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Developing Your Personal Note Taking Style

There are two functions of note-taking.

Aid Concentration

The first function of note-taking is to help you concentrate on the information presented so that you will cognitively encode the material into your working memory. Simply ‘writing it down’ does not encode the information; you must do more.

Information Storage

The second function of note-taking is to store the information covered in class for later review. To fully learn course material, you must re-interpret your own notes.  


How to structure your note-taking.

There are a variety of note-taking techniques and strategies. You have to decide on which technique works best for you. Different note-taking strategies may work better for different classes.

Leave plenty of blank space on each page as your take notes.

You will use this space during and after class to add information, ask questions, and make connections. Some students find it helpful to draw a line dividing the page into two sections. In one section, you will write notes following the professor’s lecture. In the second section, you will record your own summary statements, questions, or connections to other materials. These might occur to you as you take notes, but you will most likely develop these thoughts after class.

Do not become overly reliant on technology.

Instructor-provided slides are helpful as an organizing tool but are not a replacement for attending class or actively organizing the lecture information. Tape recording a lecture might be useful, but it is not a substitute for active attendance in class. Only record lectures if you feel that there might be something you miss that makes it worth your time to listen to the lecture again. If you can fill in gaps by talking to classmates or your professors, then recording is probably not helpful.

Use loose-leaf paper or a spiral binder from which you can remove the pages and place them into a three-ring binder.

This will allow you to rewrite notes or add material in sequence.

Date and number each page.

Write on only one side of the page.


Use the instructor’s PowerPoint slides.

PowerPoint slides provided by the instructor can be a valuable tool for understanding each lecture. They can also be a detriment if used improperly.

What to do with instructor’s slides.

Use the slides to prepare for the lecture and to provide the structure for understanding the lecture. You can print the slides and take notes on the page. If you are using your computer, there is a notes field under each slide in PowerPoint in which you can type notes from class. This way your notes will always be attached to the proper slide.

What not to do with instructor’s slides.

Do not rely solely on the PowerPoint slides as notes from the lecture. There will be much more information presented in the lecture than can be contained on a slides. If done properly, the slides will just provide you with the framework, you have to listen for the details.


Choose your note-taking style.

No single format works for everyone. Experiment with several of the formats below to decide what works for you, keeping in mind the two functions of note-taking. You will likely discover that particular styles work better for particular courses.

  • Cornell Note-Taking Method structures the note-taking page with one section for notes and a second section for recording questions, clarifications, and reflections. 

  • Concept mapping works well for students who are visual learners and for topics in which connections between multiple concepts are important. It is also useful for studying for exams.

  • Outlining can work if you have a solid idea about the structure of the lecture ahead of time. This example uses a structure similar to the Cornell Method with the additional space left clear for notes and clarifications.

  • Free-form notes can be useful when it is difficult to organize the material as you jot down your notes. This might be because the instructor’s lecture is not structured or because you need to get down a lot of material. This example also uses a structure similar to the Cornell Method with the additional space left clear for notes and clarifications.


Using your laptop.

Making notes on your laptop can be effective if you can avoid the distractions from having your computer accessible during class. One benefit is that you can easily add more space to your note page when you want to jot down questions or clarifications. One disadvantage is that you might not find it as easy to pull out your laptop for quick review during the day.


What do I write?  

You want to record as much information as possible while simultaneously trying to think about the main ideas. Use the following guidelines to help develop your own style.

Focus on the main ideas and understanding key concepts. 

At the very least, you should record the main ideas of the material. If you have planned ahead, you will have anticipated these and have them ready to place as headings in your notes. When a professor is working through a problem on the board, pay attention to the logic used to solve the problem. You will be able to find the details of the problem later.

Note material to which the instructor draws attention or gives clues that he or she feels is important.

Look for clues that highlight material the instructor feels is important. Attending class regularly and paying attention to what the instructor emphasizes—through what they choose to write on the board or when they change their tone of voice or when they use media to elaborate on an idea—allows you to determine what they might find important. This allows you to interpret the instructor’s lecture for keys to significant material that he or she will focus the exams on.

Concentrate on writing down information that is not easily accessible elsewhere.

Do not try to write down everything the professor says. Your head will explode! If the professor mentions details that can be easily looked up in the textbook or other sources, do not write them down; simply write a note so that you will remember to look them up later.

Develop techniques for abbreviating and paraphrasing.

You can use standard abbreviations or develop your own set individualized to each class. Be careful, however, to use abbreviations that you will later understand. Also, try not to write unnecessary words. Do not write “There are two types of …” Write “2 types ….” Use symbols, i.e., up or down arrows for increase or decrease, etc.

Write your notes in your own words as much as possible.

This is part of the memory-encoding process. Trying to hold the professor’s words in your short-term memory is much more difficult than holding the ideas. You do not want to remember the words; you want to remember the information.