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Effective note taking methods
5 May, 2015
Why should students make their own notes?

As a teacher, there will be times when it is necessary to ask a student to read and take notes from their textbook or other sources. This serves multiple purposes:

  • if completed before a lesson, it provides a foundation of understanding which will then be expanded upon in class;
  • if completed after a lesson, it reinforces the lesson content and provides the student with an alternative ‘voice’ on the subject matter;
  • it helps students develop critical reading skills and enhances their ability to synthesise multiple sources of information.
Ineffective note taking – some common mistakes

notes note taking tutor westHowever, many students do not use an effective method when taking notes from written sources. This may be because they were never taught how to take notes, or simply do not see the benefit in having an effective set of notes for later revision and study. Creating a poor set of notes is a waste of valuable study time, and will cause frustration and unnecessary anxiety when it comes to revision for assessments. Some common student mistakes that we see include:

  • simply reading or skimming the text once or twice without making any notes – often done due to laziness or lack of time, students will recall at best 10-20% of the information and will inevitably have to re-read the entire text prior to an assessment.
  • highlighting large chunks of text and copying down the highlighted words – although the student may ‘feel’ like they are studying effectively due to the amount of effort this method requires, this method fails to pick out the key points and will lead to information overload when it comes to revising.
  • converting paragraphs of information into an unstructured series of dot points – this method succeeds in condensing large amounts of information into a manageable size, however it does not effectively organise ideas or draw links between key concepts. This method simply encourages rote-learning and regurgitation of information for assessments.
Recommended note taking methods

Ultimately, each student will have to choose a method that personally works for them. However, there are a number of proven and popular note taking methods that we recommend that students try:

1. Outlining method

For this method, students use a tiered system of dot points to organise information and show relationships between ideas. The main idea or most general point is written at the top, with more specific points indented below.  This is a well organised system that is ideal for breaking down complex topics into easy to understand points.

For example:

  • Law of demand
    • definition: inverse (negative) relationship between price and quantity demanded
    • demand curve always slopes downwards:
      • income effect
        • as price inc. people can afford less and vice versa
      • substitution effect
      • law of diminishing marginal utility

2. Cornell method

Developed at Cornell University, this method involves students writing down notes on the right hand side of the page, and then using the space on the left hand side to label each idea with a key word or “cue”.  Students can quickly revise their notes by covering the notes on the right hand side, reading the cues and trying to recall the related information.

The structure of the page ends up looking something like this:

note notes Cornell tutor west

3. Mapping method

The mapping method is great for visual learners as it uses diagrams and arrows to show links between categories and specific ideas. Mind mapping is useful for revising an entire topic and is excellent for developing concise summaries and key words due to the limited amount of space on the page. There is also some great (free) mind mapping software available, such as FreeMind and XMind.

For example:

mind map notes note tutor west

Further information on effective note taking methods and techniques can be found on the following websites:

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  1. […] that I want to focus on is the ability to create your own mind maps. As we have mentioned on our blog before, mind mapping can be a really effective way to take notes, especially for visual learners. […]