Best Note Taking Methods

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The main difference you’ll notice between high school and college courses is the focus on lecturing and taking notes. There are many different styles of learning. Some people like a collaborative environment, some people like standard lecturing, and other people prefer a flipped classroom style. Regardless of what works for you, you’re going to have to do your best to get used to the standard lecturing and note taking methods, because that’s how the majority of your college classes will be.

What Notes Should Look Like

  • In general, your notes should be neatly written, organized, and concise.
  • The organization of your notes will depend on how your professor organizes the lecture, but do your best to separate topics and make a distinction between topics, subtopics, theorems, examples, and other relevant categories.
  • Don’t be afraid to highlight and underline to make important phrases or topics stand out better. The more time you take to make your notes clear, the less effort you’ll have to put in when you go back and reread them before a test.
  • There are a few styles of notes and all of them are fair game, it just depends what clicks with you.
    • Outlines
      • Notes are taken as a series of topics, subtopics, and points/items.
      • This is the strictest note taking method and can be frustrating to keep up with if your professor isn’t very organized.
      • The structure is hierarchical and the organization is indicated using roman numerals, numbers, letters, or bullet points.
      • Additionally, indents show separation between topics, subtopics, and points/items.


    • Cornell Notes
      • Notes are taken using two columns. The thinner left column includes cues, topics, and subtopics. The column on the right will contain actual information and it will be organized based on the cues in the left column.
      • The information is summarized at the bottom of the page.
      • This style is less strict than outlining, but stricter than following the flow of the class.
      • These notes work best for social sciences such as history, psychology, and political science.

  • Following the Flow of the Class
      • The notes are taken as the professor presents the information, with little to no predefined structure.
      • You can make graphics like diagrams and tables, connect topics with arrows, and put topics wherever you want them.
      • This is the least strict style of note taking but it can also be the hardest to go back and study from. You might not remember how you organized them when you took them.


Note-Taking Tips

  • Try taking notes with your laptop if you think it’ll work for you. Some people are too easily distracted by their laptop, but others find it easier to take notes on their laptop. Typing can be faster than writing, but if typing isn’t for you than you could try touch screen tablets where you can use a stylus.
  • Be prepared for class. It seems obvious, but if you don’t go to class having done all of the work or reading that was assigned, then the lecture might not make sense. This will snowball if you don’t catch up and stay on schedule.
  • Don’t just copy everything your professor writes down or presents from a PowerPoint. It’s important to listen to their commentary as well, otherwise you might as well just be learning from a textbook instead of paying to have the professor there.
  • You don’t have to write down the entire background or proof of the topic your professor is covering. Students tend to get themselves frustrated and confused trying to follow it, when the actual topic they’re covering is far easier than it is to understand the proof or background. Always ask yourself, “Is this something that would be on a test?” or “Is this something they could actually make an example of?”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Professors aren’t required to have a teaching degree at most schools, only a degree in the topic that they’re teaching. That means that they’re far from perfect and might make mistakes, leave things out, use terms the class isn’t familiar with, or assume the class already knows a topic. Chances are, if you’re confused about something, the rest of the class is too.

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