Note Taking


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain why taking notes is important.
  • Use the four primary methods of note taking: lists, outlines, concept maps, and the Cornell method.
  • Define which note taking methods support your learning and the instructor’s teaching style.
  • Apply strategies to make note taking more effective.
  • Use teacher handouts to complement your notes.
  • Use effective strategies if you miss a class.

Arm of a woman taking notes in classInstructors expect students to make connections not only between class lectures and reading assignments; they also expect them to make connections between the material covered and life beyond college. Effective note taking will help you to make these connections and be more successful in the course.

Effective note taking is important because it does all of the following:

  • supports your listening efforts
  • allows you to test your understanding of the material
  • helps you remember the material better
  • gives you a sense of what the instructor thinks is important
  • creates a personal study guide keyed to how you learn best

There are various forms of taking notes, and which one you choose depends on both your personal style and the instructor’s approach to the material. Each can be used in a notebook, on index cards, or in digital form. No method is ideal for all students and all situations, so you should practice all methods until you develop your own style. Even then, you should be ready to modify your note taking style to fit the needs of a specific class or instructor.

Note Taking Methods

Method Description When to Use
Lists A sequential listing of ideas as they are presented. Lists may be short phrases or complete paragraphs describing ideas in more detail. This method is what most students use if they haven’t learned other methods. Listing typically requires a lot of writing, and it may be difficult to keep up with the professor. It is not easy to prioritize ideas in this method.
Outlines The outline method places the most important ideas along the left margin, which are sometimes numbered with Roman numerals. Supporting ideas to these main concepts are indented and are noted with capital letters. Under each of these ideas, further detail can be added, designated with an Arabic number, a lowercase letter, and so forth. This is a good method to use when the material presented is well organized. It is easy to use when taking notes on your computer, but some students get distracted by the numbering and miss key ideas.
Concept Maps When designing a concept map, place a central idea in the center of the page and then add lines and new circles on the page for new ideas. Use arrows and lines to connect the various ideas. This is a great method to show relationships among ideas. It’s also good if the instructor tends to move from one idea to another and back.
Cornell Method The Cornell method uses a two-column approach. The left column takes up no more than a third of the page and is often referred to as the “cue” or “recall” column. The right column (about two-thirds of the page) is used for taking notes using any of the methods described above or a combination of them. After class or after completing a reading, one reviews the notes and writes the key ideas, concepts and questions in the left column. One may also include a box at the bottom of the page in which to write a summary in one’s own words. The Cornell method can include any of the methods above and provides a useful format for culling out key concepts, prioritizing ideas, and organizing review work. Most colleges recommend using some version of the Cornell method.

The List Method


The list method is not ideal because it is focused exclusively on capturing as much information as possible rather than on processing the information. Even if skilled in some form of shorthand, it is still advisable to learn one of the other methods described here because they are all better at helping students process and remember the material. A compromise option is to take notes in class using the list method, then to transcribe those notes into an outline or concept map after class as a part of the review process. It is always important to review notes after class and summarize the class in your own words.

The Outline Method


The outline method allows one to prioritize information. Key ideas are written to the left of the page, subordinate ideas are indented, and details of the subordinate ideas can be indented further. To organize ideas even more, one can use a numbering scheme, such as starting with roman numerals for key ideas, moving to capital letters on the first subordinate level, Arabic numbers for the next level, and lowercase letters following. This may challenging at first, but it will become easier as the instructor’s habits and style become more familiar. The class syllabus and reading assignments can help to determine what key ideas the instructor plans to present.

A basic word processing application like Microsoft Word is very effective for taking notes on a laptop. Format the document by selecting the outline format from the format bullets menu. Use the increase or decrease indent buttons to navigate the level of importance you want to give each item. The software will take care of the numbering for you.

It is always a good idea to review one’s notes shortly after class ends and to summarize the class in one or two short paragraphs. Writing a summary significantly improves recall and understanding.

The Concept Map Method


Mapping is a visual method of note taking that captures the relationships among ideas. Concept maps make it easy to move from one idea to another and back and are especially helpful if a lecture toggles between multiple ideas.

To develop a concept map, select an overriding idea (high level or abstract) from the lecture and place it in a circle in the middle of the page. Then create branches off that circle to record the more detailed information, drawing additional limbs as needed. Arrange the branches with others that interrelate closely. When a new high-level idea is presented, create a new circle with its own branches. Link together related circles or concepts by using arrows and symbols to capture the relationship between the ideas. For example, an arrow may be used to illustrate cause or effect, a double-pointed arrow to illustrate dependence, or a dotted arrow to illustrate impact.

As with all note-taking methods, it is a good idea to summarize the chart in one or two paragraphs after class.

The Cornell Method


The Cornell method was developed in the 1950s by Professor Walter Pauk at Cornell University. It is recommended by most colleges because it is useful and flexible. It distinguishes key ideas from supporting ideas and is very effective for studying. It follows a very specific format that consists of four boxes: a header, two columns, and a footer.

The header is a small box across the top of the page that contains the course name, the date of the class and any other important identifying information. Underneath the header are two columns: a narrow one on the left (no more than one-third of the page) and a wide one on the right. The left column, known as the “cue” or “recall” column, is used to jot down main ideas and questions during class. The wide column, called the “notes” column, takes up most of the page and is used to detail and develop the notes in the left column after class. You can use any of previous methods, such as concept mapping or outlining, to fully develop your notes. Finally, use the box in the footer to summarize the class.

