Taking notes is almost a necessary step in effective and active learning. Note-taking takes time, so efficiency and selectivity are crucial. Everyone has their own style, but here are some general principles to help you get the most out of your scribbles.
It's worth taking notes because:
- When you write in your own words, you are forced to process what you have learned in your mind rather than just being a passive recipient.
- Writing helps you to structure your thoughts and form coherence about what you have learned.
- Writing helps you understand and apply what you have learned in different contexts.
- When writing, both the verbal and visual sensory channels are active, making it more effective in structuring information. This is especially true if you use pictures and illustrations to take notes.
- Writing helps you focus on the subject you are studying and forces you to take an active role as a learner.
By hand or by computer?
- Easy to make different notes according to the topic
- Easy, familiar, and intuitive
- Works in almost all conditions
- Writing by hand enhances the recall of what you have written
- Editing and adding afterwards is a challenge
- Filing and organizing notes is difficult
- Handwriting and neatness depend on the user
- Fast and clean
- Supports a wide range of media types and different ways to take notes
- Huge variety of software is available to help you take your notes
- The web is always a few clicks away when looking for more information
- Notes easily become list-like and boring
- The internet is always a few clicks away, offering lots of distractions
- Technology can fail, for example if the internet connection goes down
There are many note-taking techniques, and, as mentioned, the subject you are studying will dictate to a large extent what you should use at any given time. However, it is essential that when you take notes, you try to write in your own words, make them easy to read, and structure them in such a way that active recall is easy. We will now briefly review some of the most useful and effective techniques.
Bullet points are a technique you are probably familiar with and certainly the most traditional way of taking notes. The technique has perhaps a bit of a bad reputation these days, as it can be perceived as boring and passive. However, Bullet points can be very effective in structuring and summarizing long subjects into a quickly comprehensible whole. They are also, in principle, fairly straightforward to create and read later.
Bullet points are based on hierarchical levels. Sub-headings are made under the heading, and under these sub-headings, individual points are made in short sentences. These can be supplemented and given examples at the next hierarchical level. The computer makes this particularly easy. Remember to write briefly and in such a way that the notes can be used for future reference.
Use them in particular to summarize the material and outline the content.
The Cornell note taking system
The Cornell note taking system is built to support active recall and review, so it's a great way to take notes when preparing for exams, for example.
There are many ways to use the method, but the most traditional is probably to divide the page into two columns with a vertical line (one column can be much narrower than the other). A small space is left at the bottom of the page. In the larger column, notes are made, for example in bullet points, but long sentences are avoided. In the smaller column, key words or questions will be used to refer to the notes. The space left at the bottom of the page will be used for a summary.
The advantage of the Cornell method lies in the review. When reading the notes, the aim is to read only the keyword or question and try to remember the note part. This will reveal if there is any further work to be done on a topic. Basically, Cornell method is like making flashcards in note-taking format!
The Cornell note taking system is particularly useful for summarizing concepts and long texts.
You are probably also familiar with mind maps. They are particularly useful for seeing the bigger picture and making connections. Each mind map is unique, but the use of colors, images, and symbols usually enhances their usefulness.
It is difficult to write long passages of text on mind maps, so the subject must be studied carefully if the mind map is to be useful for revision. If you know the subject well, a mind map can be an excellent structure to support deep learning. For example, in an exam situation, you may find that you can clearly visualize the mind map in your mind and formulate an answer structure easily.
Creative notes can be used to learn any subject, and their value is particularly important in mathematics. In creative note-taking, the subject and the learning objectives dictate the structure and style of the notes. The end result is likely to be a mixture of all the techniques discussed earlier.
The creative note-taker will quickly develop his or her own favorite styles and symbol systems, but the main goal is to let the subject matter take over and let the notes flow.
One of the best things about the technique is that the student can easily enter a deep state of concentration as their attention is divided between the material/lecture and the notes. The two sort of interact with each other and build a coherent whole that, at its best, is like a work of art.
The downside of creative notes is that they can be a little difficult to recall afterwards.
Whatever your style of note-taking, it's worth taking them, and even as you're taking them, keep in mind that they're meant to be reviewed. So try to take notes that make it easy for you to practice recalling the topic.
You can find out more about how to take good notes in our course Most effective learning techniques.
Thank you for reading, and have fun learning!