10 Note Taking


Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • use note taking to increase information retention;
  • use different note-taking systems;
  • use short forms when note taking

Why Is This important?

When attending classes and reading course materials, you will be required to learn a lot of information. By determining the key details and taking notes in an organized and clear fashion, you will be able to create your own version of the most important content for your courses. You can use your notes to review the material regularly in order to increase memory retention for assignments, tests, and when you enter the workplace.

Note taking is a study practice you will carry throughout college and into your professional life. Setting yourself up for successful note taking is almost as important as the actual taking of notes, and what you do after your note-taking session is equally significant. Well-written notes help you organize your thoughts, enhance your memory, and participate in class discussion, and they prepare you to respond successfully on exams.

Note Taking

Beyond providing a record of the information you are reading or hearing, notes help you organize the ideas and help you make meaning out of something about which you may not be familiar. Taking notes also helps you stay focused on the question at hand. You can take notes during presentations or class lectures to help you follow the speaker’s main points and condense the material into a more readily usable format. Strong notes build on your prior knowledge of a subject, help you discuss trends or patterns present in the information, and direct you toward areas needing further research or reading.

A student takes down notes on a notebook inside a classroom.
A student takes down notes on a notebook inside a classroom. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/5-3-taking-notes, Attribution: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

When taking notes, it is not a good habit to transcribe every single word a speaker utters. Learn to listen for main ideas and distinguish between these main ideas and details that typically support the ideas. Include examples that explain the main ideas that you can refer back to later on to help you remember the class information.

The notes you take can be used as a study guide after your class is over. Research on this topic concludes that without active engagement after taking notes, most students forget 60–75 percent of material for which they took the notes — within two days! This information about memory loss was first brought to light by 19th-century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. For more information about Hermann Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve click on this link.

Take Notes To Remember

You should take notes during class so that you do not forget valuable and important information. Even though there is an incredible amount of information on the internet that we can access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you do not have the ability to access the internet during exams. We’ve become accustomed to searching for information on demand to find what we need when we need it. The consequence is that we don’t often commit information to memory because we know it will be there tomorrow if we wish to search for it again. This causes challenges with preparation for exams as what we’re tested on is in our brain rather than information we can search for. Thus, there is an importance of taking notes. “Note-taking facilitates both recall of factual material and the synthesis and application of new knowledge, particularly when notes are reviewed prior to exams.”[1]

In order to try to retain information long term, we must move it from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. One of the best ways to do that is through repetition. The more we review information, and the sooner we review once we initially learn it, the more reinforced that information is in our long-term memory. The first step in being able to review is to take notes when you are originally learning the information. Students who do not take notes in class in the first place will not be able to recall all of the information covered in order to best review.

Taking notes during lectures is a skill, just like riding a bike. If you have never taken notes while someone else is speaking, it’s important to know that you will not be an expert at it right away. It is challenging to listen to someone speak and then make a note about what they said, while at the same time continuing to listen to their next thought.

Some instructors will give you cues to let you know something is important. If you hear or see one of these cues, that indicates that the information is important and that you should write it down. This might include an instructor saying, “this is important,” or “this will be covered on the exam.” If you notice an instructor giving multiple examples, repeating information or spending a lot of time on one idea, these may be cues. Writing on the board or presenting a handout or visual information may also be a cue.[2]


Reflect on your past note-taking experiences by answering the following questions:

  • In the past, have you taken notes during classes?
  • What steps will you need to take to get into the practice of regularly taking notes?
  • What would happen if you never took notes in class?

Preparing to Take Notes

The best notes are the ones you take in an organized manner that encourage frequent review and use as you progress through a topic or course of study. For this reason, you need to develop a way to organize all your notes for each class so they remain together and organized. If you are taking notes with paper and pen, a three-ring binder is an excellent organizational container for class notes. You can easily add to previous notes, insert handouts you may receive in class, and maintain a running collection of materials for each separate course. If you are typing your notes, you can organize your notes in folders on your computer. If you don’t keep your notes organized, you will waste time searching for them within your class handouts or in the files of your computer.

A pen placed atop a student’s notebook, with the page full of handwritten notes and a diagram.
Open notebook full of notes and a pen. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/5-3-taking-notes, Attribution: English106 / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0)

Managing Note-Taking Systems

It is best to develop a note-taking system and use it consistently. To keep yourself organized, all your notes should start off with an identifier, including the date, the course name, the topic of the lecture/presentation, and any other information you think will help you when you return to use the notes for further study, test preparation, or assignment completion. It’s also always a good idea to leave some blank space in your notes so you can insert additions and questions you may have as you review the material later.

The strategies in this section represent various ways to take notes so that you can use them to study after the initial note-taking session. The note-taking strategies include: the Cornell method; outlining; and concept mapping and visual note taking.

Cornell Method

When using the Cornell method, take a standard piece of note paper and divide it into three sections by drawing a horizontal line across your paper about 3-5 centimetres (1-2 inches) from the bottom of the page (the summary area) and then drawing a vertical line to separate the rest of the page above this bottom area, making the left side about 5 centimetres (2 inches) (the questions column) and leaving the biggest area to the right of your vertical line (the notes column). You may want to make one page and then copy as many pages as you think you’ll need for any particular class. Because you have divided up your page, you may end up using more paper than you would if you were writing on the entire page. The Cornell Method provides you with a well-organized set of notes that will help you study and review them as you move through the course. If you are taking notes on your computer, you can still use the Cornell method in Word or Excel on your own or by using a template.

