Explore seven of the best note-taking strategies and how you can use them to enhance the learning process.
Think of the last time you studied for a test, researched an article, or analyzed a big project. What did your process look like? Specifically, what was your note-taking strategy?
Were your notes easy to find in a notebook or organized in a file on your laptop? Or perhaps your desk was covered in papers and sticky notes, or your book was annotated in the margins.
If you didn't have a specific process or found it inefficient — or even worse, didn't take notes at all — you're not alone. Many learners, especially online, struggle with the discipline and art of taking good notes.
There's no one "right" way to take notes. But effective note-taking strategies can help you organize essential information and get the most out of the note-taking process. Let's explore seven of the best note-taking strategies and how you can use them to enhance the learning process.
Enhance your learning process: 7 note-taking strategies
Taking notes is an essential step in the learning process. A number of studies have concluded that taking notes positively impacts learning, making it easier to remember what was learned, integrate it, and use it in new situations.
Many formats and mediums are available for taking notes when learning. Depending on your learning style or ability to recall information, you may choose to handwrite notes, record them on a computer or audio device, or create visual notes.
Scholars have discovered that the optimal choice of medium often depends on how learning materials are presented. A recent study concluded that both drawing and writing stimulate neuronal oscillation patterns that are beneficial to learning, thereby promoting optimum learning conditions.
The notes themselves can vary as well, with several note-taking strategies available. You might use shorthand, write full sentences, fill in a chart, or draw doodles. Selecting the method that works best for you is key. Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer to type, or does doodling come naturally to you?
Understanding your particular situation can help you determine which note-taking method is most appropriate. To help you get started, take a look at these seven popular note-taking strategies.
1. Outline Method
The Outline Method is a note-taking strategy highlighted by its highly-organized and concise format. This note-taking method is excellent for those who want to keep it simple, linking points together and making connections.
To use the Outline Method, follow these steps:
- Before you begin taking notes, create a template or framework that is organized by hierarchy. Start with a heading for your main topic, then write down the key ideas underneath. Indicate levels of importance by how far points are indented. Put the most significant points on the left-hand side and indent more specific ones to the right.
- While listening or watching, write essential ideas in an organized pattern based on the space indention. Information may not be necessary if you can't find a place for it.
- Your format can be as simple as a bullet point list — you can use numbers or Roman numerals, but they aren't necessary. Connect related ideas with arrows or other symbols, and use abbreviations or symbols to save time.
- Once you're finished taking notes, go through and fill in any missing information. You can also use this time to organize your notes into a more logical order.
The Outline Method is a great way to take notes because it forces you to be concise and organized. The method can be applied to many forms of learning, including lectures, online courses, and reading notes. It's a popular choice for nearly any subject, except for some science classes such as math or physics.
2. Charting Method
The Charting Method is another helpful note-taking strategy for those who like to be highly organized. This method's clearly structured format is excellent for taking notes on complex information and information that is presented quickly.
To use the Charting Method, follow these steps:
- Before taking notes, determine the categories to be covered. Set up your paper in advance by creating as many columns as needed and heading the columns by categories.
- Record information in the appropriate category column as you go through the lesson or listen to the lecture. You can write entire sentences, key points, abbreviations, or whatever works best for you.
- When your notes are complete, review them and adjust them if needed. You can also add symbols and colors to code information or show relationships between ideas.
The Charting Method is a great visual note-taking method that can help you see an entire lesson in one big picture. The resulting document can be used as a study guide for memorizing facts and studying comparisons. The method can be used for reading notes, class discussions, or other learning activities.
3. Mapping Method
The Mapping Method is a note-taking strategy that encourages active listening and participation. It's another suitable method for visual learners since it illustrates the learning material and makes connections between facts or ideas.
To use the Mapping Method, follow these steps:
- Start by drawing a circle in the middle of your paper and writing the main topic or concept inside.
- As you listen to or watch your learning material, branch out from the main topic with lines, adding new ideas and facts in more circles. You can also connect these to the main subject with arrows or other symbols.
- Make note of related ideas and connect them to the right idea. You may branch off from main points, sub-points, or whatever is relevant.
- Once you're finished taking notes, go through and edit them to fill in any missing information or add numbers, marks, and color-coding to indicate relationships of importance. You can also use this time to organize your notes into a more logical order.
The Mapping Method is excellent for creative and critical thinkers who want to explore and connect different ideas. This note-taking method can be used in any learning environment and is particularly helpful in situations where you don't know how the lecture will be presented. The note-taking format is optimal for a study guide — covering the lines is helpful for memory drills that aid retention.
4. Sentence Method
The Sentence Method is a note-taking strategy that involves writing complete sentences for each point that you want to remember. You can't take notes as quickly with this method, but you can capture more information and provide a greater context for each topic.
To use the Sentence Method, follow these steps:
- Start with a blank document. As you read your material or listen to the lecture, write down every new thought, fact, or topic on a separate line. Number your lines as you go.
- Try to capture as much detail as you can using complete sentences. Don't worry about connecting ideas unless you can quickly add them into the sentence.
