Note Taking

Note Taking Systems

How to take notes

There are 5 main "official" systems for taking notes in longhand:

  • Cornell (easy)
  • Outline (good, if the instructor doesn't go too fast)
  • Mapping (tricky till you get the hang of it)
  • Charting (only useful for certain situations)
  • Sentence or List (easiest but also least useful, requires rewriting later)

This sounds complicated, but you will find yourself using at least one of these, and possibly 2-3 in different situations. Once you read the descriptions below, you may discover that you are already familiar with at least one!

Quick summary
Cornell divides page into sections
take freeform notes in the main and later add reminders of the key points in the left and a summary at the bottom;
very flexible and does not require notes to be rewritten later
Outlining create an indented outline
main topics are indented least, shows how points are related;
requires some thought during the lecture
Mapping a.k.a. mind maps, creates a graphical representation of the content
shows how points relates to everything else;
doesn't work for everyone
Charting or tables uses columns and tables to record information;
great for heavy fact-based classes like certain history classes
Sentence or List Write every piece of new info on a separate line and number them;
doesn't show any relationship or group information together

How do they work?

  1. Divide each page into 2 columns and 1 vertical space, leaving approx a 2" margin on the left and a small horizontal area on the bottom
  2. Use the main part of the page to make freeform notes (however you want)
  3. After the class, write "cues" on the left to remind you of the main details and a short summary of the lecture in the space at the bottom of the page

Best for - any type of class

  1. Start each new topic/main point on a new line
  2. Each more specific piece of information relating to that topic is indented a bit more
  3. Use the same amount of indenting for related information; this means the most important facts are indented least, and related facts are grouped together to make it easy to see correlations
  4. You can also underline/highlight key points

Best for - organized lectures presented in an outline format

  1. Write the title/key point of the lecture in the center of the page
  2. For each point, write it down and link it using lines, colors or numbers
  3. You should end up with the major "headings" as the first points out from the center, then sub-headings a little farther out, and so on

Best for - organized classes which are heavy on content

  1. Before the class starts, determine the categories of information you will need,
    e.g. for a history class: year, type of event, who was involved, key factors, significance
  2. Mark your paper into columns or a table using those categories as headings
  3. Each time your instructor mentions another fact, note it down
  4. Fill in any blanks after class

Best for - classes heavy on straight factual content that is presented quickly

Sentence or List
  1. Write every new piece of information on a new line
  2. Number each sentence as you progress

Best for - quickly getting down information, people who will rewrite and organize notes later

Now you've had a chance to read the details, think about your preferred style.
Do you like to rewrite and organize your notes later? Sentence-style might be for you.
Do you want to take notes and leave them as-is? Try the Cornell method.

Pros & Cons

We've gathered some of the most common advantages and disadvantages of the different types of note-taking for you. Read the list, and think about your current note-taking style. Would one of these suit you better? Or is there something you can change about your own notes? Maybe you can turn one of the disadvantages into an advantage.

  • Cheap
  • Easy to sketch diagrams, charts, and make mind maps
  • Can arrange your notes however you want
  • Many different note-taking methods
  • Easily customizable: color of paper, lined/unlined, width of lines, etc.
  • Easy to highlight or emphasize new, interesting, controversial or confusing concepts
  • Ability to use common shorthand or non-standard characters
  • Writing forces immediate processing
  • Physically engages you in the subject material
  • Notes can be illegible; may need to be re-typed
  • Often need to re-write in a more logical order
  • Can lose notes
  • Can't usually write fast enough to keep up with instructor
  • Portable, easy to carry with you at all times
  • Can replay lecture whenever you want
  • Can transfer to other medium (CD, MP3 player) for convenience
  • Useful for students with disabilities
  • Can concentrate on understanding ideas/concepts rather than noting specific facts
  • Voice recognition software can automatically transcribe it for you
  • Easy to forget to re-listen or transcribe for your own notes
  • Written notes are easier to study
  • Sound quality may be poor
  • Must receive prior permission from instructor to record lecture
  • You don't listen as attentively because you know it's all being recorded for you
  • Battery may fail unexpectedly, leaving you stranded
  • Can't incorporate visual displays/effects
  • Voice recognition software can be expensive
  • Voice recognition software is not always reliable and requires careful editing
Typing (PDA, laptop, or
  • Notes always available and legible
  • Can create outline before class using pre-published notes/slides and bulk them out with your own notes
  • Flexible - can change/reorder notes as you go
  • Physically engages you in the subject material
  • Have access to notes from all classes
  • Have access to spell-checkers
  • Useful for students with disabilities
  • Easy to cross-reference, index or link notes from other classes and to find specific notes again
  • WiFi (wireless internet) gives greater learning opportunities in the classroom - use of online encyclopedias or search engines to find solutions
  • Need to be able to type accurately at a decent speed
  • Can get distracted by rearranging/formatting notes
  • Harder to copy diagrams/charts
  • Initial setup cost
  • Weight of laptop - must carry it all the time
  • Laptop may fail/battery may die unexpectedly leaving you stranded
  • Noise/screen may distract you or other students
  • WiFi may cause distractions (surfing the net, IM, email, etc.)

