You’re in class (or a meeting) furiously writing down notes, trying to jot down every piece of valuable information that enters your mind. You look down and see your notebook is a jumbled mess of words, and you think to yourself “I really hope I can understand all of this later”. Personally, I had a few too many experiences like this before I decided to actually work on my note taking skills.
Yes, note taking is a skill, and one that not many of us are very good at. We usually don’t take a ‘note taking 101’ class in school, so we’ve never learned how to actually take good notes. But with some simple tips and proven note taking methods, you can transform your notebook into an organized and easy to understand masterpiece that will make even Marie Kondo jealous.
Why take notes?
Humans are forgetful creatures. It’s been shown that we forget 56% of all information we receive within an hour if there is no reinforcement of that information. And note taking is just that – reinforcement. By taking notes you remember more, which can be the difference between a passing or failing grade on an exam.
But note taking isn’t just a skill used for remembering information. Notes also provide a reference guide for your future self to use for recall in your study sessions. Relying on your brain and textbooks simply isn’t enough to fully comprehend complex information. Quality notes that you can go back to are key to understanding.
The classroom isn’t the only place you’re expected to take notes, it’s also an important tool in most professional environments. Whether you’re learning about a patient or figuring out the status of a project you’re managing, note taking is a must to fully comprehend all of the information you’re being given and to do your job properly.
4 Tips for good note taking
Here are some ways you can optimize your note taking and make your life easier during your next study session.
1. Don’t write everything down
Trying to write everything you hear down while keeping your notes coherent and organized is pretty much impossible. Instead, focus on key phrases and topics and decide what’s actually important. You can also supplement your notes with additional detail in the future. We’ll talk about some note taking methods that can help with this below.
2. Use visuals
What’s that famous saying? A picture is worth a thousand words? It’s actually true. It’s been found that about 40% of people benefit from supplemental visuals rather than solely words. Your visuals don’t have to be a stunning masterpiece; a simple chart or doodle can go a long way.
3. Write your questions down
If you have a question or need clarification on a piece of information, but you don’t have the ability to actually ask it, write it down in your notebook. You can always return to the question and use the power of Google to find the answer. If you don’t write questions down, you may totally forget about them until exam day (uhh ohh).
If you have no room on your page for questions, you can always use the margins of your notebook or create a separate page dedicated to your questions.
4. Fully reread and rewrite your notes
Okay, this seems like a lot of work, but it can be incredibly powerful in helping you comprehend information. When you reread your notes, you’re basically going through an abbreviated version of the lecture or meeting you just had. Doing this gives your brain a second chance to connect dots that may have not been fully connected during your initial encounter.
While you reread your notes, also think about writing them down again, but this time in a more organized and thoughtful way. You’ll get the benefit of thinking about the information again, and the extra comprehension boost from writing it all down. You may also want to stick with a pen and paper for rewriting your notes too, as it’s been shown to help with memory retention.
4 Foolproof note taking methods
The tips above might be enough to take your note taking skills to the next level, but if you need more, here are four proven note taking methods that will surely get you there.
1. The Cornell note taking system
Cornell University’s professor Walter Pauk popularized this tried and true method of note taking back in the 50’s. To use this method, you’ll start by dividing your page into two separate columns (a ruler helps with this), a note taking area, and a cue area. The rule of thumb is for the note taking area to take up 70% of the width of your page on the right side, and for your cue area to take up 30% on the left side. You’ll then reserve the bottom 3-5 lines of the page for a dedicated summary section.
The notes section is exactly what it sounds like, a general note taking area that you can organize however you see fit. The cue area is used for smaller tidbits of info like any questions you have, definitions, keywords, or any other abbreviated info you think will be important later. The summary section is dedicated to a summary of that individual page of notes.
The Cornell method is relatively straightforward, but has a lot of room for improvisation. Tailor each section to your preferred way of learning.
2. The outline method
The outline method is extremely popular and useful. In fact, you might use this method and not even realize it!
This method is simple; you structure your notes using bullet points and indents. The first bullet point will be labeled with the overarching topic at hand. Below that, you’ll indent another bullet point for sub-topics. And below the sub-topic you’ll add supporting information and facts.
You’ll find this method allows for simple, easy to read notes that are well organized right off the bat, allowing you to easily comprehend them when reviewing. Sometimes people find this method a bit too limiting, so if you lean toward the creative side, this one may not be for you.
3. The mind map
Mind mapping is similar to the outline method, but much more visual. If you find the outline method to be too constraining and structured, this one might be for you.
To create a mind map, you’ll start off with a broad topic written down in the center of your page. From there, you’ll write down subtopics that branch off all around the broad topic. You’ll write down your supporting information, facts, dates, etc. under these subtopics.
This method tends to be better suited for digital note taking, as you’ll probably run out of space fairly quickly in a traditional notepad.
4. The charting method
Think of this method format as an excel spreadsheet. You start off by creating a chart and label the headers of each column with categories relevant to the information you’re consuming such as dates, location, terms, pros, cons, etc. Each row contains a new topic, and categorical information about that topic is written down in each section.
If you want even more structure than the Cornell method offers, and the benefit of easy organization from the outline method, this is a great option. To get the most out of the charting method, you may want to prepare your chart ahead of time and figure out which relevant categories you’ll need to label.
Note taking and beyond
Don’t be afraid to experiment. You probably won’t find your perfect note taking method the first time, so try different techniques and figure out what works for you. If you follow some of the basic practices and methods outlined here you’ll have a beautiful notebook in no time.