- Once your notes are complete, go through them and edit for clarity. The format can make distinguishing major and minor points challenging, so you may need to reformat. You can also add symbols and colors to code information or show relationships between ideas.
The Sentence Method is a terrific note-taking method for people who want complete context for each note. This format works best if you can write quickly and is often paired with digital note-taking since many people type faster than they write. This note-taking method can be used for any learning session where you can keep up, including reading, class discussions, and lecture notes.
5. Cornell Method
The Cornell Note-Taking Method is a well-known strategy developed by Walter Pauk, a professor at Cornell University. This systematic note-taking method is designed to help you condense and organize your notes into using sections, resulting in a ready-to-use document for study.
To use the Cornell Method, follow these steps:
- Use the Cornell note-taking system template to create your notes. Divide your paper into two columns — one 2.5 inches (6.35 centimeters) and one 6 inches (15.24 centimeters) — with a row that spans them across the bottom. Label the column on the left-hand side Cues and the right column Notes. The bottom row should take about one-fifth of the paper and be labeled Summary.
- As you're learning, write down important concepts, ideas, key points, formulas, or whatever you need to remember in the Notes column. Try not to use long sentences — this method encourages abbreviations.
- After completing the lesson, review your notes and fill in any missing information. Summarize your notes in the bottom row to help you understand them better.
- Then, use your notes to formulate questions you could ask yourself to review the main key points, such as questions that review definitions or establish relationships. Write these questions in the Cue column.
- Now that your notes are complete, the next step is to recite the questions to help you learn. Cover the Notes column and ask yourself the questions in the Cue column, seeing how many key concepts you recall from the lesson. Reflect and adjust cues and notes as needed, reviewing them regularly.
The Cornell Method is a useful way to take notes because it helps you organize information and thoughts in a ready-to-use study guide. This systematic method for recording and reviewing notes can be used for any type of learning, including lectures, online lessons, and reading notes.
6. Building a Second Brain Method
Building a Second Brain is a personal knowledge management system developed by productivity consultant and educator Tiago Forte. Forte's system provides many valuable strategies for saving information and resources effectively. The result is a record of your learnings and their sources that can be used, reviewed, or deleted in the future — your "second brain."
This system contains many strategies broken into three parts — Remember, Connect, and Create. The first step focuses on "capturing" the ideas and insights you think are worth saving and can be applied to a note-taking strategy.
To use the Building a Second Brain method, follow these steps:
- Think like a curator. Be thoughtful and informed about the knowledge you consume. Don't read online articles, social media posts, or other interesting things immediately. Store them until you can make more deliberate choices about what you consume.
- Rather than by topic, organize your information by project in the order of when you would like to see it next. The PARA organizational system applies this system to your entire digital life, using your projects as universal categories across all of them.
- It isn't necessary to be highly intellectual or analytical about what information you choose to save unless you’re taking specific class notes or lecture notes. Save whatever resonates with you on a deeper level. Most of the time, there’s a connection to something you care about or are interested in.
The Building a Second Brain method is an effective way to capture and build your personal knowledge library. The techniques found in this method can be used for many things other than study, such as brainstorming, problem-solving, and idea generation.
7. Zettelkasten and the Smart Notes Method
The Zettelkasten Method is a note-taking system developed by German sociologist and historian Niklas Luhmann. Using this approach, you capture notes and references individually and then combine them into a system of note cards called a "slip-box." This can help you build a personal knowledge network to improve your learning.
In his book, "How to Take Smart Notes," Sonke Ahrens details Luhmann's note-taking system as a vital component of his smart notes strategy. He describes the slip-box as an "external scaffold to think in" that helps our brains objectively store information.
To use the Zettelkasten and Smart Notes Method, follow these steps:
- Write down your notes as a single thought, fact, or idea on each note card. Be as specific as possible. You can make brief notes as things come to mind or go straight to making a permanent note. You can use index cards, Post-it notes, or digital note-taking apps. These will go into your slip-box.
- As you're reading, take notes that include the critical point in your own words and the bibliographic reference. These will go into your reference box. Your reference box can take any form — Ahrens recommends using a free program like Zotero to integrate with your browser to make linking a breeze.
- Organize your notes. This can be done by tagging, categorizing, or any other method that works for you. Luhmann's approach used a complex numbering system that branched additional ideas off main points.
- Store your permanent notes in a slip-box. Luhmann's original slip-box was an actual wooden box, but today we can use a variety of digital tools. Any program that allows setting links and tagging will work, but Ahrens recommends Daniel Lüdecke's Zettelkasten or the alternative Zettlr for implementing the principles behind Luhmann's system while being simple and easy to use.
The Zettelkasten and Smart Notes Method is an incredible option for taking notes. By storing your ideas and references in one place, you will build a vital mass of ideas you can use indefinitely. Although detailed, it's pretty simple in action and makes future writing and learning take a fraction of the time.
Learn more in less time with the right note-taking strategies
When it comes to note-taking, there is no one-size-fits-all solution — finding what works for you is what's most important. Try out different note-taking strategies and see which ones work best for you. Whichever method you choose, make sure to use it consistently to see the most significant benefits.
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