If you’re a student, you’ve been told that note-taking is a valuable and important skill. Also if you’re a student, you may not have received much instruction on how to take notes, beyond basic outlining.
Unfortunately, in education there is a tendency for teachers to give instructions without explaining why something is important or how to do whatever it is well. It’s not surprising that some students fail to see the value in taking course notes.
First, the Why
Research shows that we forget about 60% of what we have learned within only 9 hours of learning it. From there, we keep forgetting more information, until a month later we probably only remember about 20% of what we learned. So the first purpose of note-taking is simply to keep track of information.
The second purpose of taking notes is that note-taking in itself should help you to learn information. If you are taking notes effectively, you will be processing and organizing information instead of just recording it. That means you are more likely to remember what you have learned.
Studies also suggest that hand-written notes lead to higher levels of performance than typed notes. Students who handwrite their course notes remember the information more clearly. Ideally, writing course notes helps students process the information while they write, which leads to a more thorough understanding of the material.
Finally, and most obviously, you can use your notes to study before a quiz or test. Mastery-based curricula will often take quiz and test questions from lessons, and now you have that information recorded.
Then, the How
Most students struggle with note-taking because it feels like an inherently tedious activity. But it doesn’t have to be. Since notes are written to help you, you can write them in a way that best fits the way you understand information, the way you process information and the way you communicate information, all of which make up your learning style. Each of us has a different brain, so it makes sense to take notes in a way that fits the way you think. Make your note-taking style your own.
Here are 5 styles of course notes to start you on your way to individualizing your note-taking:
Outlining. This first style is the one you have most likely encountered before. Learning traditional outlining as a note-taking strategy is worthwhile, because it’s a good place to start. Outlining teaches you how to choose keywords and phrases, instead of trying to write down entire sentences. Knowing how to identify the most important concepts is important for all note-taking strategies.
Cornell Style Notes. Cornell style notes are useful in that they provide a step-by-step process for unraveling information. Students start by simply recording as much information as possible, and are then guided through reducing, reciting, reflecting, reviewing, and recapping. Repeating information leads to a higher level of understanding and a better rate of retention, and Cornell style note-taking builds multiple repetitions right into the process of creating the notes.
Concept Mapping. For students who don’t find linear note-taking styles useful, learning to make concept maps is an alternative that emphasizes patterns and connections. Students actively process how the different ideas are related to each other and create a visual representation of these relationships. Concept maps can also be used as graphic organizers when student are preparing to write an essay.
Mind Mapping. Mind mapping is closely related to concept mapping, but allows for more creativity. Students who tend to think more in terms of images are encouraged to develop this skill and integrate picture and text representations of their ideas.
Sketch Notes. Sketch notes are ideal for abstract thinkers with high levels of creativity. Instead of doodling in the margins of your note-book, use your doodles to remind yourself of the important information in your lessons. Because sketch notes are visually very busy, it is important for students to have a clear system of organization. Well-written sketch notes turn information into a story, which makes it memorable.
In addition to these five note-taking styles, there are also some basic tips that can be applied to any of them:
Experiment with different-sized notebooks and papers. For students who prefer mapping their course notes, having poster-sized paper might be beneficial. Tactile learners might enjoy writing their notes on note-cards, as these can be moved around and laid out in different patterns.
Highlighters are your friends. Visual learners will enjoy color-coding different sections of their notes, and going over course notes with a highlighter to underline key concepts is a simple way to review the information.
Read your notes out loud. If you are an auditory learner, hearing your own voice repeating information helps lodge it firmly in your memory. If you have a study partner, discussing and explaining your notes to that person is a great way to identify areas you know well and areas you need to study more.
The most important thing is to find a note-taking strategy that works for you. Well-written notes are not just good reference material, they also help you study while you write them, as you process the information. If you’ve gotten frustrated with note-taking in the past, don’t give up! Instead, try a new way to take course notes. Better course notes lead to better understanding, which leads to better grades.