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How to Take Effective Notes

When you’re taking notes, it can be tempting to jot down everything you hear, but this makes it harder for you to make sense of your notes later down the line. 

Ideally, note-taking involves summarising core concepts and theories in your own words, so you can understand and engage with these ideas with the topics you learn about. 

But taking notes the right way can be tricky. By refining your note-taking process, you’ll have clear and concise notes that save you valuable time, energy and confusion. 

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Effective note-taking can massively improve the retention of information!

How should you take notes – Digital vs. paper notes? 

First, you need to decide whether to take notes using a laptop or a notepad. 

Each medium has its benefits and setbacks. With a laptop, more information can be recorded at a quicker rate but the tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim can disrupt learning. 

Whereas with a notebook, you can process information and reframe it in your own words, however, it can be tough to read back if your handwriting isn’t neat. 

According to a study, students who took notes by hand scored about three times higher than average on tests with conceptual questions than laptop users

Whichever format you decide, as long as it helps with your learning, then you’re one step closer to taking better notes.


What method should you use to take notes? 

  1. Cornell Note-Taking System: Developed in the 1950s as part of a university preparation program (AVID), this method divides your notes into 4 sections: 
  • Top row for the date and title 
  • Middle section with two columns – one column for your main notes, another column for additional comments and questions 
  • Bottom row for a quick summary 

The benefit of using the Cornell method is that it forces students to summarise information systematically, rather than writing notes down verbatim. 

In addition, it encourages students to review their notes so that they can fill in the final summary, which can help when it comes to highlighting the main takeaways from a lesson. 

But these notes require a lot of upkeep – the page layout needs to be prepped in advance and a summary needs to be written for every set of notes. 

  1. The Outline Method: This method organises your notes into bullet points, with information being listed under relevant topics. 

By not having to write full sentences, bullet points allow students to identify key points as a way to break down large amounts of information. 

While these notes can be looked over easily, this method can be hard to implement if your notes are predominantly made up of diagrams and formulas rather than text. 

  1. The Box Method: This method divides your notes into different boxes. Each topic is assigned a particular box, and any information related to the topic is detailed in these boxes. 

Organising your notes with boxes can help separate each topic, which can be reviewed easily after a long time. 

On the other hand, if you can’t come up with overarching topics for your notes, then you’ll be left unsure about how to categorise each box, with little information in each. 

  1. The Mapping Method: This method works like a mind map, dividing your subtopics into branches from the main topic. This could be a good way to present important ideas and concepts visually. 

Mapping allows you to make more than one connection between subtopics, which is beneficial if your points tie together. Also, creating branches allows you to add more information to your notes later on. 

But it is easy to overcomplicate your mind map, and also doesn’t follow a chronological order that can help you digest this information. 

These are just a few methods you could use to write down effective notes. Take time to experiment and modify these methods, so that you create an ideal system that strengthens your learning experience. 

What are some note-taking strategies you can use before class, during class and after class? 

Before class, it is useful to look over reading material to familiarise yourself with topics that will be discussed. This can be achieved by: 

  • Completing reading assignments 
  • Looking at the course syllabus/lecture presentation for that particular week 
  • Reviewing notes from your previous class 

During class, listen carefully to what’s being taught and write down relevant information that supports ideas being discussed. Keep your notes brief and concise by: 

  • Focusing on the main points (which tend to be emphasised/repeated often) 
  • Paraphrasing what you hear using your own words 
  • Using abbreviations and symbols 
  • Marking areas you find confusing so you can follow-up later 

After class, it is important to look over your notes to make sure you clarify key terms and fill in any missing details for any complicated concepts. Organise your notes by: 

  • Giving notes a title and date 
  • Using highlighters and colours to emphasise certain ideas 
  • Storing notes in one place 

If you’re still struggling on a particular topic, feel free to email your lecturer or talk to other students, so that you can look back on your notes and grasp ideas that were discussed in class. 

How to remember your notes? 

When it comes to exam season, many students struggle to retain and recall the information they had noted down for their classes. Even when they look back on their notes, a lot of their understanding becomes lost over time. 

The Forgetting Curve, theorised by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, plots the relationship between memory and time remembered (in days). 

He found that memory retention, which is at 100% when the information is initially learnt, drops rapidly to 40% after the first few days. This is because the rate of memory loss is rapid within the first few days of learning, but slows down after that. 

So to retain information, repetition is key. Ideally, you would want to repeat information you have learnt within the first 24hrs to disrupt the rate of memory loss. 

From then on, checking your notes in growing intervals can help you remember what you’ve learnt – this is why it is crucial to review your notes before and after class. 

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Going back to look at your notes can really help your revision process.

Making effective notes is not something many students are taught about. But good note-taking can make a significant difference in the way you acquire and retain knowledge. 

By understanding the processes that go behind taking notes, you will be able to recall information that will help you ace any upcoming exams! 

Ceed is committed to helping students during their studies. If you would like more guidance when it comes to your learning, visit our website for more information! 

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