How to take notes

Notes are important. They help you organize information. Writing down things by hand makes it easier to remember them. No, really. The act of writing (not typing) helps strengthen the memory of what you’re writing down. They should be written on notepaper, not post-its.

The purpose of notes isn’t to have an archive of class information. The purpose of notes is to engage your brain more and think about the material more deeply.

When should you be taking notes?
You already know that you should be taking notes in class.

But you might not have thought about taking notes when doing reading for classes. Writing things down will help you remember them better. If it’s a textbook, you should summarize each heading. If it’s an article or fiction, summarize what happened in each chapter.

What should you write down?
Anything that’s new to you. Your initial handwritten notes don’t have to be neat. They don’t have to be in complete sentences. Write down anything you don’t already know. Write down things that are relevant. If your teacher repeats something, then it’s probably important and should be in your notes.

There are some things that should be in notes:

  1. Dates
  2. Names
  3. Definitions
  4. Theories
  5. Examples
  6. Whatever your teacher writes on the board

At home, rewrite the notes (again, by hand if possible). This time you should expand on the short notes. A sentence fragment that reminds of what the teacher said should be expanded into a summary. These are the notes to study from. Think of your two sets of notes as rough draft and final draft.

Note Format
There are many ways to take notes, and the method you choose should be what works for you. Here are some to consider:

Hierarchical This is a very organized system kind of like many textbooks. In fact, many classes are organized hierarchically, and it is relatively easy to take notes that match. These have an outline with a main topic, a subtopic, details, another subtopic, more details, a different main topic, etc.

PQRST method — Preview, Question, Review, Summary, and Test. This works with texts that are structured with headings and subheadings.

Preview: Glance at the headings and subheadings in the textbook.

Question: Turn each subheading into a question.

Read: Read the book, paying particular attention to information that answers the questions you came up with before.

Summary: Summarize the topic, bringing in your own understanding. Make notes, diagrams, mind maps, etc.

Test: Write down the answers to the questions you made during the question step.

In addition, I recommend adding a step for reflecting on the material. Ponder it, and discuss it with others, and read related material. This will help increase critical thinking.

Mind Maps Also called Concept Maps. This is more visual and may be more suited to the creative personality. You put a main idea in the middle of the page. Then put topics around it with lines leading from the main idea to the topic. Then subtopics and details hang off of the topics.

Cornell Notes This system lets you make a way to study built in with the notes. Draw a line across the page about 1 inch from the bottom of the page. Draw a line down the page about 1/3 of the way in from the left margin down to the previous line.

The large area in the upper right is the main note area. This is where you write your notes during class. After class you write down key points or questions in the left area opposite of what they’re for. When you’ve done that, write a summary of the page in the bottom box.

When you’re studying from the notes, cover the right side, and look at the key points and questions. You should be able to answer each one, and uncover the notes to check yourself.

The last bit where you use the questions or key points and then recall the detail on the right hand side is really important. This uses active recall, which is very effective. This is what I recommend doing.