The 5 Best Note-Taking Methods for Students in College
- Using a tried and true college note-taking method can boost academic performance.
- Handwritten and digital notes offer unique pros and cons.
- Students' note-taking needs are unique — what works for one student may not help another.
- Learners should experiment with different college note-taking methods.
Developing effective study skills is critical for academic success. While it may take some trial and error, students who take the time to find which note-taking methods work best for their academic needs can improve their understanding in the classroom and boost their grades.
The following guide provides an overview of several popular note-taking methods. It also takes a look at the pros and cons of handwritten and digital notes. Read on to learn some helpful note-taking tips.
The Cornell Method
Created in the 1940s by a Cornell professor, this note-taking system provides students with a systematic format that encourages condensed, organized notes. Note-takers bisect the page into two columns: the left side dedicated to key words and phrases, the right devoted to more detailed notes.
The notes section typically includes the main ideas emphasized in a text or lecture, written in concise sentences. Students use the keyword section to jot down relevant questions and main ideas after class while reviewing their notes. Beneath the two columns, students can summarize information, giving them a handy place to reference when scanning their notes.
Considering its decades of use, the Cornell method is highly effective, especially for coursework that deals with concepts and ideas rather than pure recall.
- Notes are easy to review and clearly organized, and the main concepts are summarized
- This method highlights big ideas and major concepts
- Learners must review and summarize their notes after class
- This method is not as helpful when dealing with pure recall and memorizing facts
The Outline Method
The outline method offers a highly organized and logical format that requires minimal editing and review after class. This method is also especially useful if learners need to record and digest large amounts of information.
Intuitive in its structure and implementation, the outline method logically presents information. The main topics of a lecture are situated on the far left of a page. Subtopics are added below each topic, indented to the right. Below each subtopic is space for supporting facts, notes, and questions, again indented to the right of the subtopic heading.
This method can also be used beyond the classroom in a variety of professional settings.
- Notes remain clean and organized
- The structure allows note-takers to easily see connections between ideas
- Notes can be easily repurposed into study questions
- This structure may prove difficult if students need to record graphs and formulas
- The outline method is not especially helpful for discussions or free-form, structureless lectures
The Mapping Method
This college note-taking tool is useful when recording especially complex information. Mapping is also helpful because it can be used to support other note-taking methods. Visual learners may find this style of note-taking especially appealing.
Students begin a mind map by writing down the main topic. From there, they branch off from the main topic with subtopics. Branching off the subtopics, learners record other pertinent information and questions. This process continues, leaving behind a web of connected thoughts, themes, and ideas.
Adding colors to highlight and accent information is encouraged. It may also be helpful for students to revisit the information after class, rewriting the notes in a more linear, digestible format.
- Mapping is a great fit for visual learners
- Mapping helps students make connections between topics and ideas
- Depending on the class, students may run out of space and disrupt the continuity of their notes
- If not revisited and reorganized while the information is fresh, notes run the risk of being convoluted
The Charting Method
This method is a good note-taking strategy for texts and lectures heavy on facts and statistics. Additionally, this method proves helpful when dealing with lectures that are predictably structured with the information presented in a uniform way.
Before class, students determine what information will be covered in a lecture and divide a page into columns, with each column headed by a relevant keyword. During the lecture, note-takers record main ideas and phrases in their respective columns. This method works especially well for classes that require a substantial amount of memorization.
- This method is great for memorizing facts and formulas
- Information is presented in a clear, well-structured, and concise manner
- This method is helpful for comparing, contrasting, and making connections between ideas
- This method is almost impossible to use if the lecture style and content aren't available beforehand
- Charting is challenging in a discussion-based course
The Sentence Method
A great tool for retaining information from a less structured style of lecturing, this method allows students to process and summarize information in real time in their own words. As opposed to notes that collect words and phrases, the sentence method supplies the note-taker with a more fleshed-out final product that is clear and easier to decipher.
Simple in its structure and without the physical constraints of charts and boxes, students record new thoughts, facts, and topics in sentence form, numbering each sentence as a lecture progresses. The sentence method is a great tool when encountering fast-paced lectures that cover a lot of ground.
- Students synthesize information in real time
- By recording main ideas, learners focus on important information
- This method is great for detailed lectures that cover a lot of information
- To be most effective, students should review and rewrite their notes after class
- This method isn't as useful for classes with lots of graphs and equations
Handwritten or Digital Notes?
There are distinct pros and cons for both handwritten and digital notes. Ultimately, what you use is a personal choice, but you should consider the facts before making a decision. And just like the note-taking methods described above, you may find that certain types of notes work better for certain classes.
Research suggests that using handwritten notes helps students learn information more efficiently — short-term and long-term information retention tends to increase when taking notes by hand. However, digital notes allow for speedy documentation in a flexible and customizable format. Many note-taking apps are also effective and readily available.
- Taking notes by hand increases both short-term and long-term memory retention
- Engaging in real-time summarizing boosts retention and comprehension
- Handwritten notes mitigate digital distractions
- Many students can type faster than they can write by hand
- Handwritten notes can be difficult to edit and reformat
- Handwriting can be illegible, leaving students without vital information
- Students often type faster than they can write by hand
- Digital notes allow for easy editing with flexible formatting
- Learners can link to valuable information
- Students miss out on memory-boosting physical interactions when taking digital notes
- Typing reduces the need for real-time information synthesis and summarization
- Some professors may not allow digital devices in class
Know the Class, Know the Content
Not every note-taking method works best in every class. For some courses, a structured format like charting or the Cornell method may be a perfect fit. In other contexts, mapping or the sentence method could prove more useful.
Experiment With Note-Taking Styles
Do not limit yourself to one college note-taking style. Just as a note-taking method might not be a great fit for a particular class, some note-taking styles may not prove helpful to you. Be mindful of a method's efficacy for your individual needs. If one method does not seem effective, try something else.
Follow Up After Class
Taking notes without revisiting the information is like planting a seed and then not providing adequate water and sunlight. When reviewing notes, check for clarity, rewrite and reorganize information, and define key terms. Keep notes from the same class in the same notebook or binder to make studying for finals easier.
Notes provide important information that you can use to study and build your knowledge base. However, after revisiting this information, you may find that you have further questions that need answering. Record these questions and talk about them with your peers and instructors. A professor's office hours are often underutilized — don't be afraid to take advantage of this valuable resource.
Handwrite Your Notes, and Then Type Them
In recognizing the benefits unique to both handwritten and digital notes, why not do both? The tactile nature of handwritten notes supports cognitive learning, but there are limitations to analog notes. After writing by hand, type the notes and use the flexible formatting of digital notes. The clean layout of a word processor can aid in studying, while the act of typing your notes can increase retention. You can also consider using a tablet to handwrite your notes and have them in a digital format.
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