Effective note-taking is an essential skill for high school and university students. It enables them to actively engage with lectures, retain information, and prepare for exams. Having studied science-intensive subjects at the University of Toronto where every lecture was fast paced, I can confidently say that possessing effective note-taking skills significantly impacts learning outcomes. Effective note-taking deepens one’s understanding in the shortest possible time, making learning more efficient. This is crucial for busy high school and university students who often juggle multiple courses with heavy workloads. In this blog, we will look at why note-taking is important and explore various note-taking methods that have been proven effective for both high school and university students.
The Importance of Note-Taking
Taking good notes is a crucial aspect of learning because it promotes active learning. Generally, there are three methods that students can use to take notes in a class.
First, a student can focus on listening to the teacher or professor, concentrating on understanding the material without writing down anything. This way, they don’t get distracted by writing notes.
Second, a student can attempt to transcribe everything the teacher or professor says during the class, allowing them to review the material later at home.
Lastly, a student can combine listening and writing by paying attention to a segment of the lecture, thinking about it briefly, and then writing down their thoughts.
Which of the above approaches do you think is most effective in enhancing memory and comprehension?
Research has found that the third, the combined approach, is the most effective method for helping students retain information. Relying solely on listening to the lecture may lead to essential information being forgotten. Conversely, if you focus only on writing down everything the teacher or professor says, you are not engaging with the material, making the learning process purely mechanical. The optimal approach is to listen to a segment of the lecture, understand the lecturer’s point, and then write down the information in your own words. In doing so, you actively reflect on and process the information.
Note-taking allows you to process the information in your own way
Taking notes in class promotes deeper thinking and understanding of the material being discussed. As the teacher or professor talks about a topic, writing down key points, arguments, or analogies enables students reflect and digest the concepts being presented. Additionally, summarizing these ideas in their own words requires them to process the information in a way that makes sense to them personally. This helps them understand and retain the information. Essentially, note-taking serves as a mental exercise that enhances their learning experience.
Note-taking allows you to review the material later
Taking notes during a class also allows a student to review the material at a later time. By creating a written notes for lectures, discussions, and relevant points, students can efficiently refresh their memory on essential concepts and reinforce their understanding at home. This practice is particularly useful when preparing for tests or working on assignments that require concepts taught in class. Without notes from lectures, students may not be able to recall important points discussed in class.
What are the popular note-taking methods?
Several note-taking methods are popular among students, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Some methods have a more visual style, while others focus on summarizing and connecting ideas. To determine the best method for you, consider your learning style, the subject matter, and the lecture format. Here, we will explore some popular note-taking techniques and their advantages.
1. The Outline Method
The Outline Method involves organizing notes in a hierarchical structure with main ideas as headings and supporting details as subheadings or bullet points. As you listen to the lecture, you create an outline notes by writing down the main topic, its subtopic, and points in point form.
Advantage of and When to Use the Outline Method:
- Lectures in which topics are presented in a clearly organized and logical manner.
- Allows for easy identification of main points and their corresponding details.
- If you are taking notes using a computer, adding a topic or subtopic is easy and the notes will still be organized.
Possible disadvantage of the Outline Method:
- Unsuitable for subjects like physics and math where many formulas and diagrams are involved.
- If you are hand-writing notes, it is difficult to inserting additional points between existing points.
- Sometimes, the organization of topics isn’t very clear, particularly if you are learning the topic for the first time.
2. The Sentence Method
The sentence method is a note-taking technique that involves recording the main ideas and key points in short sentences. Each piece of information is written on a separate line. No particular organization is needed, but you can organize the sentence using headings.
Advantage of and When to Use the Sentence Method:
- Because of its simplicity, this method is quick to use.
- It is suitable for fast-paced lectures.
Possible disadvantage of the Sentence Method:
- Because there is little organization, the notes can be disorganized and hard to read later on.
3. The Cornell Method
The Cornell Method is a structured technique that helps students organize their notes in a way that facilitates easy recall and review. This method divides the paper into three sections: a narrow left column (Cue Column), a wide right column (Note Column), and a section at the bottom (Summary).
