What Is the Best Note-Taking Method for You?
The best way to take notes is personal and depends on your learning style, the type of content you’re working with, and the amount of time you have. Ultimately, the best note-taking method for you is always going to be the one that will encourage you to learn and retain information as effectively possible and you may opt to combine a variety of methods depending on the information you are digesting at the time.
Knowing how to take notes is often something we take for granted but there are proven methods and employing one or a mixture of these can make all the difference to your chances of success at work or whilst in education. And it may even help to consider which type of learner you are first.
Note Taking Methods
This section looks at the most commonly used note taking techniques so you can decide what mat work best for you. By testing and developing these techniques you can make sure that the time you spend taking notes is really worthwhile.
The Cornell Method
Professor Walter Pauk of Cornell University created The Cornell Method in the 1950s. It’s a simple note-taking approach, for use in any situation, that divides a page into three sections:
- A slim column running down the left side of the page: To write subject headings, cues, hints, questions, or key phrases that label the notes with a topic or theme.
- A larger column on the right side of the page: Use this to write detailed notes that relate to the headings or topics in the left-side column.
- A horizontal box along the bottom of the page: Use this to summarise the topics you’ve noted using bullet points and action points.
Method: Draw a line across the bottom of the page, starting 2 inches up from the bottom. Then draw a straight line up from this section, around 2.5 inches in from the edge of the left side. Use the right section for abbreviated notes and the left for key ideas or themes. Then summarise each theme with bullet points at the bottom.
Helps to easily understand concepts, ideas, and problems.
Simple, easy, and saves time.
Useful for revision and holding key concepts in your mind.
Requires some effort to provide input across three sections.
Asks for advanced thinking and strategising.
The Outlining Method
The origins of the Outlining Method aren’t clear. But it offers a simple, structured approach in the form of creating an ‘outline’. In essence, note-takers write sentences using bullet points and line dashes. Starting with a main topic, they can highlight key points and use subtopics and supporting facts to back them up. It may look something like this:
- Main Topic
- Thought or supporting fact
Method: Draw a bullet point and a sentence for your main topic. Leave a space or indentation for any additional information underneath, starting with a line dash. Then, list out your supporting facts, ideas, or thoughts as numbered points underneath.
A clear structure that highlights the hierarchy of ideas.
Gives you the chance to group points.
Simple and revision-friendly.
Reduces editing time.
Can limit the ability to show complex information like data, charts, sources, or the relationships between various factors.
May be harder to use with fast presentations.
The Mapping Method
This approach allows note-takers to organise thoughts into branched topics or subjects. Doing so can highlight existing or potential relationships between them. It’s a graphic representation that may start with a main point and then link out to related points via arrows or channels. And, in this sense, it’s a form of ‘mapping out’ interconnected thoughts or related topics.
Method: Draw out your main topic at the top of the page, using a box or bubble. Then divide the topic into subtopics using a box or bubble underneath. Keep dividing it from the left and right. As an alternative, you can use a mind-mapping format. This is where you draw out your map from the middle and branch outward, surrounding the central idea with related subtopics.
Effective when taking individual notes that need deeper explanations or descriptions.
It is easy to show connections or relationships between ideas.
Keeps the page clean and tidy with multiple related ideas.
It may be difficult to keep up with more linear lectures or presentations, with many potential ongoing connections.
It’s possible that you may run out of space on the page.
The Charting Method
The Charting Method uses a grid system that can work well for organising and comparing ideas, concepts, or topics. Note-takers can draw a series of columns with headers, and then add their topics at the side to create rows. This is a way to split up a page into different sections a bit like it was a Google Sheet or Excel spreadsheet.
Method: Consider the categories you want to review ahead of the lecture and how they would fit into a grid system on the page. Draw vertical lines across the page, evenly spaced, with a short block across the top to write headers. Then draw horizontal lines across the columns and use the first column to input each topic.
Useful for categorising topics or summarising concepts.
Offers an easy ‘dashboard’ to review captured points and information at a glance.
Keeps writing concise and easy to absorb when revising.
Less effective for taking more linear notes or following the progression of ideas.
May be harder to capture extensive information into boxes or blocks.
The Sentence Method
This approach can be useful during fast-paced lectures where you need to take down lots of information. It involves writing a single, numbered sentence for each fact, topic, or idea and starting each one on a new line. Of course, a single sentence may not be enough to include every thought or topic, so a ‘sentence’ may become a ‘paragraph’ but should be short.
