Learn how to take notes from books, at work, for meetings, in college
Can’t. Remember. Anything. You attended the lectures, passed the exams and wrote the papers, but now when you really need the information, you can’t remember anything! You’re probably asking yourself at this point whether lectures are a waste of time.
You may even be asking “Why bother doing all that reading if I just end up forgetting everything I’ve read?” The answer may be in the choice of your note taking methods.
Before we proceed, please first answer this: Did you take any notes?
If you did, then we’ll help you how to take notes effectively using proven note taking methods and how to review your notes to truly learn. If you did not, then you will find a wealth of guidance here on incorporating note taking into your learning process for great results.
How To Take Notes – Overview Methods
Note taking is a tried and true way of capturing and interpreting information that you want to understand and remember. Indeed, note taking by itself is not enough for understanding and remembering, but wise students are proactive about preparing their notes for effective review and to memorize information better.
Here are three of the best note taking methods adult students commonly use:
- Outline – This classical hierarchical system helps organize information into main ideas and their corresponding smaller ideas.
- Mind Map – Similar to an outline, but more pictorial, this method places words and short phrases in circles on branches that extend from the main idea.
- Cornell Method – A split-page system that prompts you to pose questions in connection with ideas.
We will explore these note taking methods and others in greater depth in a bit.
How To Retain Information – Overview Techniques
There are two very effective strategies to retain information.
There are a few theories in memory science that attempt to explain the phenomenon of forgetting. Whichever you ascribe to, one reality is clear: repetition and consistent application help lock things into the long-term memory.
The power of this technique is the space part. Reviewing content in intervals over time works because before you forget what you’ve learned, you refresh yourself with the information again. There is even a way to plan the intervals of time for maximum benefit.
This technique involves quizzing yourself. In an article about this powerful strategy, Ali Abdaal says that most students prefer rereading the material over doing an active recall.
Rereading, he explains, is much less effective because it is less mentally taxing – but that’s the point: “revision should be cognitively demanding!” Doing Active Recall on a Spaced Repetition schedule makes for very effective information retention.
Taking Notes – Know Your Learning Style
Knowing your learning style will help you select the best note taking method and revision/study system for you. Unlock the power of effective note taking by doing it YOUR way!
The VARK learning styles give some insight into useful note taking strategies for all learners:
Visual: Your eyes are your power tool. Your notes should feature pictures, maps, colors, boxing, circling and underlining keywords and phrases.
Aural/Auditory: Your ears are your power tool. Your notes should be written with the express purpose of being read back to yourself aloud and discussed with others.
Read/Write: Writing is your superpower. In your first take, leave white space between main ideas where you can later do more writing as you revise for retention.
Kinesthetic/Tactile: You are an action hero. Add metaphors, similes, examples and activity cues in your notes to help you process key ideas.
Bear in mind that although one learning style can be dominant in you, the others usually are not non-existent. Also, some people are 50/50 in two styles. Knowing if one or two are dominant in you will help you make better choices.
Tip: Many of us take their notes on a digital device. Thus, accurate typing skills can be helpful to take those notes effectively, particularly when attending university. Here are some of the best typing tutors to increase speed, accuracy, and spelling.
8 Popular Note Taking Methods / Systems
1. Outline Method
This is the classic hierarchical system that organizes main points with smaller details indented underneath big ideas. If your speaker talks in a list format “Here are six …. “, or “The first of these is…”, then, you should consider this your cue to begin outlining your notes using a simple bullet list system. You can main topics to structure sections.
Benefits – Using the outline system allows you to neatly organize your notes. Each idea has a number of points that further explain the main topic. Kinesthetic learners can easily turn outline notes into flashcards, while Read and Write learners can leave gaps or additional lines under each main idea to add more later on.
Note – If information is being delivered too fast or the speaker jumps back and forward you may struggle to fully maintain this system as you won't have time to organize your thoughts quickly enough.
2. Mind Mapping Method
An outline for artists and visual learners, this note taking method is useful for noting from texts or for lectures that you read for in advance. The main topic goes in the center of the page in a circle. You can have various sub-centers that contain another important idea related to the main idea.
How does it work – Then, main and sub-main ideas should each shoot out from the center in circles, and each of those circles have smaller offshoots for supporting ideas and specific information or data. You can go as detailed as you wish or as needed.
