In class and in meetings, note-taking is important. You want to be able to review what was said, commit it to memory, and use it going forward, whether on tests or in your job. It sounds easy, but can be pretty hard. Think of all the times you’ve looked back on your notes only to find they’re filled with incomprehensible nonsense scribbled in the margins and a bunch of totally disconnected ideas that probably made sense when you wrote them.
You can learn to take better notes, however, and there are a number of proven methods you can try out. Find the one that works for you.
The outlining method
This one is recommended by the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and involves dashing or indenting parts of your notes. It works best for classes that aren’t science or maths. Here’s what you need to know:
- The most general information should be aligned along the left side of your paper, with more specific groups of facts indented underneath
- The relationships between the general information and specific facts are made clear with indenting, rather than numbers, letters, or Roman numerals
As you’re listening in class or a meeting, pay attention to general ideas. Write those along the left side of your paper, with room underneath for supporting and related facts. Go back through and add the specifics under the general headers, indenting them somewhat to the right.
Thanks to the left-aligning and indenting, you’ll be able to broadly review the major points before diving into the specifics underneath. The primary disadvantage here is that you’ll have to think more in class or in your meeting, as you’ll be analysing what you’re hearing and pulling out the major themes. As a result, the UTC warns, “this system cannot be used if the lecture is too fast.”
The Cornell method
This one is also recommended by UTC, and involves a systematic format for condensing and organising your notes without having to do much recopying. You’ll need to leave space along the left side of your paper, so mark out about two inches on the left and leave about six inches to the right for your notes. During your meeting, jot down information in that six-inch area as you hear it. After class or when your meeting ends, go through what you wrote down and complete any missing phrases or add additional information you didn’t have time to put in there. To the best of your ability, sort the information into relevant topics, separating key ideas with a few blank lines.
Finally, go back to that two-inch section. Use it to label those groups of notes with a cue or general idea. You should be able to cover up the six-inch section, look at the cues on the left, and remember what information is hidden on the right.
The mapping method
Yet another strategy recommended by UTC, this note-taking method is more of a graphic representation of the content you’re learning. You’ll write a key theme in the middle of your paper, then draw branches off of it. So if, for instance, you’re studying world history, you might write “World War II” in the centre of the paper, then branch “causes,” “countries involved,” and “lasting impact” off of it. You then expand your first set of branches, so “countries” would develop two new branches: Allied Powers and Axis Powers.
You’re not putting much detail into this and it will look pretty messy by the time you’re done, but if you’re more of a visual and participatory learner, this is a great option for you. It’s hard to know how much space you’ll need in advance, so don’t be afraid to redo your map more neatly when your meeting is over.
The charting method
This comes from Grammarly, and is best employed when you’re dealing with multiple topics — use it to compare two ideas or break idea one down into multiple parts, like pros and cons.
Divide your page into two (or more) columns and label each column to match what you’re hearing, whether that involves a comparison or a breakdown. Whenever you hear a pertinent fact related to one of your labels, stick it into the appropriate column.
The SQ4R method
Also recommended by Grammarly, this one is only for when you’re reading, but can really help you retain what you read so you can participate in meetings or class afterward. The acronym breaks down like this:
- Survey: Taking three to five minutes to skim your reading, writing down major headings, subheadings, topics, and points (like you would with the outlining method)
- Questions: Write down any questions you have about the content after briefly surveying it
- Read: Actually read the text, bit by bit, and keep an eye out for the answers to the questions you just wrote down
- Recite: After each chunk of text, write down the major ideas, keywords, and concepts, plus any answers to your questions
- Relate: Consider whether you can relate to anything you just read in a personal way or if it reminds you of anything in your life, which will help you remember it
- Review: Reread your notes when you’re done, which will help you retain what you wrote down
Other things to keep in mind
When you’re done note-taking, no matter which method you used, add some information to the top margin, like the date and any key concepts, so when you’re flipping through your notes later on, you have an easier time finding the pertinent pages. Don’t let your note-taking distract you entirely from the conversation happening around you, either — listening to the speaker or your group is more important than writing everything down perfectly, and you’ll retain more information if you actively participate in any resulting discussion.