What are note-taking methods?

As covered in a previous article, research shows active note-taking improves memory and understanding of a topic. In comparison, receiving notes in the form of printed material or trying to write down notes in a verbatim style were shown to be less effective. The best note-taking methods promote active note-taking which in turn boosts assessment results.

Note-taking is paradoxical because you write notes out of fear of not being able to remember everything from class, but the note-taking process helps you understand the content, so you don’t need the notes. I’m half joking of course, it’s still a good idea to review your notes!

Effective note-taking is improved when a “method” is applied to the notes. I’ll share the best note-taking methods with you and cover the pros and cons of each.

Cornell Method

The Cornell method, developed at Cornell University, divides a page into three sections – two columns followed by a summary at the bottom.

The note column on the right is for note-taking during class. In the cue column on the left, write questions or prompts for what you believe the notes on the right are for. Traditionally the cue column is done just after the note-taking. This engages the brain with the note material to make sense of what has been recorded – which is an active study process. The summary space at the bottom is for a couple of sentences that answers the question, “what did I learn today?”. The summary can be completed at the end of the day, to maximise the spacing effect and improve retention of the information.

Pros: Promotes active study in the review of notes. Uses the spacing effect to improve memory retention.

Cons: Can feel cramped as note-taking section is divided down the page.

Outline Method

The outline method organises information by use of indents. Indents are those places where a new line is started a bit further to the right of the page. The most general, overarching information is placed as headers. The more specific information is placed below the header, indented to show it supports the information above it.

Any number of layers of indents can be added as information becomes more specific. This clearly shows the hierarchical relationship between pieces of information.

Pros: An intuitive way to classify and organise information. Promotes active study during note-taking as you decide what information is a main idea vs what is a supporting point.

Cons: While great when information comes naturally chunked into categories, the outline method does not work as well when information is more free flowing (like during research using multiple sources on a topic).

Charting Method

In the charting method, a grid or table is set up in advance that has headings to break the information into distinct groups. The rows contain topics, and the columns are the categories of information. The result is a grid which makes it easy to compare different topics and ideas.

Pros: Great for the organisation and comparison of similar parts of a topic (e.g., proteins, carbohydrates and fats in a diet).

Cons: Not so hot for recroding processes (e.g., how to make cupcakes).

Mind Mapping Method

I’m a big fan of doing the mind mapping method at the end of a topic as a revision tool, but it can also be used for note-taking too. As the important information is noted, it is connected by lines and surrounded by circles, rectangles, clouds and other shapes. The intention is to show relationships between the information, like the outline method, but is more flexible in how the relationships are shown.

I put rectangles around main ideas with supporting points connected to it via lines. You are free to follow whatever rules you like.

Pros: Very flexible in the placement of information and connections can be updated and reviewed after class.

Cons: Can end up cluttering the page as there is a tendency to want all the information fit on one page to maintain connections.

Note-taking with PowerPoint Slides

Self-plug time. We have video tutorials that cover ATAR content in Science and Mathematics. Depending on the subject, there are also copies of the PowerPoint slides available. Is it hypocritical that I’m promoting writing notes but then still give them to you? Well, there are benefits to having the slides before you watch a lesson. While true that writing your own notes was better than printed notes in studies, having a template for students to complete their note-taking on showed even better results. A good teacher knows this and their PowerPoints will have plenty of blank bits to fill in.

You can still apply some of the note-taking methods above, but if you choose to use the printed slides as a head start, fill in the spaces on the slides and complete the example problems alongside the lessons.

Which note-taking style is the best?

There is no best as they all have their own strengths. Which style to apply comes down to you and the topic. Mathematical, list based people may prefer the outline method. Creative, visual people may prefer the mind mapping method. Comparing topics is best suited to a charting method and the Cornell method encourages active review of the information with spaced repetition to improve memory retention.

The important thing to take away is that any of these note-taking methods is far better than receiving complete notes/slides, taking a photo of the board or writing down everything word for word.

Study smarter, not harder. What note-taking method are you going to use next lesson?

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