenote.

SpiderScribe is an online mind-mapping tool. The app is built in Flash and is quite showy. SpiderScribe imports and embeds external data like video, maps and images. A single user may create three maps before being charged.

Audio Notetaker: Built for PCs, this tool records a speaking instructor or straight from another digital source like Skype or YouTube. Screen captures, live notetaking and customized outputs add to this product’s versatility. Advanced playback features and presentation tools make this a versatile product.


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