7 Effective Note-Taking Methods

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Do you want to take better notes? Explore seven effective note-taking methods, including the Cornell method, the sentence method, the outlining method, the charting method, the mapping method, the flow-based method, and the rapid logging method.

[Featured Image] Three smiling multiracial professionals sitting at a table taking notes on paper and laptops.

Taking notes while learning is a great way to record information to review later. Note-taking can also help you stay more focused on the material you’re listening to or reading and help you remember your questions and comments while listening to the material. To get the most out of your notes later, you can use systems or note-taking methods to organize what you write down. 

In this article, you’ll learn about seven effective note-taking methods and how they can help you get more value out of your notes.

Effective note-taking methods

One way to take practical notes is to adopt a system or method. Your best note-taking method will be the one you use frequently or makes the most sense to you. You can also change your method, although you might consider finding what works and sticking with it. Consistency will make it easier to stick with the habit of taking good notes, and it will make it easier to review your notes later.

Below, you’ll find seven examples of note-taking methods to try, although you can find more to choose from if you’d prefer. You may also blend styles to find a hybrid method that’s most effective for you. The important thing is to create consistent notes highlighting the most critical points of the lecture to review later, as well as key terms and potential exam questions.

1. The Cornell method

Developed at Cornell University, the Cornell note-taking method begins by dividing the page into three sections: A column along the left-hand side of the page, a row across the bottom, and the rectangle that remains centered along the top and right edges of the page. The last section, the rectangle, will be the only section you write in while actively taking notes during a lecture, while the others will remain blank for now.

During the lecture, your primary goal is to record as much information as possible in the note-taking sections of your notes. Immediately after the lecture is over, you will use the left-hand column to record the major points of the lecture as well as any potential information that may be on the exam. This is also a place for ideas, questions, and other notes you want to retain. You'll also use the footer or bottom column to summarize the notes on the page.

Why use the Cornell method 

The Cornell method makes it easy to identify the most essential points of the lecture. You can mark cues like an asterisk or exclamation point in the left-hand column to mark important details to return to later. The design is flexible and uncomplicated, making it easy to use in various settings or lecture topics.

Another advantage to the Cornell method is that you must finish your notes after the lecture, which forces you to think about the material you just learned and rephrase it in your own words. This helps you retain more information.

2. Sentence method

The sentence method, or list method, is a way of capturing as much information as possible. It’s a simple method where you record every thought or sentence on a new line without pausing to organize or prioritize the information. With the sentence method, you won’t spend time during the lecture working out which points are the main points to study later, leaving you with more time to listen to the lecturer and write down more of what they are saying.

You can improve your notes after class by spending a few minutes clarifying and categorizing your notes, marking down main ideas and potential exam questions, and taking notes of any questions you have.

Why use the sentence method 

The sentence method allows you to take notes quickly, which is especially useful for keeping up during a fast-paced lecture or a class that presents much information. The sentence method is also useful when you don’t have clues about the lecture format ahead of time, such as with a syllabus or agenda.

While the sentence method has a clear time-saving benefit, it doesn’t allow you to engage with the content as you would if you were paraphrasing in your own words. By returning to your notes later to add context and review, you can get more study power out of your efforts.

3. Outlining method

The outline method involves creating an outline of the important points of the lecture using numbers, letters, and indentation to show information hierarchies. You can use a more traditional outline structure or incorporate other symbols to help you designate the main ideas, ideas that support those ideas, and the more minor details of each sub-category.

Learning to use the outline method when using pen and paper to take notes can take some practice because it can be difficult to identify relationships between different pieces of information during a live class or lecture. Outlining is especially useful on a computer because you can quickly change and edit how information is organized as the lecture progresses.

Why use the outlining method 

The outlining method helps you quickly understand how information relates to each other. It’s also easy to review and make sense of later. The outline method is beneficial if your professor gives you a syllabus or agenda to add structure to your notes before the class begins. In that circumstance, you can pre-populate your notes and focus on adding details while the lecture is underway.

4. Charting method

The charting method is a way of visually organizing your notes in a chart. This method works best when summarizing information you’re taking notes with headings.

For example, a lecture about famous people throughout history might use a chart to list each person along the left-hand column, with topics like “early life,” “major achievements,” or “historical significance” along the top. As the lecture progresses, you can fill each box with notes to review later.

