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The 5 Best Note-Taking Methods

To get you off on the right foot this semester: a crash course on how to take great notes. (Because … learning by osmosis doesn’t work.)

In case you haven’t noticed, we humans forget things pretty easily. Don’t believe me? What did you have for lunch the day before yesterday? Hmmm, can’t remember?

Don’t feel bad: Everyone forgets things! That’s why taking notes is so important—one of the most important things you’ll do in college. Taking good notes (written in longhand, not pecked out on your laptop keyboard) actively engages you with the material you’re learning, so you’re better able to remember and understand the information. Plus, notes are a lifesaver when test time rolls around.

Here are 5 note-taking techniques, and how to use them. Keep in mind there’s no one best method, because we all learn in slightly different ways. The one that best helps you learn the material is the one that’s right for you.

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1. The Outline Method

This method uses headings and bullet points to organize information. To take notes using this technique, start with top-level headings for all the main points in the lecture. Then add subtopics and supporting facts underneath. Each new level of detail gets indented slightly to the right. Like this:

I. Advantages of the Outline Method

1. Very structured.

a. Key points of a lecture are logically highlighted.

b. Easy to see the relationship between topics and subtopics.

2. Easy to generate study questions.

II. Disadvantages

1. Tough to use this method in class because it’s difficult to process and organize the information in real time.

a. The best way to use the technique: Go back and reorganize your notes from class into this format to study before an exam. It’s a great exercise to review and remember concepts.

2. The Cornell Method

This technique works for most all types of classes and lectures and doesn’t require a lot of page prepping. To take notes using this method, divide a page into 3 sections: Cues, Notes, and Summary.

All notes from class go in the main column on the right. The column on the left is for prompts, questions, hints—i.e., cues—to test yourself and become more familiar with the material. You can write cues while you’re in class, or right after. After reviewing your notes, write a brief summary in the bottom section of each page that captures the main ideas of your notes. Summarizing information you’ve just learned helps you digest and remember it.

3. The Mind-Mapping Method

The theory behind the mind map is that it kind of resembles the way your brain works—which isn’t always linear. So if you’re more of a visual learner, try this note-taking technique. Rather than starting at the top of a page, a mind map starts at the center, with a core concept, and then branches out. You can create branches for each subtopic that comes up.

Mind maps are great for group or class discussions that meander—where ideas are introduced, then lead to other thoughts, and then often circle back to the main topic.

This note-taking method won’t provide lots of detail, but you’ll get a holistic picture of the material covered.

4. The Charting Method

This method is similar to a spreadsheet and works best for information that can be broken down into categories, like pros and cons, or similarities and differences. If you value speed and efficiency, and you’re not big on writing, check it out.

Say you’d like to consider the pros and cons of . . . adopting a cat or a dog. Some of the topics you might want to compare are: Which furball would require more of your attention? Which pet’s food would cost you more money? How do their potential vet bills stack up?

Creating a chart keeps your thoughts clear and organized and, again, it’s super helpful when your notes involve comparisons.

Back to academics, and your course material: The Charting Method comes in handy for a subject like history, where you might want to organize information by dates or region. Two caveats when it comes to this technique: You can’t organize information on the fly; it only works when you can download the material in advance. Also, you’re limited to subject matter where the information can be neatly boxed.

5. The Sentence Method

Yup, this is an official, actual note-taking method! If you’re new to note-taking, this one might be right up your alley. All it takes are the writing skills you learned back in elementary school. Other than that, there’s no preparation, no prior note-taking experience, and no previous knowledge of the subject matter required. So you can jump right in.

The idea is, you write down everything your professor says, with each thought or point getting a separate line. You can use shorthand, as long as you’re sure you’ll remember what all your abbreviations mean. Using bullets or numbers to separate each point also works.

After a class, you’ll have pages (and pages) of information that you’ll need to go through and organize. The goal is to uncover the key points of the lecture so that when exam time rolls around, you’ll know what to focus on.

Also, because you’re copying down so much information, and you’ll need to go back to review and prioritize it anyway, this may be the only method where using a laptop is a good idea.

So now that you’ve seen 5 different ways to take notes, which one is right for you?

That depends on what type of learner you are. A style that you find useful might not work for your roommate.

Plus, different classes and subject matter lend themselves to different note-taking styles. Our advice: Try out a couple of techniques and see which one works best for you.

Remember, taking notes is a skill that gets better with practice. It’s worth it to put in the time, because there are a lot of benefits. Your class material will be better organized, you’ll have ready-made study notes to review before an exam, and you’ll deepen your understanding of the information you’re learning.

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