As you can see, there are many points to consider.

If you can type quickly, and have the self-discipline to concentrate on the class rather than messaging friends, taking a laptop or PDA may be the way to go. If you learn better by listening and repetition, recording each class may work better. Other people find that writing things down is the only way they learn.

There's no "right" or "wrong" way - only what's right for you.


Common Shorthand Abbreviations

When making notes, the last thing you want to do is write out everything word-for-word. You don't even want to write out every word—you should already leave out short words like the, a, and, but.

To speed up your note-taking even more, use abbreviations. You should come up with some of your own (they will vary from class to class), but here are some common abbreviations and well-known symbols/shorthand which will help you get started. Some will already be familiar to you. You're allowed to suspend grammatical English while taking notes—just remember it when writing your papers!

Common Abbreviations

  • b/c - because
  • c - circa, around (from the Latin circa)
  • cf - compare (from the Latin confer)
  • ch - chapter
  • eg - example (from the Latin exempli gratia)
  • esp - especially
  • etc - and so on (from the Latin et cetera)
  • govt - government
  • ibid - in the same place (from the Latin ibidem)
  • ie - that is (from the Latin id est)
  • max - maximum
  • min - minimum
  • no - number
  • nos - numbers
  • p - page
  • pp - pages
  • re - regarding
  • ref - reference
  • vs - against, compared to (from the Latin versus)
  • w/ - with
  • w/o - without
  • yr - year

Common Symbols/Shorthand

  • → - leads to, produces, causes
  • & - and
  • ? - question, check this, unsure
  • ~ - approximately
  • $ - money, cost, price
  • > - greater than
  • < - less than
  • ± - give or take
  • # - number

Digital Tips

Now that we live in the digital age, you can make full use of the technology available!

Here are some suggestions for how it can help you:

  • Record each lecture on digital recorder, and then listen to it again later in MP3 format (or burn to a CD)
  • Type an outline as you do the reading (or download lecture notes which are available online), and fill it in during class
  • If you can't type well, handwrite notes and type them up later—this improves your knowledge retention and typing skills
  • Take paper to class anyway—you might need to quickly sketch a diagram
  • Use wireless internet to look up information you don't understand (but resist the temptation to check Facebook at the same time!)
  • Use a flash drive to download slides/Powerpoint presentations provided by the instructor before you leave the class
  • Don't try to organize your notes as you go—save that for after the class
  • Use a Wiki to create outlines, fill them in - and it will make links to other classes/articles for you
  • Make use of online resources like Wikipedia (an online encyclopedia), Encyclopedia Britannica and Project Gutenberg (free books out of copyright, both fiction and non-fiction) - these are all good starting places for further research

Laptops don't have to cost a fortune. It's possible to get a fully-functional laptop which is ideal for writing papers and doing research for under $600. Consult the AskIT staff for specific recommendations to suit your needs.

Reviewing Notes

So you've been to class, made notes and now you're back in your room thinking "At least I'm done with this for now." Right?

Not necessarily.

Why should I review my notes?

If you want to remember what you've just heard, the best way to make those memories stick is to review your notes.

Maybe you want to take longhand notes in class and type them up when you get back to your dorm. Maybe your professor mentioned some related reading, or some interesting points that you want to follow up.

Whatever your initial reason for doing this (or not doing it!) you should consider the following: Reviewing your notes makes it easier to remember the information.

If you remember it properly now, you will have less re-learning to do during the run-up to a test or your final exam. You forget 60% of new material within 24 hours, unless you reinforce the memory, so 30 minutes a day spent reviewing your notes actually saves you time and effort later.

What should I do when reviewing my notes?

  • Double-check facts and spelling
  • Fill in any gaps you left in class, using the textbook
  • Expand on any abbreviations that might not be clear later
  • Make a list of concepts or vocabulary you're not sure about
    • look them up
    • or ask your professor for clarification

When should I review them?

Ideally, right after class. (Of course, you did the required reading before the class, so it's just a question of checking your information.) If you have another class immediately after, make sure you get it done within 24 hours. This is when your memories are still fresh and you can supplement your class notes with anything you heard but forgot to write down at the time.

Sometimes you'll want to review your notes again. If something comes up during one class and you think, "This sounds familiar" then take that opportunity to look back over your notes and cross-reference them. This proves invaluable when revision time comes around!

How often should I review my notes?

"Do I have to do all this every week?" No, not every week. But it helps if you review your notes after every class. Get into the habit of re-reading or re-working your notes, and you'll find it becomes easier.