The Best Note-Taking Strategies

Updated: Nov 2, 2016

Note taking accompanies us throughout our entire life and the better we master this skill, the more effective we will be in our academic and daily life.

The Best Note-Taking Strategies

The importance of effective and efficient note-taking can't be stressed too highly when it comes to academic successGood notes take a large and complex topic and reduce it to digestible nuggets, making it easier to memorize, and also providing the organization that's an essential foundation for a well-structured essay. 

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Electronic or Manual Note-Taking? 

Traditional note-taking, of course, relies on nothing more advanced than a pen and paper. These days, the convenience and portability of laptops and tablets mean that they are becoming increasingly popular for notes. They offer several advantages such as easy backup, syncing between devices, a simple way to search through your notes, and so on. There are dedicated note-taking apps available of varying complexity, while for fast typists even a simple text editor might have the edge over paper.

Nonetheless, the basic principles of effective note-taking apply whether using electronic or manual methods and considering that electronic means aren't suitable for all situations, knowing the best practices is important whatever your choice of tools.

Developing Your Own Abbreviations and Symbols

No matter how fast your handwriting, in a classroom you're unlikely to be able to keep up making an accurate transcription of a lecture. To speed things up, use the following techniques:

  • Use abbreviations in place of common phrases, whether subject-specific or common language.
  • Draw arrows to link concepts and topics together.
  • Highlight important points using stars, capitals, or underlining.
  • Use bullet points when listing facts or other discrete ideas.
  • Make use of common symbols such as @, >, =, !=, and so on.


Many of these last symbols already have recognized meanings, often rooted in mathematics, but don't be afraid to adapt them to your own purposes. So long as you use them in a consistent way and understand them, they'll serve their purpose.

When you develop your own system of abbreviations and symbols, make sure you write a reference outlining the shortcuts you've used. What might seem obvious now might not be quite so clear when you come to review your notes in a few months' time.


Abbreviations in SMS / Text Messages

Most of us nowadays have experience of abbreviated short-form writing. The most striking use is in mobile SMS messages and social media such as Twitter where space is at a premium, and so constructions such as OMG, LOL and so on have become common to reduce the character count. While language purists may frown on such constructions, they have slowly spread across many forms of casual communication even where unlimited space is available.

It might seem strange to use this kind of language in an academic setting, but your notes are purely for your own reference, so it really doesn't matter. The chances are you already have plenty of such abbreviations to draw on, so use them if helps you to take accurate notes quickly. Even hand-drawn emoticons have their place: it's a lot quicker to write :( than a phrase such as 'an unfortunate outcome', while still preserving the meaning.

10 Basic Steps to Become a Better Note-Taker

1.Don’t write down everything heard in a lecture. Focus on the main points, listen and try to focus on the “meat” of the subject or point of the lecture. Most times, one’s professor will provide points, examples, or anecdotes to help their students better remember key points in a lesson. 

2.Write with brevity. Class notes should be pithy in nature, consisting of keywords and phrases. In fact, notes with loose ends (such as a word without a definition or meaning behind it) allow the student an opportunity to expand on their notes through exploratory research

3.Be accurate. If the student is not sure they heard something correctly, they should not write it down. Rather, they should write a question mark near that section of notes to examine after class. In this case, they should also ask their professor for clarification after class. 

4.Do research before class. Most times a professor will have a syllabus informing students what subjects or topics will be covered at certain times throughout the semester. It is to the student’s benefit to be well informed on the subject beforehand, so they can focus on some of the bigger ideas discussed in the lecture – which means that reading ahead in a textbook or conducting preliminary research never hurts the student’s understanding of a subject. It can only help. 

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5.Develop a system that works. Don’t worry about punctuation, picture-perfect spelling; instead use abbreviations, write succinctly, and leave plenty of white space in the notes to expand on after class. 

6.If a point is missed, don’t dwell on it. If it’s a crucial point, ask the professor after class. Simply leave some extra space and go on. It is better than missing yet another point in the lecture. 

7.Keep notes in organized places. For example, refrain from writing downs on random pieces of paper – they could be misplaced too easily, never to be seen again. Instead keep notes in ONE notebook for a certain class. Organizing one’s workspace helps organize their mental clarity when learning. 

8.Use symbols/punctuation to indicate the most important information. Many times a professor will say something is crucial to know or to remember, and so it may benefit the student if the student marks this passage or fact in their notes with a symbol that stands out from the rest of the notes.  

9.Immediately after class, reread the notes that have been taken. This will help the student store the information into their long-term memory and clear up any questions they may be looming from the lecture. 

10.For some students, rewriting their notes after class is a helpful exercise. It helps them expand on words or phrases that had to be abbreviated, often causing them to perform a bit more of research to make sure that what they wrote down was indeed accurate and correct. 

The Cornell System - Making the Best Use of Your Notes

The Cornell System is a method which is equally suitable for taking class notes, or for summarizing texts for revision or research purposes. The Cornell method helps you to take the notes you make in class or the library, and begin the process of organizing them into a coherent foundation for an essay, an exam answer, or as a way of ordering your thoughts for better learning.

Although the following description of the method is for making handwritten notes, if you prefer to take notes electronically there are templates available for use with popular note-taking apps such as Evernote or Microsoft OneNote, as well as dedicated laptop and tablet software from various vendors.

Whichever you choose, the power of the technique is in the way it encourages you to organize your notes, and so the same basic procedure applies.

This method works by dividing your notes page into three sections. Section off the bottom two inches or so of each page by drawing a horizontal line. The area below the line will be your 'summary' section. Next, section off a leftmost couple of inches of your page: this will be your 'keyword' or 'recall' section. You will then be left with the largest area of the page in which to take notes as normal, dividing them into rough paragraphs by topic or idea.

After completing your basic notes, for each paragraph write a question, or a keyword or two, in the recall section to the left. Choose words which will help you remember the contents of the main notes. As well as forcing you to clarify the main concept of that section of notes (which will help you to memorize it), it will serve as a quick reference study guide in the future. Some people prefer to add these reminders as they go along, but if you're struggling to keep up the pace it's more important to concentrate on the main body of your notes. It's better to add accurate keywords later on than to rush them during the main note-taking, to the detriment of both.

Finally, use the summary area at the bottom of each page to write a high-level overview of the contents of the page, limiting yourself to only a couple of sentences or a few bullet points. 

Successful academic notes don't concentrate on the exact wording, but on capturing concepts and ideas, and important specific facts if appropriate. You're not taking legal minutes, and your notes only need make sense to you. Developing a system that suits your preferences, and that balances speed with accuracy will stand you in excellent stead in your educational efforts.

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