Method: Lined paper may be useful in this instance. Start the first topic with a number 1. Then write a sentence or two – no more than three if possible.
Versatile to use in many different contexts.
Easy to learn and to use during live lectures and broadcasts without a firm structure.
Less efficient way to review notes after the event.
Not enough space or clarity to draw connections, relationships, subtopics, or supporting information.
Main concepts or key points may be harder to distinguish or clarify on review.
Passive vs Active Note-Taking
The process of note-taking can be passive or active. When it’s passive, you may find it harder to take in and retain the information you’re given.
Active note-taking is a more deliberate approach that can help your brain assimilate information and maximize your note-taking session’s learning potential.
Examples of passive note-taking include actions such as copying information verbatim, highlighting and underlining words, or writing notes down on every topic rather than picking the most important ones.
What Are the Benefits of Active Note-Taking?
- Active note-taking helps you to make connections between subjects, which can bring a topic to life in your brain.
- Making a plan for how you’ll take notes, and using a specific structure, can help your brain process and acknowledge information.
- An active approach like writing down your understanding of a topic, in your own words, can increase your retention of that information.
- When you form questions about the information you’re learning in a live session, and seeking answers to them, can help you retain information for longer.
- There is no perfect way to take notes. But summarising key points from a lecture or presentation is a form of active note-taking that will help you remember what you’ve learned.
- Passive note-taking like copying slides and underlining key points can prevent or delay your understanding of the material.
What is Visual Note-Taking?
Visual note-taking combines images, drawing, and visualisation with text to form graphic representations of information. It’s a real-time note-taking technique that may include using pens, paper, and illustrative skills. But it can also involve the use of digital tools to enable clear graphics and graphic depiction or visualisation.
The technique is a non-linear approach to note-taking that facilitates connections between content and topics. Many learners respond well to visual stimuli and find this method easier to absorb.
Sometimes people speak of ‘Sketchnotes’ as the same thing as visual note-taking. While Sketchnotes is a form of visual note-taking, it focuses on handwriting and drawing skills. It’s a specific process for writing down thoughts and ideas using illustrations, symbols, structures, and texts.
Visual note-taking includes Sketchnotes but is much broader. It includes digital tools and assistive technology that support data visualisation and creative skills.
Visual Note-Taking Techniques
A mind map is a diagram that offers a way of connecting ideas around a single concept. By creating branches of subtopics from a single thought or idea, mind maps can illustrate how different ideas and concepts relate to a central theme.
Mind maps can break down information into a central or core concept. Or they can create new, related themes or ideas from a single starting point. That starting point can even be an image, word, or task. But, the mind map must attempt to illustrate how these concepts connect to or relate to the central theme.
To create a mind map, place a theme at the centre of a page. This can be a title, subject, task, thought, or image. Using curved lines to branch outwards, create a range of associated ideas or titles that connect to this central idea. Try to write a single word to identify each idea rather than using too many words or sentences. You can use different colours for each branch, subtopic, or idea. Think of your mind maps like a tree sprouting branches outward and keywords describing associated concepts as the leaves.
Useful for logging ideas without losing track of content.
Breaks down complex ideas in a systematic way.
Helps with recognising associations between ideas.
Facilitates collaborative learning.
Can be labour-intensive.
Risks running out of space on a page.
Is a slower method compared to other note taking techniques.
A concept map is similar to a mind map but allows you to plot associations and connections between multiple concepts. As opposed to the single, central idea in a mind map, concept maps explore connections between several ideas. They’re often used in education and corporate settings to explore structures and their interconnected relationships.
To create concept maps you can use different shapes, arrow connectors, and focus keywords. Start by choosing or listing out your set of topics and subtopics. Then, organise each theme by linking them back to a main idea. You can use linking words to do this, showing the relationships between core ideas.
There are different types of concept map structures to choose from:
- Hierarchy Maps: In a hierarchy map, you’ll create the main idea or highest-ranking concept at the top. Then, lower-ranking ideas flow out underneath.
- Spider Maps: Think of spider diagrams as sort of like spider webs. They’re useful as a note-taking tool when there are multiple subtopics to depict.
- System Maps: These help to reveal the relationships between several ideas. They’re useful for reviewing the connections between ideas or subsystems within an ecosystem.
Easy to read and access.
Good at highlighting the relationships between ideas and revealing patterns.
They’re customisable and easy to get data into.
