The ultimate guide to the outline note-taking method

The outline note-taking method helps you organize your thoughts and tackle complex topics in a logical order so you can learn at the highest level.

Outline note taking method: person holding a pencil

Study notes are a vital tool for learners. Every day, students around the world take some form of notes during classroom learning. Whether they’re typing into a laptop, writing by hand, or just doodling in the margins, the act of taking notes keeps them engaged and focused on their lessons.

Note-taking is equally important for self-learners. When you're learning something new — whether it's how to write an essay or operate Photoshop — learning how to take notes can help you succeed.

The outline note-taking method is an excellent tool for beginners and seasoned students alike. A good outline gives structure to the learning material and makes it easier to understand, review, and retain. This article discusses why it’s important to take notes, how to use the outline method, and five simple steps to get you started.

The science behind taking notes

Outline note taking method: paper cut-out shaped as a brain

We often think of learning as a journey to find and acquire knowledge. But it isn't enough to simply receive information — we must also be able to remember it.

A few types of memory are present in the human brain: sensory memory, working/short-term memory, and long-term memory. These processes work together to help us remember new information.

By only paying attention to certain things, our sensory memory keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by all the information we encounter throughout the day. Selected information moves to our working memory, which overlaps considerably with our short-term memory.

We can only work effectively with a few items in our working memory at a time. Famous research from the 1950s estimated that our working memory can hold seven items, plus or minus two. More recent studies suggest that the actual amount is as few as four.

However, scientists have found that our long-term memory has no such restrictions; its capacity is limitless. For learners, this is key — if we want to truly learn something, it has to go into long-term memory. This is where note-taking comes in.

How taking notes aids learning

Notepads and a pencil

Studies have shown that taking notes can significantly improve our ability to learn at all stages of the learning process. There is even evidence suggesting that students achieve their highest levels of comprehension when taking notes.

Taking notes for learning has two distinct benefits, one in the process and one in the product.

  • During a learning session: Whether you're taking a class or learning independently, note-taking to process new information provides many benefits. According to the encoding hypothesis, writing notes aids memory storage, helps us organize information, and allows us to compare what we're learning with what we already know.
  • After the lesson: In addition to the process of taking notes, the end result is equally beneficial. The storage hypothesis emphasizes the product side of note-taking, emphasizing the benefits of storing information outside of the mind for future use as a learning tool.

There are several ways to take notes when learning. You can write by hand, doodle or draw visual notes, or type notes on a laptop. Choose a method that is appropriate for your environment, skill level, and most importantly, the subject matter.

Writing notes by hand is ideal for conceptual learning, which is learning focused on understanding underlying ideas. Taking notes longhand helps you remember information better than typing it because you have to interpret and reframe what you hear.

Alternatively, since we type faster than we can write, we are more likely to type exactly what we hear. As a result, we can record a lot of information with minimal processing. Because of that, this method is best suited to factual learning, in which a lot of information must be recorded accurately.

Once you've settled on your medium, there are many note-taking methods to choose from. Some of the most common include:

  • The Cornell Method
  • The Outlining Method
  • The Charting Method
  • The Sentence Method
  • The Mapping Method

Experiment with different methods, mediums, and contexts — writing by hand with the outline method in a class, typing on a computer with the sentence method at home, etc. — to see which combination works best for you.

What is the outline note-taking method?

The outline method of note-taking is a system for recording and organizing information. The system has been around for decades and is a great way to take notes that are both thorough and easy to understand. Outlining may not be new and innovative, but it has proven effective in many learning environments, from classrooms to workplaces to self-study.

To use this method, you break your material down into sections using headings and subheadings. Then, you record information under each heading, using bullet points or short phrases. This will naturally result in an outline that organizes the information in a logical, highly structured manner, identifying the main points and providing a comprehensive summary of the material.

In addition to organizing your thoughts while learning, the system makes finding information more convenient later. You can also customize it to fit your preferences. Make your outlines as simple or detailed as you like, and use color, symbols, and other visual cues to help you organize your thoughts. If you need to make a change, it's simple to go back and edit your outline.

When to use the outline format

1, 2, 3 written on a notebook

The outline note-taking method is characterized by its well-organized structure. While this is the technique's primary advantage, it can also be a disadvantage in some situations. Because of this, it is essential to know when to use this approach.

Outlines are particularly helpful when applied to well-structured material. The sequence of the material in lessons or lectures should be logical and progressive so main points are supported by facts. For this reason, outline note-taking is better suited to traditional courses. In addition, it's an ideal tool for motivated self-learners since information is organized and classified logically and at your own pace.

