Why Take Notes?

We learn through receiving information, participating in discussions, and connecting new information with what we have previously learned, experienced, or understood. This is an active, complex process. Trying to just “keep it in our heads” can become overwhelming in the moment, and is ineffective from a longer-term learning perspective. Taking notes contributes to learning by:

  • Keeping you focused on what is happening in the moment, since learning starts with paying attention
  • Capturing a record of the information without the pressure of trying to memorize it in the moment
  • Providing a way to document your thoughts as they arise, since ideas that “pop” into your head often fade quickly if not tended to
  • Creating your own personalized resource for continuing the learning process

Notice how the list above does not include the words “in class.” Note-taking is not just a classroom activity. Taking notes while reading, watching an assigned video, reviewing a PowerPoint provided by the professor, or participating in a group study session all contribute to the learning process and help you maximize your academic time-on-task!

Many students were never taught how to be active in a learning situation. This leads students to believe the way to learn is to passively listen or just write down what is being said. Instead, choose to take notes actively! This is different than writing down everything on the board, or every word said in the class. Taking notes actively is a purposeful effort, which not only takes more attention, but also leads to deeper learning.

How Do I Take Effective Notes?

At some point in college, many students find that their note-taking is “not working.” It may be related to the process of taking notes; in other words, the format and content of the notes. It also may be related to what the student is doing with the notes after initially written. The good news is that there are multiple ways to take notes effectively. For notes to be effective, both the note-taking process and the use of notes need to be active.

Note-taking is a habit, so using a different approach consistently for at least three weeks will be necessary for it to become the “new normal.” Here are some of the different ways to take notes, along with step-by-step descriptions and ways to connect your note-taking to other learning strategies. Watch our video below for step-by-step guidance to our favorite note-taking approach, the Cornell Method.

VIDEO: How to Take Notes Using the Cornell Method

Watch our Cornell Note-Taking video to learn how to begin using this effective approach!

Using Your Notes Effectively

The important term here is “using.” Many learners take notes, but don’t use them. Just like any other tool, notes have the most value when they are put to use. Below are strategies for using your notes after their initial creation:

  • Review the notes again as soon as possible, typically within 24 hours. Note review is a form of spaced practice, which moves the learner from interrupting the forgetting to actually understanding and remembering the information long term.
  • Mind the gaps. It can be hard to keep up with incoming information in a learning situation. Go back and “fill in the blanks,” which may involve referring back to the textbook or other information source. If you recognize significant gaps or areas of confusion, meet with your professor during office hours as soon as possible for clarification.
  • Add other ideas that come to mind. During your review, your brain will say, “That reminds me of…” Document these connections in your notes.
  • Compare your notes with those of your peers. This creates an opportunity to fill in some of the blanks, discuss different interpretations of concepts, and teach each other concepts based on the notes. Comparing notes can be a great addition to other group study strategies.
  • Generate possible exam questions. Start a separate document of likely exam questions, and revisit that document each time you take notes to prepare your exam study guide.
  • Make flashcards for information that needs to be memorized. While most of the content and concepts you learn in college need to be understood and applied, sometimes there will be information you need to commit to memory. This may include names, dates, or frequently-used equations. Trying to memorize this information directly from your notes is inefficient and even overwhelming, as much of what is in the notes does not need to be memorized. Creating and using flashcards can help you memorize efficiently.
  • Create a mind map or other visual summary of the information. Instead of rewriting your notes (which usually does not add much value to your learning), organize the information and draw connections between concepts via a mind map or other visual organizer.

Additional Note-Taking Resources:

Printable Resources:

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