A page of a school notebook has rows and columns for “Topic/Objective,” “Name,” “Class/Period,” “Date,” “Essential Question,” “Questions,” “Notes,” and “Summary.”
When using the Cornell method, a note paper has rows and columns for “Topic/Objective,” “Name,” “Class/Period,” “Date,” “Essential Question,” “Questions,” “Notes,” and “Summary.” Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/5-3-taking-notes, Attribution: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

During your note-taking session, use the notes column to record information about the main points and concepts of the lecture; try to put the ideas into your own words instead of transcribing the speaker’s words verbatim. Practice the shortcut abbreviations covered in the next section and avoid writing in complete sentences. Use bullet points or phrases to convey meaning. If you know you will need to expand on the notes you are taking in class but don’t have time, you can put reminders directly in the notes by adding and underlining the word expand by the ideas you need to develop more fully.

As soon as possible after your note-taking session, preferably within eight hours but no more than 24 hours, read over your notes column and fill in any details you missed in class, including the places where you indicated you wanted to expand your notes. Then in the recall column, write any key ideas from the corresponding notes column — add the one- or two-word main ideas; these words in the recall column serve as cues to help you remember the detailed information you recorded in the notes column.

Once you are satisfied with your notes and recall columns, summarize this page of notes in two or three sentences using the summary area at the bottom of the sheet. This is an excellent time to get together with another classmate, or a group of students who heard the same lecture, to make sure you all understood the key points. Now, before you move onto something else, review the large notes column, and quiz yourself over the key ideas you recorded in the recall column. Repeat this step often, not just immediately before an exam, and you will help your memory make the connections between your notes, your textbook reading, your in-class work, and assignments that you will need to succeed on any quizzes and exams.

The main advantage of the Cornell method is that you are setting yourself up to have organized, workable notes. The neat format helps you move into study mode without needing to copy less organized notes or making sense of a large amount of information you aren’t sure how to process because you can’t remember key ideas or what you meant. If you write notes in your classes without any sort of system and later come across something like “Napoleon—short” in the middle of a your notes, what can you do at this point? Is that important? Did it connect with something relevant from the lecture? How would you possibly know? By taking organized notes, you are your best advocate for setting yourself up for success in college.


An outline is another note-taking style. You can use Roman numerals for each new topic, moving down a line to capital letters indented a few spaces to the right for concepts related to the previous topic, then adding details to support the concepts indented a few more spaces over and denoted by an Arabic numeral. The following formal outline example shows the basic pattern:

  1. Dogs (main topic–usually general)
    1. German Shepherd (concept related to main topic)
      1. Protection (supporting info about the concept)
      2. Assertive
      3. Loyal
    2. Weimaraner (concept related to main topic)
      1. Family-friendly (supporting info about the concept)
      2. Active
      3. Healthy
  2. Cats (main topic)

It is important to be careful to indent so you can tell when you move from a higher level topic, to the related concepts, and then to the supporting information. The main benefit of an outline is how organized it is. However, you have to pay attention when you are taking notes in class to ensure you keep up the organizational format of the outline, which can be tricky if the lecture or presentation is moving quickly or covering many diverse topics.

You would continue on with this sort of numbering and indenting format to show the connections between main ideas, concepts, and supporting details. Whatever details you do not capture in your note-taking session, you can add after the lecture as you review your outline.

Concept Mapping and Visual Note Taking

One note-taking method that appeals to learners who prefer a visual representation of notes is called concept mapping or sometimes mind mapping. There are many variations of this method, so you may want to look for more versions online, but the basic principles are that you are making connections between main ideas through a graphic depiction. Main ideas can be circled or placed in a box with supporting concepts radiating off these ideas shown with a connecting line and possibly details of the support further radiating off the concepts. You may find it helpful to use your paper in the landscape format as you add more main ideas.

A concept map shows a glob of student’s notes using connectors, bubbles, lists, symbols, and different colors.
A concept map shows a student’s notes using connectors, bubbles, lists, symbols, and different colours. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/5-3-taking-notes, Attribution: ArtistIvanChew / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0)
You can play with different types of note taking and find the method(s) you like best, but once you find what works for you, stick with it. You will become more efficient with the method the more you use it, and your note taking, review, and test prep will become easier and more organized, which can decrease your anxiety and make you better prepared for tests and assignments.

Note Taking with Short Forms

You can use short forms when taking notes in order to save time. This will help you get information written down quickly so that you don’t miss any important details. Below are some common short forms that you can memorize and use during note taking. Make sure to define any new short forms in the top corner of your notes so you don’t accidentally forget what the short form means.

Short Form Meaning
w/, w/o, w/in with, without, within
& and
# number
b/c because
X, √ incorrect, correct
Diff different, difference
etc. and so on
ASAP as soon as possible
US, UK United States, United Kingdom
info information
ft, in, k, m foot, inch, thousand, million
paragraph or new paragraph
 =, +, >, <, ÷ equal, plus, greater, less, divided by
WWI, WWII World War I and World War II
impt important
?, !, ** denote something as very significant; don’t over use


Reflect on the note-taking strategies by answering the following questions:

  1. Which note-taking method do you plan to use? Why?
  2. Do you have any other shortcuts or symbols that you use in your notes?
  3. What are some advantages and disadvantages of using short forms in your notes?

Key Takeaways

Note taking is an important way to capture information presented during class or when reading class texts. Pick a note-taking style that will work for you and write notes in your own words using short forms to save time. After class, make sure to review your notes often so that you can retain the information in preparation for tests and assignments.

Attribution Statement: College Success by Amy Baldwin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  1. http://www.math.lsa.umich.edu/~krasny/math156_crlt.pdf
  2. Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://press.rebus.community/blueprint2/chapter/27-taking-notes-in-class/

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