During the lecture, students take notes in the Note Column, focusing on main ideas, keywords, and concepts. After the lecture, they review the notes and jot down questions or memory cues in the Cue Column. Finally, they write a summary of the lecture in the Summary section.
Photo credit: By Icez~enwikibooks at English Wikibooks – Transferred from en.wikibooks to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61796077
Advantage of and When to Use the Cornell Method:
- Great for applying and synthesizing knowledge such as in English classroom.
- Encourages active review and identification of main ideas for future reference.
- Helps students organize their thoughts and recollect information that they have learned.
- Good for subjects involving lots of diagrams or free writing, such as math and chemistry.
4. The Charting Method
The Charting Method requires students to create a table or chart to organize information during a lecture. A student can create a quick table and fill in the information.
Advantage of and When to Use the Charting Method:
- Works the best for content that consists of a series of facts, figures, or comparisons.
- Encourages students to organization information in a coherent manner, making comparison easier. This kind of organization also helps you remember information better before a test.
Possible disadvantage of the Charting Method:
- This method should not be used as the only note-taking method in a lecture. Many types of information cannot be put into a table. For example, this method is unsuitable for solving a math question.
5. The Mind-Mapping Method
For those who prefer a more visual approach, the Mapping Method involves creating a visual representation of the lecture content using diagrams or concept maps. Start with a central concept or keyword. Draw a branch of each idea that is related to the concept. From that branch, draw further branches representing more specific ideas related to the branch. At the end, you’ll have a comprehensive map showing the hierarchy of ideas in a tree-like manner. In addition to sentences, you can also include symbols and diagrams to aid your points.
Advantage of and When to Use the Mind-Mapping Method:
- Effective for subjects that involve complex relationships between ideas or concepts.
- Serve as an easily scannable study aid during review sessions.
Possible disadvantage of the Mind-Mapping Method:
- It is time-consuming to make a good mind map, so this method might be more suited to studying at home.
- If one branch that you drew ends up having many related ideas, that branch may take up more space than you anticipated while the rest of the page is left blank. For example, if you drew 4 main branches from the center of the page but the professor spent the whole class talking about 1 branch in detail, you may end up writing very small prints on a quarter of a page. For this reason, mapping method may be more suited to reviewing and synthesizing materials that you already learned in school than to take notes in real time in class.
Making Your Own Note-Taking Method
As you can see, each note-taking method has its advantages and disadvantages. A potentially beneficial approach is to combine these methods and adapt them to the specific topics being taught by the teacher or professor.
Consider a biology lesson about the digestive system. Depending on the content being covered, you can flexibly alternate between note-taking methods.
- When the teacher provides an overview of the human digestive system, its function, and importance, you can create a quick mind map.
- When the teacher goes through the human digestive system from top (i.e., mouth) to bottom (i.e., anus), you can employ the outline method combined with the sentence method to swiftly record essential ideas while establishing a hierarchical structure.
- When the teacher summarizes the enzymes involved in digestion, you can use the chart method to organize the information for easy comparison.
- You can incorporate the above strategies into the Notes column of your notes using the Cornell method. At the end of the class, you can write a summary in the Summary section.
This combined approach is more efficient than limiting yourself to only one method. It also encourages quick thinking, leading to increased concentration and active engagement during class.
Should I handwrite my notes or use a computer?
You have the option to either hand-write your notes on paper or type them using a computer. Each method comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.
Research indicates that hand-writing notes is generally more beneficial for enhancing comprehension and retaining information. In one study, college students who used a laptop for note-taking tended to transcribe the professor’s words verbatim and demonstrated lower performance on conceptual questions related to the class materials than students who handwrote their notes. The researchers observed that students who took notes by hand processed the information and recorded it in their own words, leading to a better understanding.
