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Effective Note-Taking Strategies in College

OSAU Team

Better grades start with better notes. Taking organized and thoughtful notes can help improve your understanding and recall of what you have learned in class.

One of the keys to successfully accomplish assignments and exams is a good, detailed collection of notes. Being able to take good notes is also an important way of training your brain to identify important information.

While we prefer different methods of note-taking—some are faster when handwriting, while others are more efficient when typing—there are certain strategies that can help you note and process lectures more effectively. 

Try these methods of note taking in your next classes and see which one works best for you!


1. Know the teaching methods and assessment style for each class. 

Effective Note-Taking Strategies in College

Just like how we like different note-taking styles, professors have their own teaching methods as well: some use PowerPoint yet some like to conduct their lectures in a conversational way. You will discover this aspect as the semester goes, but as soon as you get hold of the syllabus, you should study how you will be evaluated for the class. If papers and writing exercises weigh more in your final grade, then you should focus more on understanding connections and processes than just memorizing facts. 

Write in your own words what the professor is elaborating about so you can easily process them as you look for possible take-off points for an essay, or even as you review for exams later. 

2. Focus and pay attention during the lecture

Effective Note-Taking Strategies in College

Complete your notes before the day's lecture. Before you even think about heading to class, make sure that you’ve read (or at least skimmed) all preassigned reading from your professor. Even if you don’t have assigned reading, try and familiarize yourself with the topic before you get to class so you know what to expect.

Before even thinking of opening your notebook or laptop, you should prepare and clear your mind first for the demands of each lecture. For an hour or two that you are in a given class, try not to think about anything else or worry about other homework for other classes. 

Focus on the lecture at hand, so you can internalize all the information better and you can participate more in class activities. 

3. Get organized and write legibly

Effective Note-Taking Strategies in College

It is of value to be organized with your notes, so you would not get overwhelmed with the amount of lectures for each subject for each day. Whether it’s at the top of the notebook page or included in the file name, make sure to indicate dates for each lecture. Begin each lecture on a new page, and make outlines of ideas and identify key words on each beginning page. 

Try to write legibly so you can read them later, it is more frustrating being unable to read your own handwriting, especially when you are studying for a hard subject.

Make sure that you also have enough stock with note-taking supplies. If you take notes by hand, bring extra pens and paper but if you are taking notes on a laptop or other electronic device, make sure  it is sufficiently charged.

4. Think while you write and develop a system

Effective Note-Taking Strategies in College

Since it’s almost impossible and very inefficient to take note of lectures word per word, you should evaluate as you write. 

Consider which details are most likely to be of use later, and focus your energy on writing them down instead of just copying information you can easily ask around for or search online. 

Rephrase sentences and break them down into more digestible phrases or restructure them for easier comprehension. Pay attention not only to what the professor is actually saying, but also to how they say the information: they might not explicitly say what in their lecture will appear as their exam questions later, but they will almost certainly emphasize some points with their voice or elaborate a topic down to the smallest details. 

5. Review your notes and ask your teacher

Effective Note-Taking Strategies in College

Last but likely the most important of all, make time to review your notes. Do not wait until a day before an exam or a paper before you open your notes again. If possible, review your notes every day or every week to keep yourself on the right track for the following lectures. 

Do not also be afraid to ask questions to your teacher or ask her to repeat something that you missed. Your classmates will be relieved to hear the information again if your teacher is going to fast. If you are shy, you can see your teacher afterward. This will also help you get a stronger bond with your teacher.

Studying regularly will help you process and retain information that you would certainly need to recall for an exam or a writing assignment. 


Note-Taking Methods

One thing that most of the successful students have in common is that they use a note-taking method. A note-taking method will help you to prepare before the lecture and to review key concepts after a class. It will help you to stay focused during the lecture to pay attention and actively participate. 

It will help you to organize your notes properly so that you don’t have to worry about losing the overview once you get back to them to prepare for an exam. In this article, we give an overview of the best note-taking methods for college students, on how to apply them and when you should or shouldn’t use them.