Why use the charting method

The charting method helps you understand the material visually. It’s particularly effective for keeping track of important details in a lecture, such as dates or numbers, that can get lost in the chaos of other note-taking forms.

Another advantage of the charting system is that it reduces the writing you must do to organize the information. Plus, the visual nature of a chart makes it easy to review later or to create study materials.

 5. Mapping method

The mapping note-taking method starts with the central idea in the middle of the page, sometimes in a circle. You can write related ideas in smaller circles around the main idea, connected with lines. As you fill in more details, the connections will get more specific, and circles and lines will sprawl along the page, moving from the main idea to small details.

Learning how information should relate to each other can take practice while listening to a lecture in person. You can review your notes later and adjust the position of information on the map to help keep things accurate.

Why use the mapping method

Mapping provides a visual representation of how the material relates to one another. Not only does this make it easier to study later, but it can also help you retain the material.

Another way mapping helps you retain material is that by working through the relationships in real time and paraphrasing what you hear, you are actively engaging with the material. This lets you learn the material as you listen, not simply record what the lecturer says.

6. Flow-based method

Flow-based notes are a concept developed by Scott Young where you write down points of information from the lecture in your own words and connect them visually with arrows. This method of note-taking is similar to the sentence or list method. Still, instead of moving down the paper line by line, you’re drawing connections and representing the material in a visual way to describe relationships. Flow-based note-taking intends to record the material organically as you process it in your head, allowing for a non-linear note system.

Why use the flow-based method

The flow-based method allows you the flexibility to organize information quickly and intuitively. By writing the notes in your own words and demonstrating how they relate to other pieces of information, you will retain more of what you write because of the thought required to rephrase and understand the information.

7. Rapid logging method

Rapid logging, a term often used in connection to bullet journaling, is a method of rapidly capturing information using symbols to organize and add context. For example, you could use one symbol to designate tasks you must complete, another for questions to ask later, and a third for potential exam topics.

Rapid logging aims to note important information without any irrelevant details quickly. Doing so will allow you to capture more information. You can also return to your notes later to add context.

Why rapid logging works

Rapid logging is straightforward and flexible, allowing you to design whatever symbols you need to help you distinguish between different types of information, and you can start taking notes without setting up your notes with any formatting. One of the most significant advantages of rapid logging is that you can use it for any note-taking setting, whether taking notes during a lecture, setting up a day planner, or keeping a personal journal. 

Benefits of taking good notes

Taking good notes can help you in a lot of different ways. You record what was discussed when you take notes during a lecture or conference. Reviewing your notes after class helps you retain more information from the lecture and can serve as the beginning of a study guide or material to review for an exam.

Effective note-taking methods can also help you pay better attention in class. Taking notes can help you focus on what’s being said and makes you less likely to daydream or let your thoughts wander. When you take practical notes with a note-taking system, you will save time when you return to your notes to study later because it will be easier to understand what you’ve written and the lecture's main points.

Another benefit of taking good notes is that you have a place to jot down ideas, questions, and connections that come into your head while listening to the lecture. These ideas can be fleeting, but your note-taking method can help you capture them.

Paper vs. digital note-taking

You can use the analog method of scratching a pen or pencil across paper or use technology to take your notes digitally. Let’s examine the pros and cons of traditional and digital paper note-taking methods.

Paper notes

One of the most significant advantages of using pen and paper to write notes is that you'll retain more information. Writing notes by hand causes us to think more closely about what we are doing because we are more engaged in creating words, funneling the lecture's message through our minds. Paper notes also eliminate distractions that come from digital devices. You won’t have any notifications or emails on your notepad to take you away from the lecture.

Another benefit to paper notes is that it can be faster and easier to create diagrams or other visual ways of organizing information. Although you could achieve the same effect with technology, such as a tablet with a stylus, paper notes are an inexpensive alternative.

Digital notes

Digital notes are an attractive option because typing is faster than writing notes by hand, allowing you to capture more information from the lecture you’re listening to. Typing notes on a computer also lets you edit your notes easily to add more information, organize the information, or create a study guide. However, the formatting capabilities of your word processor might limit you.

Learn more with Coursera

If you’re ready to take the next step, consider Academic Listening and Note-Taking, a course to help you learn note-taking strategies. Another option, the Academic Skills for University Success Specialization from the University of Sydney, helps you further build skills for success. Both are available on Coursera, along with a catalog of courses from globally-renowned institutions.

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