If you prefer to take notes on a computer, consider the following advantages and disadvantages:
- Unlike paper, laptops do not allow you to easily draw pictures, create tables, or construct mind maps. With pen and paper, you can more freely take notes in any format you like. This is especially important if you have to draw many diagrams in a subject like cell biology.
- When you have a printed handout or PowerPoint presentation, it’s more convenient to directly write on the document; you can do this if you are handwriting. When using a computer, you may need to create a separate document for your notes.
- If you have good typing skills, you might be able to take notes more quickly than by handwriting them.
- Laptops can be a source of distractions due to various apps and websites. If you are prone to distractions, handwriting your notes may be a more suitable choice.
Should I write on my lecture notes / handout / PowerPoint printout directly or on a separate piece of paper?
Credit: Free sample presentation slides from slidesgo. Retrieved from https://slidesgo.com/theme/artificial-intelligence#search-Slidesclass&position-1&results-92
Often, you are provided with handouts or PowerPoint presentations that can be printed out. You can either take notes directly on the printed lecture notes or use a separate piece of paper. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of using a separate piece of paper:
- You can take notes in any format or use any method you prefer.
- You have ample space to write anything.
Disadvantages of using a separate piece of paper:
- You have two sets of notes to review: one is the handouts or PowerPoint presentation given to you by your teacher or professor, and the other is your personal notes.
- When reviewing at home, you might struggle to connect your notes to the teacher’s handout or presentation.
Advantages of writing directly on the printout:
- You can annotate any diagrams on the printout. If there are many important diagrams, this is the method you may want to use.
- You have only one set of notes to review: your teacher’s handout with your notes added.
- When taking notes, you can refer to the information on the handout or PowerPoint printout and include extra notes. This creates a consistent set of notes where your teacher’s handout material is connected to your ideas, records, and diagrams.
Disadvantages of writing directly on the printout:
- There is limited space. You may only have enough space to use the Sentences Method. To remedy this disadvantage, you can print out the PowerPoint slides on one page and leave the other page blank. Then, you’ll have the backside to freely take notes.
So, which method should you use? It depends on your preference, learning style, and the nature of the lecture.
- If the handout or PowerPoint printout contains only textual information or limited information, use a separate piece of paper. For example, if there are only a few slides and your teacher or professor relies on talking to convey information, you should take notes on a separate sheet of paper.
- If the handout or PowerPoint printout contains many diagrams and the teacher or professor frequently refers to them, you should write notes directly onto the handout or PowerPoint printout.
Should I record the lecture and take notes at home?
In college and university, some professors permit students to record their lectures using voice recorders. While attending the University of Toronto, I observed several students recording lecture notes on their recorders, and I even did it myself on occasion. The primary purpose of recording a lecture is to ensure that no crucial information is missed while taking notes. Although this may be a helpful strategy, it is essential to consider some potential drawbacks:
- Re-listening to the recording can be time-consuming. If you plan to listen to the recording and take notes at home, it may take 2 to 3 hours for each hour of lecture, based on my experience.
- Recording the lecture might reduce your motivation to pay close attention and take comprehensive notes during the session.
- If you leave your recording device beneath the lecture podium unattended, it could be stolen. It’s true; I’ve experienced that.
No, taking great notes doesn’t give you an A+ automatically
Taking great notes can help you study more efficiently, but it is not a panacea. Simply using the methods mentioned in this article to take notes does not guarantee you an automatic A+.
One study found that students using the Cornell method to take notes in math class did not have higher achievement than those using their own method, even though notes taken with the Cornell method were generally of higher quality. Another study conducted on middle school students was inconclusive regarding the effect of note-taking instruction on student performance.
What these research studies suggest is that note-taking should be combined with other study skills such as periodic review, summarization, or test-taking strategies. Additionally, there is no “right” method for taking notes. Whatever method you choose, it should be comfortable for you, facilitate reflection and critical thinking, and aid you in your review process.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to effective note-taking, but finding your own ideal note-taking method can significantly improve the learning process for high school and university students. Experimenting with each technique and adapting it to personal learning styles will help students retain information, excel in their coursework, and set the stage for academic success.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.