Benefits – One of the biggest benefits of this note-taking system is to visualize information and have facts skimmed and scanned at a glance. That works particularly well for shallowly organized mind maps containing one main idea and a limited number of supportive ideas and key information. Another advantage is to quickly understand relationships between ideas, facts, information or data.
Use cases – Mind mapping is suitable for lectures, meetings or presentations that contain a lot of information but are well structured and organized. It is also popular for brainstorming ideas or outlining strategies that can then be reviewed quickly.
3. Cornell Note Taking Method
The Cornell note taking method is one of the most popular formats to systematically write down facts and information and prepare those notes for review at a later stage. It is a column-based system that can be used on both paper and computer screens.
The Cornell note taking method employs two powerful reading comprehension strategies. You divide your page into three sections. Two columns take up most of the page. The one on the left is narrower than the right one. Leave a section at the bottom for a summary.
As you take notes on the right column, you pose related questions or main ideas and concepts in the left column next to the notes on the right. You then write a short summary in your own words about what you just learned.
You can use the concept of the Five R's to write down the right information and keep it lean, tidy and organized. These are Record, Reduce, Recite, Reflect and Rreview.
Record any data necessary. Reduce that data to a 2-3 word phrase and place it in the right column. To recite and recall you will cover your notes and only work with the right column. Take time to reflect on the information you took. Write clearly and precise to ease future review.
Questioning and summarizing are two research-based reading comprehension techniques that are taught at the primary level and are useful for lifelong learning. For active recall, fold the note page to hide the notes column and use your questions to quiz yourself. The Cornell note taking method has some benefits for all learning styles.
4. The Charting Method
Similar to the Cornell method, the Charting note taking method uses columns to structure facts, data and information. It is suitable when attending fact heavy lessons and you wish to organize that information in relationship to each other.
How to use it – Columns usually have similar width and contain the main topic and idea and then outline the facts and key points in each column.
- Fact & Data 1
- Fact & Data 2
- Fact & Data 3
- Fact & Data 1
- Fact & Data 2
- Fact & Data 3
- Fact & Data 1
- Fact & Data 2
- Fact & Data 3
5. The Sentence Method
If you ever struggled writing a lot or you find it easy to write down information without much cluttering, the sentence note taking method is probably worth a try.
As the name implies you jot down information in sentences, whereas each sentence contains one topic, one key information. Start a new line for each new topic or detail.
Benefits – This technique allows to prepare a lot of information in detail and is easy to review. You will also be able to keep your notes simple and well organized.
6. Annotate Lecture Slides
This is for lectures to which you have advance access to the slides. Print them out, bring them to the lecture and annotate them as they come up. Using multiple ink colors and highlighters can be helpful.
Caveat emptor: Some lecture slides only feature visual cues. On such slides, you will need to carefully capture detailed notes from the talk. On the other end of the spectrum, some slides contain exact wording from the lecture.
This may be what gives this method it’s “lazy” reputation. You still have to work hard to somehow make meaningful notes around the lecture text. The trick with the writing on slides method is to bring the information to life as an active way to create a personalized study guide that is useful to you later.
The next two note taking methods are systems you may not have heard about:
7. Q/E/C: Question / Evidence / Conclusion
This is a system endorsed by Cal Newport's Deep Work system. Forming questions from information that you are hearing necessitates interpretation which in turn necessitates understanding. Answering, adding evidence and drawing conclusions from what you are hearing or reading complete well-rounded thoughts in your notes. This also provides a great revision resource. Click the link above and read our tutorial to get started with this method.
8. Flow Notes
If you are not sure which note taking methods to use going into a lecture, this can work for you. You just grab ideas as you go along, dropping them on the page in single words or short phrases and linking them with arrows, circling, boxing, etc. as you notice connections in the information. It's some sort of free-style mind map. You can also do this in a series of sentences, but unlike in an outline, every sentence has the same level of importance.
6 Note Taking Tips – College, Work, Meetings
1. Mis en Place
What is the first step in baking a cake? If you answered “put some flour in a bowl”, I’m sorry, but you don’t win the ten-piece cookware set!
In culinary arts, the term Mis en Place (French for Put in Place) means setting out everything before you begin. Before putting flour in a bowl, you first need a bowl, a measuring cup, and flour. While you’re at it, you should also set up your sugar, eggs, butter, etc. Also, make sure your mixer is plugged in and ready with the right attachments, and preheat your oven.
The same applies to note taking. Make sure you have everything you need as you walk into the lecture or before you sit down with the book.
