Effective note taking methods are key to making the most of your studies.

Every day, lots of people take notes, though few of us ever learned explicitly how to do it effectively. Instead, most people, whether students in classes or busy professionals in presentations, learned their note taking methods the fly. Note taking is a key part of learning new and vital information, and it’s important to find what works for you. But have you ever really sat down and thought about whether or not the way you take notes is very effective?

Right now, students and schools everywhere are adjusting to major changes in their daily experience due to COVID-19. Many students are learning from home through online learning, and encountering new challenges. Virtual learning is different, and the fact that you’re not in a classroom, around peers, and able to fluidly communicate with others, can feel like a barrier. Whether you’re in a physical classroom or a virtual one, knowing how to use effective note taking methods can make a big difference in your learning experience. With that in mind, we’ve included some of our best tips for note taking below.

How can I Improve my Note Taking Skills?

Like most things, improvement requires practice. The key to taking better notes is to practice effective note taking methods. Everyone who goes to school has to take notes, but most of us just default into it. Read this post, take a step back, and consider how you take notes. Do you feel like your notes make sense, or are they just a mess of bullet points? Do they help you study, or slow you down? Experiment with the ideas below and find what works for you. Not everything works for everyone or every subject.

Also, it’s important to take notes on readings as well as courses. It’s easy to speed through a book or article for the sake of finishing your assigned reading. Unfortunately, this means that vital information often gets lost in the shuffle. Taking notes on your readings helps with concept retention, and makes studying easier later when you revisit the subject.

Tools and Resources

There is a galaxy of tools available for efficient note taking. Assuming you are taking notes by hand, a journal and pencil or pen are fundamental. However, tools like highlighters, sticky notes, and even specialty notebooks with templated structures (such as a Cornell notebook) can be very useful.

Of course, this being the digital age, plenty of students opt to take notes on laptops and tablets. If this is you, there are plenty of digital note-taking apps and tools available. Popular options include charting and mapping apps, audio-recording apps, and the G-suite. These are handy because your notes are stored in a central and very mobile medium. Cloud-based software makes this especially accessible. Also, digital notes are easily manipulated and edited, which makes study, organization, and revision a breeze.

Color-Coding, Symbology, and Shorthand

When taking notes, it helps to have some general rules in place for visually organizing information. Color-coding is one approach to this, using different colored pens or highlighters (or font colors) to signal that some information is more important to pay attention to. Symbols such as asterisks, crosses, arrows, underlining, brackets, and boxes are quick and easy ways to do this as well. Also, using a form of shorthand, such as obvious acronyms for key phrases or concepts (like PEMDAS), or shortened versions of common words (like w/ for “with”) can save some time and energy while taking notes.

Outlining

Outlining is what many consider the “default” method of note taking. Using bullet points or numbers, you create notes with a topic and subtopic hierarchy. Main topics are written in large script, and aligned to the left of the page. Subtopics are then indented slightly from the main topic, sub-subtopics even more, etc. The idea here is to create an easy-to-follow linear organizational structure for your notes. Because of the way we think, and the way we read, this is a pretty straightforward method of notetaking. The key here is making sure your notes are logically organized. Unfortunately, you might not know what’s most important in the moment, and so your class notes might be out of order. This is easily solved by coming back later to clean the notes up.

Sentences

Simply, this method involves jotting down sentences for key topics and details. The value and function of taking notes in sentences varies based on subject and setting. In a literature class, for example, the sentence approach probably makes sense, but it may not be as useful in a math class. Also, jotting down sentences can be time-consuming. If your teacher speaks quickly, this method may leave you in the dust. However, it works great for taking notes on books and articles, especially for copying key passages. Also, it’s great for “translating” notes later, such as annotating geometric formulas.

The Cornell Method

Considering the namesake, you know the Cornell method must be one of the most popular note taking methods for a good reason. This one requires a bit of preparation. Divide your page into three sections: a thin column on the left, a wide column to the right, and a box that takes up roughly the entire bottom quarter of the page. During class, make your notes in the wide right-hand column. Jot down whatever is important, bullet points and concepts, etc. You might use the above-mentioned outline method for this.

After class, return to your notes. In the thin left-hand column, write down main points, questions that you have, and prompts that you can use to remember key concepts. Finally, turn to the section at the bottom of the page. Imagine you have to verbally explain what you learned in class that day and write a succinct summary of your notes. These two sections are extremely useful for studying later. As we mentioned above, there are lots of templated Cornell notebooks available for purchase, as well as free printable templates.

Charting

Charting is a useful approach for information that can be neatly categorized, such as elements in chemistry, or names and dates in history. Keeping graph paper on hand is useful for this type of notetaking. Create a grid, with categories along the X and Y axes, leave plenty of room for each entry, and then fill it in with what you need. For example, in chemistry, you might have element names down the left-hand side of the paper, and categories like atomic number, atomic mass, and group along the top of the paper. Then you would just simply fill the boxes with the relevant information.

As a bonus, charted notes can be easily converted to a spreadsheet which you can then quickly sort and organize by a variety of criteria. This can be useful for study later, because, for example, you can organize notes from a history class by the date of occurrence or key topic.

Mapping

If the subject matter you’re studying is going in a lot of directions at once, mapping can be a useful approach. For effective mapping, forget about the lines on the paper. If you have some on hand, extra-large sheets of paper can be useful here. Mapping tends to take up a lot of space.

You can start from one end of a piece of paper, but starting in the center might be more appropriate. For a single class or chapter, write the day’s subject and circle it. As major subtopics come up, make branches leading to each one. Then make more branches from the subtopics to supporting information. This is useful for taking notes on material that is generally related but consists of a lot of distinct, non-linear parts. What you end up with might look like the root system of a tree, or a spider web.

Revisit and Revise

At some point, you need to come back to your notes. Many students will simply study directly from the notes they made in class. This is not wrong, but it also might not be the most effective approach. Treat your class notes like you would a rough draft of a paper. They’re raw material. A good practice is to take this raw material and revise it. Condense it into cleaner, better-organized material.

In class, many students doodle, write down things they don’t need later, or rush and wind up with difficult to read notes. This can get in the way of using the notes and studying later. Schedule some time every day or week to go through your notes and clean them up in a way that helps you study them. This is especially important if you are planning to take an open note exam. The 2020 AP exams will be administered in an open note format, and it is crucial that your notes are easy to navigate.

Find What Works For You

Everyone learns differently and finding what note taking methods work best for you is part of that. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and don’t feel like you have to use a specific method just because your peers do. Ultimately, your notes should serve your study needs.