Can be time-consuming in fast-paced lectures or presentations.
Tracking may be overwhelming without the appropriate or supportive tools.
A flowchart is a concept map that helps visualise a data sequence based on a series of data or actions moving through different points. As a visual note-taking tool, it’s useful for breaking narratives into a sequence or individual steps.
Visual note-taking using flowcharts is also known as ‘Flow-Based’. With this method, the goal is to focus on learning during a lecture or presentation and not only to transcribe. Each element or topic in a flowchart tends to have its own graphic representation with arrows and lines linking up the stages in between.
Three principles underline this approach:
- Simplify: Use your own words to write down the information.
- Visualise: Use images and diagrams to represent different concepts, ideas, and theories.
- Make Connections: Connect each visualisation back to its source, linking topics together into a series of steps.
Solid approach for any note-taking focused on processes, narratives, programming, and any step-by-step approaches.
Good to break down essential steps in a process.
Effective at communicating flow processes with others.
Have some limitations in what they can represent.
May need additional visuals to get full usage.
Can sometimes continue indefinitely and become unwieldy or messy with many outcomes.
A Thinking Map is a form of visual note-taking that can help to visualise various thoughts and ideas in graphic form. They’re particularly useful for visualising abstract concepts and for boosting comprehension. And they’re a form of explorative note-taking and visualisation that can boost collaboration, creativity, and design.
There are eight specific types of Thinking Maps that learners can use to explore concepts and build on their ideas:
- Circle Map: A Circle Map is a brainstorming tool to define a specific item or concept. It starts with a central idea as a circle and then adds further larger circles around it.
- Bubble Map: These can describe particular qualities of an idea, event, person, or object using adjectives.
- Double-Bubble Map: The Double Bubble Map is a useful tool to highlight the differences and similarities between two ideas, or in practice two Bubble Maps.
- Flow Map: Flow Maps visualise a process and show a potential progression of ideas, a chain of events, or steps to get to an outcome.
- Multi-Flow Map: Multi-flow maps describe causes and effects. They help to analyse which factors led to a particular situation.
- Brace Map: A Brace Map helps to deconstruct an object or theory. Starting with the name of the whole object, note-takers use ‘braces’ to outline the relationship to its parts.
- Tree Map: This is a classification tool that helps note-takers arrange items or ideas into different categories.
- Bridge Map: This type of note-taking approach lets students use a visual process to identify and relate to different analogies.
A graphic organiser is a teaching tool used to educate pupils. It can include many, if not all, of the full range of visual note-taking tools. As a key pedagogical tool, it’s primarily used to demonstrate key concepts and relationships between objects visually to aid in learning and understanding.
There are many different types of graphic organisers you can use for note-taking:
- Sequence Chart: A type of note-taking graphic organiser that allows note-takers to set out a sequence of events, like a timeline or various steps in a process.
- Persuasion Map: A persuasion map helps students outline and prepare arguments. It’s useful as preparation for essays, debates, and speeches.
- Story Map: Story maps are useful for deconstructing elements of stories such as characters, plots, and themes.
- Idea Wheel: Functioning as a mix between a spider map and a circle map, idea wheels are useful brainstorming tools.
- KWL Chart: This is a three column chart for gathering information and reviewing a child’s knowledge or experience. The K stands for knowledge, the W stands for What they Want to know, and the L represents what they learned.
Invented by mathematician John Venn, the Venn Diagram is a well-known tool for revealing the differences and similarities between things using coloured circles. As a simple tool for understanding patterns and the overlaps between different ideas, a Venn Diagram tends to include at least two interlocking circles that help to compare and contrast the characteristics of two things.
Creating a Venn diagram using visual tools should be fairly straightforward. It’s a simple approach that requires coloured circles that overlap. In each circle, you would write notes that describe the characteristics of what the circle represents.
Different Venn diagrams work with different data sets. And so there are different Venn diagram options:
- Two set diagrams: The classic Venn diagram. This uses two circles containing different data sets. Useful for comparisons.
- Three set diagrams: Three set diagrams use three overlapping circles to highlight similarities in the centre, where all three coincide.
- Four set diagrams: Four set Venn diagrams are useful for comparing notes on four different data sets. This may be useful in software engineering, sciences, and other complex data set comparisons.
Five set diagrams: Usually, a five set Venn diagram is the maximum you could expect to use for comparing data sets. Even at five, things could get too complex and unwieldy.
Note Taking with Caption.Ed
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