2. Computer/Device versus Paper
Some studies have shown that people remember more taking hand written notes than when they take notes on a laptop. A Princeton University study done in 2014 found that students who used laptops in the study wrote down what they were hearing almost verbatim.
Those using pen and paper were forced to engage the lecture. They needed to maximize the limited number of words and ideas they could capture in the same timeframe using the slower method.
That said, if you use a note taking app, coupled with active recall and spaced repetition, you can still do very well. Just be sure that your device is fully charged or that you can access an outlet as needed and eliminate distracting notifications.
3. Keywords and Key Concepts
Especially when writing by hand, capture and accentuate “trigger” words and phrases that will help you remember core ideas. The concept of trigger words can also be used when skimming and scanning non-fiction material to read faster. Those trigger words can contain:
- Names of people, players, participants
- Location related information
- Time based information, dates of events
- Definitions, abbreviations
4. Use Questioning for Understanding
If you don’t understand something you’re hearing, simply write questions. At the very least, you know what you don’t know. Later, commit yourself to answering your questions and deepening your understanding.
Hot tip: Group your questions into categories to create study aids.
5. Take Note of Body Language
It can help to watch your lecturer’s body language and somehow capture their emotions on your page using underlining, punctuation, emotion faces, quick drawings, or color codes.
6. Keep the Big Picture in Mind
The big idea should imbue all your notes. If it doesn’t, you may find yourself getting lost in a quagmire of minutia that has little to do with the main point.
Note Taking Apps To Take Notes
Use your stylus to write your notes with this app. Add technology to organize your notes and bring them alive in ways that would be much more tedious and wasteful on paper.
With Notability, you can even import your lecture slides to annotate them to your liking. What makes this app a powerful tool is your creativity after the lecture. You can insert images (pics, screenshots, etc) to enhance your notes.
Add more annotations, headings and tailored reorganization to teach yourself the material your way. Visual learners will benefit from use of images, colors and fonts. Kinesthetic learners can create flows and link pages that use examples to retell the story to themselves.
You Read and Write learners will be especially enthused by this one. More than just a note taking method, it is a complete organization system that brings the capabilities of a range of apps all into one.
The note taking section has a toggle feature that appears rather innocuous but is powerful. You can check out Ali Abdaal’s video for much more detail. It’s basically an outline system, but the upper level ideas can be designed to toggle, stashing the lower level ideas and thoughts below.
The result is a list-format summary of the main ideas at first glance. The silver bullet is the option to view each idea in more depth by clicking the toggle. This is a literal coup of the classic outline!
This toggle feature can also help you birth a Cornell – Q/E/C baby if each of your first level or second level ideas is in the form of questions. Answers, evidence and conclusions can hide underneath each.
Other great features of Notion include the page function, cool icons for bullet points and the ability to embed images such as pictures, diagrams and charts or graphs, under the toggles.
The Page function allows you to make pages for peripheral information that is not directly relevant to the big idea. A one-line link can give you access to those pages at strategic points in your notes. See other project management software here.
How To Take Notes – Summary Note Taking Methods
Learning how to take notes effectively can be powerful and there are proven note taking methods for every learning style. It’s just a matter of discovering a system that helps you capture, understand and recall the information that you want in your life.
You decide what to keep and what to discard, what is more or less relevant, and what ideas are most valuable as you transcribe what you are hearing and seeing. Knowing your learning style can help you select a note taking system that works for you.
6 Note Taking Methods – Take Better Notes
- Outline Method
- Mind Mapping
- Cornell Note Taking Method
- Charter Method
- Sentence Mapping
- Annotate Lecture Slides
- Q/E/C: Question/Evidence/Conclusion
- Flow Notes
Test – You should test drive some options – methods, systems, apps, tools – to find the right fit. You may have thought “I take crappy notes”, but it could be that you just haven’t found your supercharged strategy.
Conversely, you may feel that you are fine with your note taking system. Nevertheless, why not give yourself a chance to see if there’s a better strategy for at least some of your needs? You might surprise yourself!
Review notes – No matter what, the critical factor is how you use your notes later – Active Recall and Spaced Repetition are proven revision/study strategies. With a good overall plan in action, you will remember what you need when you need it!
How to take notes more effectively? What are the best note taking methods, strategies, or systems? It is your turn now, please leave your ideas, experiences, opinions in the comments below.