The Cornell Method

The Cornell note taking method helps organize class notes into easily digestible summaries. This method is effective because the main points, details, study cues, and summary are all written in one place. It is ideal for all types of lectures and meetings.

What does it look like?

The paper is divided into 3 sections: a 2.5” margin to the left, a 2” summary section on the bottom, and a main 6” in-class note section.

How do you use it?

Use the main notes section to take notes during class. Use the cues section to review your notes. After class, write down things you’ll need to remember and a prompt for each. You can also use this section for vocabulary words and study questions.

In the summary segment at the bottom, write a summary of your notes. This is where you will highlight the main points.

Advantages

  • Notes are neatly organized, summarized, and easy to review
  • Allows you to pull out main ideas and concepts
  • Cuts down time for reviewing
  • Enables the students to absorb information in a shorter time.

Disadvantages

  • Pages need to be prepared before a lecture
  • Requires some time for reviewing and summarizing the key concepts

The Mapping Method

The Mapping note taking method is a more visual way to organize your class notes especially when the lecture content is heavy. It helps organize your notes by dividing them into branches, enabling you to establish relationships between topics.

What does it look like?

The page is organized by topic. The main topics branch out into subtopics with detailed information about each.

How do you use it?

While in class, begin the map with the main topic. Branching off the main topic, write a heading for each of the subtopics. Write any important notes underneath each subtopic. Continue the pattern.

Advantages

  • Useful for visual learners who struggle with studying from notes.
  • Helps you remember and connect relationships between topics.
  • Allows easy editing of the notes

Disadvantages

  • You might run out of space on a single page
  • It might cause confusion if the information is wrongly placed while taking notes

The Outline Method

The Outline note taking method uses headings and bullet points to organize topics. This method is the most popular and most useful when learning about topics that include a lot of detail and if the lecture follows a relatively clear structure.

What does it look like?

Each section starts with a heading of the main topic. Each subtopic and supporting fact is written underneath the proper heading.

How do you use it?

During a lesson, begin your notes with a single bullet point and write the main topic. Place the first subtopic below and indented slightly to the right. List any details below your heading and slightly to the right.

Advantages

  • Highlights the key points of the lecture in a logical way
  • Allows notes to be neatly organized.
  • It is easy to see the relationship between topics and subtopics.
  • It is easy to turn points into study questions.
  • Reduces the reviewing time

Disadvantages

  • It doesn't work well if the lecture doesn't follow a certain structure
  • Not suitable for Science and Math related subjects which consist of formulas and charts

The Charting Method

Charting note taking method uses columns to organize information. This method is useful for lessons that cover a lot of information such as facts, statistics and relationships between topics.

What does it look like?

The page is divided into columns labeled by category. The details of each category are filled out in the rows below.

How do you use it?

When information about a category is mentioned, jot it down underneath the proper column. When the next topic begins move down one row and begin again.

Advantages

  • Information is clearly structured and the notes are easily comparable 
  • Facts are organized and easy to review.
  • Highlights key pieces of information for each topic.

Disadvantages

  • Very time-consuming 
  • It doesn't work for information that cannot easily be categorized

The Sentence Method

The Sentence note taking method is simply writing down each topic as a jot note sentence. This method works well for fast paced lessons where a lot of information is being covered.

What does it look like?

Each line on the page is a new and separate topic. To organize your notes even more, you can use headings for each main topic.

How do you use it?

Write down important information the teacher has emphasized. This can be in sentence form or point form. Start a new sentence or point for each new detail. Use headings to organize points by main topics.

Advantages

  • Jotting main points helps you determine which information is important and which is not.
  • You are able to cover a lot of details and information quickly.
  • Notes are simplified for study and review.

Disadvantages

  • Time consuming
  • It doesn't work well if the lecture doesn't follow a certain structure


Whichever method of note-taking suits your own learning style, keep in mind that it is the quality and not the quantity of written or typed notes that will help you in answering your exams and writing your papers correctly. 

Discovering the study habits that work best in college may take some trial and error, but when learned and consistently employed, those study skills will go a long way in positively influencing academic performance strategies.


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