Admit it: as a student, you are envious of someone who has good note-taking skills. You cannot help but admire the neatly-organized lines and columns, the ease with which someone found a key definition in their notes while you struggle to find the same words in your own papers, and their ability to recall to mind anything from their notes almost instantaneously. Taking notes serves two major purposes: to help you understand and to remember information. Therefore, a good note-taking technique can greatly help you with your academic career. So, if you want to revamp your note-taking technique, try some of the following note-taking strategies!

The Cornell Note-Taking Method

Often regarded as the most popular note-taking method, the Cornell Method provides a system of categorizing information without laborious recopying. To use this method, rule your paper with a 2 ½ inch margin (approximately 6 cm), leaving a 6-inch space on the right to take notes. During class, write down information in short sentences in the note-taking area. Skip a line when the instructor moves to a new point. After class, review your in-class notes, and for every significant piece of information, write a cue in the margin. The cue can be key terms, questions to help clarify definitions, etc. At  the bottom of the paper, write a brief summary of the material. When studying for an assessment, cover the note section of the paper and leave the cues exposed. Say a cue out loud, then say everything you know about it. If what you said is close to your notes, then you know the information well!

Advantages: organized and systematic, minimal rewriting, easy to pull out major concepts

Disadvantages: no major disadvantages

Best suited for: concept-heavy disciplines such as history, economics, biology, etc.

Not suited for: subjects that have more examples than definitions, such as math and physics

The Outlining Method

This method involves writing points in an organized fashion based on indentation. The points’ level of importance will be indicated by their distances from the margin. General points be the closest to the left; the more specific a point is, the closer to the right it begins. Examples are your most specific points, however, some versions of this method do not display examples.

Advantages: good organization can record content and relationships, reduces editing, easy to review

Disadvantages: requires more thought in class for accurate organization, you thus might not be able to keep up with fast lectures

Best suited for: just about every subject

The Mind Map Method

This is a graphic representation of the content of a lecture. A general topic is written in the centre of the page, while more specific points pertaining to the topic are written around it and connected to it by lines. If one point is related to two or more general topics, this point is connected to them. This note taking method relates each fact and idea to others, creating a map of knowledge.

Advantages: illustrates the relationships between ideas, allows you to visually track your lecture, makes editing notes easy through the use of special symbols and highlighting

Disadvantages: not much room on paper to expand, can be messy, virtually no place for examples

Best suited for: concept-heavy disciplines such as history, economics, biology, etc.

Not suited for: example-heavy subjects, such as math and physics

The Sentence Method

This method is extremely straightforward: write down everything your teacher/lecturer says in chronological order. Notes are written in sentences, sometimes using shorthand symbols to save time. This method is best suited for lectures that are heavy with content, but relationships between ideas are not immediately obvious.

Advantages: captures most, if not all, of the information

Disadvantages: difficult to review, unless you rewrite it in a way that the relationship becomes clearer

Best suited for: definition-heavy subjects, especially history

Not suited for: example-heavy subjects

In the end, it’s still up to you to figure out which note-taking strategy works best for you. You don’t have to use one method for all your subjects: perhaps there is one system that you think is especially effective for the sciences, and another system that fits the humanities. Or, you can combine two of the methods and invent one super-note-taking technique that works for everything! For example, I use a combination of the Cornell and Outlining Methods, which has helped me tremendously with comprehension and memorization. Don’t be afraid to test and mix techniques before deciding on a strategy. Great note-taking skills take effort and practice, but before you realize it, this vital life skill will accelerate your learning and save you a lot of cramming-related frustration!