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4 Note-Taking Methods To Set You up for Studying Success

Alex Convery
September 03, 2020

High school student filling out an answer sheet

If you're a student pursuing a degree, whether it's a high school diploma, a bachelor's degree, or something else entirely, notes will be an essential part of your education. This means the way you take these notes will matter.

Note-taking methods can be fine-tuned and improved over time. When you develop note-taking skills, you don’t only learn more as you write notes down. You also make your notes a more accessible study tool.

While there is no single best-practice approach to note-taking, a few note-taking styles have become more popular due to their logical structure and easy to use process. Note-taking is imperative to good study, so here, we outline our four favorite note-taking methods along with one bonus tip for optimizing your note-taking system.

4 Top Note-Taking Methods

Note-taking methods: Woman writing in notebook near laptop

It's impossible for us to say which note-taking method will work best for you, as this largely depends on who you are as a learner. You'll even find one note-taking style works best in some classes, and another one works best in others. Your best bet is to try different note-taking methods and decide which work best for you.

1. Cornell Note-Taking Method

Cornell note-taking, unsurprisingly, is named for its origins at Ivy League Cornell University. It is commonly attributed to Walter Pauk and dates back to the 1950s. This note-taking method is easy to employ because it doesn't involve any detailed set-up, and it can be used for almost any subject.

To use the Cornell method, you’ll divide your paper into four sections. The first is a long horizontal section on the top of the page for your title, name, date, and the main topic you're taking notes on.

The second section is at the bottom of the page. This should be a similarly sized horizontal space about 5-7 lines long where you'll eventually summarize your notes.

This leaves the largest section in the middle of your page. Here, draw a column down the left side of your paper that takes about one-fourth of the paper's width. In this space, you'll write key points or questions from the reading or lecture. This section is sometimes called the recall column, because these are likely the subtopics or questions you'll be quizzed or tested on.

The space next to each of these points will be used for details about each key point or question. Later, when you study, you can cover this column and use the recall column to quiz yourself on how much you remember from the notes.

2. Outlining Method

Outlining is another popular note-taking method that takes very little planning or set-up. To use the outline method, you need to identify the main points and organize them as headers with details included as bullet points underneath each one.

The exact outlining style can vary depending on how you use this method.

In a formal outline, the main topics are listed along the left-hand side of your page, and each receives a Roman numeral. Then, you indent under each main topic to list subtopics labeled with capital letters. More details can be added beneath each subtopic with each level of detail indented further.

More casual outlining might just include main ideas with subtopics or supporting details bulleted underneath.

3. Charting Method

The charting method of taking notes is another popular approach. This note-taking method presents well-organized notes in a visually logical way.

In the charting method, your paper is organized into columns. The top of each column is labeled with an organizing idea, and you take notes across the columns.

For example, if you were studying historical battles from the American Revolution, you might have one column for the battle's name, another for the dates it took place, a third for remarkable historical figures who took part in it, and a fourth for notable details and the outcome.

One thing that makes the charting method a little bit more difficult to use is you need to know something about your subject matter before you take notes. However, if you have a general idea of the key concepts you'll hear during a lecture, you should be able to come up with an organizing concept for each column.

4. Mind-Mapping Method

The mind-mapping method for note-taking usually works best for very visual learners. Mind-mapping is a free form sort of note-taking in which you jot down main ideas and connect them to related concepts with arrows and lines.

Sometimes, you can use color coding for mind mapping. For example, if you're taking notes in a psychology class, you might list all mental health diagnoses in red, physical symptoms in blue, and psychological characteristics in green.

Mind-mapping works especially well when you don't have a clear vision for how ideas will connect ahead of time. It is a natural process that allows you to use critical thinking skills to connect new concepts as you learn about it.

Bonus Note-Taking Tip

Black businesswoman using note taking methods in office

Taking great notes is just one step toward academic success. If you want to make your note-taking methods work for you, there is something else you should do.

After you've taken your notes, whether they're from something you've read or from a recent class lecture, take some time to review them. Then, if you find that whatever method you’ve used didn’t feel right for you, rewrite your notes in the format that seems most useful.

This step will take practice. It will take time to learn which note-taking methods work the best for certain kinds of content and which just seem to be good notes for you personally. Regardless, rewriting and reorganizing your notes will help you put knowledge into your own words, activate important critical thinking skills, and provide more context for the new knowledge.

Do Note-Taking Methods Matter?

Notebooks with pencil on light blue background

Note-taking, on its own, is a great way to begin studying.

Just the act of writing something down can help you to remember it better later on. Beyond that, when you take notes, you engage in active listening, making conscious connections between new knowledge and existing knowledge.

These same notes then become content you can use later on as a study tool. Using the most important points from your notes, you can derive practice test questions, essay topics, or discussion points.

Figuring out which note-taking method works best for you is an important step in taking control of your education. Try the Cornell, outlining, charting, and mind-mapping methods to see how each of these popular note-taking methods works and which one best suits you. Then, copy your notes over to get the most out of them.

Remember, the best note-taking method is the one that works for you. It also takes practice to master each method, so don’t worry if it feels unnatural at first. If you'd like more study tips, lessons on note-taking, or information about how to become a more efficient learner, consider TutorMe.

Find out if your school or library partners with TutorMe, see the Demo Lesson Space to get a feel for how your tutors will introduce you to new concepts, and browse tutors by subject area expertise. Then, find the tutors best suited for you — you’ll find tutors have real-time availability and reasonable rates, from pay-as-you-go to monthly plans starting at $69 per month.