If lecture content is less structured, the outline method may still be beneficial, but the process may be more complicated. Math and chemistry, which often require formulas, diagrams, and graphs, are additional examples of topics more suited to other note-taking systems.

If you haven't used the outline note-taking method before, practice first when you have plenty of time to make the necessary organizational decisions. For example, studying a textbook at home can be a great way to learn this method's systematic structure. For a new note-taker, using this format during a fast lecture may be challenging if you aren't used to simplifying complex information and condensing it into an outline.

Learn the outline note-taking method in 5 easy steps

Outline note taking method: paper plane and wooden blocks

Taking notes using the outline method is easy to learn because it follows a structured format. Anyone can learn to use this simple note-taking method just by following a few steps.

Before you begin, gather your materials. Nothing fancy is required — you just need something to write on like lined paper or a notebook, and a writing instrument like a pencil or pen. Find a place to work that is quiet and spacious, and you're set to begin.

Step 1: Define the main topics

The first step is to outline the critical points of the material. The main topics you write down should be general and provide a broad overview.

The number of items you list will depend on what you're covering, but overall, it's wise to stick to a few primary concepts. By beginning with broad ideas, you have the option of delving deeper into them.

Limiting your main points will help you with your learning objectives and also with the development of your outline. Since the outline format relies on indentation, these first steps are crucial to ensuring your notes have a coherent structure.

Take action: Make a list of the main topics on the left of the page without indenting, leaving enough room for a thorough discussion of subpoints and additional information under each heading.

Step 2: Identify the subtopics

Once you have defined your main topics, you can start developing subtopics. Every main point can have multiple subtopics, and each subtopic can have its own set of subtopics.

The key with subtopics is to ensure that they are specific enough to provide direction but not so specific that they limit what you can write about. For example, the main topic could be "The American Revolution," and a subtopic could be "Events leading up to the Revolution." This subtopic is specific enough to provide direction but broad enough to allow for multiple smaller subtopics, such as "The Stamp Act" and "The Boston Tea Party."

Take action: List subtopics under their main points, leaving room for supporting information. Show their hierarchy and placement in the outline using numbers, letters, or bullet points.

Step 3: Add in evidence and supporting material

Once your main points are broken down into subpoints, the outline's main structure begins to take shape. Now you can add supporting information.

Use facts, examples, or thoughts to illustrate your points in each section. Although the critical thinking process usually requires us to separate fact from thought during learning, both are useful for effective note-taking. In fact, writing down new thoughts about what you're learning is more valuable than just copying down information because it can foster critical thinking.

To assist critical analysis, consider using different colors for categories of information like facts, thoughts, and examples. This will help you see the connections between various ideas and make it easier to find the information you need.

Take action: Add new information about each subtopic in your own words. When adding information, always indent to the right, and use indicators like Roman numerals to indicate hierarchy and stay organized.

Step 4: Provide examples and further details

After you’ve expanded your subtopics with supporting information, add more details to refine the ideas. When possible, use real-life examples to help you visualize and connect the concepts.

If you're unsure of something, you may need to do more research to gain a better understanding. Taking a class allows you to ask your teacher for clarifications. If you are learning on your own, you may need to seek out additional resources.

If you plan to reference certain materials later, you can cite them now in your notes. It's vital that you organize your research information to be easily found when you need it.

Take action: Add extra details to support your information using short, concise sentences. Continue using bullet points, dashes, or other marks to make the outline easy to follow.

Step 5: Review and revise your notes

After you've finished your learning session, put your notes away and let your mind rest. But not for too long — studies show that reviewing your notes within 24 hours is the most effective.

Reviewing notes to ensure they are accurate and comprehensive is the last step in the note-taking process. The final outline should be easy to read and understand. As you read, pay attention to any areas that require clarification. You might need to add more detail or do further research if anything is unclear.

Rewriting your notes is an excellent way to review them. Multiple studies have shown that taking longhand notes improves students' memory and retention. A recent study comparing paper notebooks to mobile devices for studying found that keeping a paper journal increased activity in parts of the brain responsible for memory, vision, and language.

Take action: Reread your notes to make sure they are clear and complete. If you want to increase your study skills, try paraphrasing your notes when you rewrite them to help you summarize what you've learned.

Learn anything with the outline note-taking method

Many self-learners and students alike find the outline method to be the most effective way to take notes. This format is great for conceptual learning because it allows you to break complicated ideas down into smaller, easy-to-understand sections.

The act of writing the notes aids in memory, and the final product can serve as a useful tool for studying. By following these five simple steps, you can take advantage of this proven note-taking strategy and improve your understanding of challenging concepts.

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