Using Index Cards for the Cornell Method

Note cards work well with the Cornell method. Use one card per key concept. Use one side of the card to write notes during class (the left “cue” column) and use the other side to develop those ideas after class. The cards double as flash cards with questions/key ideas on one side and answers/details on the other. Write a summary of the class on a separate card and place it on the top of the deck as an introduction to what was covered in the class.

You will have noticed that all methods end with the same step: reviewing your notes as soon as possible after class. Any review of your notes, such as reading them, copying them into your computer, or reorganizing them into another note-taking method, is helpful. The important thing is to think and make connections as you review. Consider questions you still have and determine how you will get the answers. Examine how the material applies to the course by making connections with notes from other class sessions, with material in your text, and with concepts covered in class discussions.

Instructor Handouts

Some instructors hand out or post their notes or their PowerPoint slides from their lectures. These handouts are very useful, but are not a substitute for taking notes in class because they do not involve you in the process of learning as well as your own notes do. Use any resources the instructor gives you, but your own notes will always be a better resource because they are a record of your own engagement and learning.

General Tips on Note Taking

Regardless of what note-taking method you choose, there are some note taking habits that are worth developing because they apply to all circumstances and all courses:

  1. Be prepared.  If you are using a notebook, be sure you have it with you. Have a spare pen and perhaps a pen with different colored ink to use for emphasis. If you are using a laptop or tablet, make sure the battery is fully charged and select the application that lends itself to your style of note taking. For example, Microsoft Word works very well for outline notes, but you might find taking notes in Excel works best for the Cornell method.
  2. Write on only one side of the paper. This will allow you to integrate your reading notes with your class notes and provide extra space for anything you need to add.
  3. Label, number, and date all notes at the top of each page. This will help you keep organized.
  4. Position your laptop so you can see the instructor and board. This will keep the instructor in your field of vision even if you have to glance at your screen or keyboard from time to time. Make sure your focus remains with the instructor and not on your laptop. A word of caution about laptops for note taking: use them if you are very adept at keyboarding, but remember that not all note-taking methods work well on laptops because they do not easily allow you to draw diagrams and use special notations, such as scientific and math formulas.Man taking notes in book
  5. Don’t try to capture everything that is said. Listen for the big ideas and write them down. Make sure you can recognize the instructor’s emphasis cues and write down all ideas and keywords the instructor emphasizes. Listen for clues such as, “the four causes were . . .” or “to sum up . . .”
  6. Copy anything the instructor writes on the board. It’s likely to be important.
  7. Leave space between ideas. This allows you to add additional notes later.
  8. Use signals and abbreviations. Which ones you use is up to you, but be consistent so you will know exactly what you mean by “att” or “VIP” when you review your notes. You may find it useful to keep a key to your abbreviations in all your notebooks.
  9. Use some method to distinguish your own thoughts and questions from those of the instructor or textbook. Some students use different color ink; others box or underline their own thoughts. Do whatever works for you.
  10. Create a symbol to use when you fall behind or get lost in your note taking. Jot down the symbol, leave some space, and focus on what the instructor is covering now. Later you can ask a classmate or the professor to help you fill in what you missed, or you can find it in your textbook.
  11. Review your notes as soon after class as possible (the same day is best). This is the key to making your notes work. Use the recall column to call out the key ideas and organize facts. Fill in any gaps in your notes and clean up or redraw hastily drawn diagrams.
  12. Write a summary of the main ideas of the class in your own words. This process is a great aid to recall. Be sure to include any conclusions from the lecture or discussion.


Choose one of your classes where you normally take notes. Make a conscious effort to use the Cornell method with either the outline or concept map method for taking your notes. Follow as many steps listed previously as possible. Now compare these notes with those you took in the previous class. Are your new notes more useful? What did you like about taking notes this way? What are some of the things you need to work on improving? (Remember this will get much easier with more practice.)

What If You Miss Class?

The best way to learn class material is to be in class and to take your own notes. In college, regular attendance is expected, but on occasion, you may have to miss a class or lecture. When this happens, here are some strategies you can use to make up for it:

  • Check with the instructor to see if there is another section of the class you can attend. Never ask the instructor, “Did I miss anything important?” Questions like this can be unintentionally insulting to an instructor who has worked hard preparing for each class.
  • If the instructor posts his or her lectures as a podcast, listen to the lecture online and take notes. If the instructor uses PowerPoint slides, request a copy (or download them if posted) and review them carefully, jotting down your own notes and questions. Review your notes with a classmate who did attend.
  • You may want to borrow class notes from a classmate. If you do, don’t just copy them and insert them in your notebook. Instead, review them carefully, mark your copy with your own notes and questions, and reorganize them according to whatever method you think is most appropriate. Use the textbook to fill in the gaps. Finally, schedule a study session with the person who gave you the notes to review the material and confirm your understanding.
  • If none of these options is available for you, use the course syllabus to determine what was covered in class, then write a short paper (two pages or so) on the material using the class readings and reliable online sources. See your instructor during office hours to review your key findings and to answer any questions you still may have.

Key Takeaways

  • Along with effective listening, good note taking is one of the most important skills for academic success.
  • Choose among effective note taking styles for what works best for you and modify it to meet the needs of a specific class or instructor.
  • List notes are generally less effective than other methods.
  • Outlines work well for taking notes on a laptop when the instructor is well organized.
  • Concept map notes are good for showing the relationships among ideas.
  • The Cornell method is effective for calling out key concepts and organizing notes for review.
  • Instructor handouts and PowerPoint presentations help with but do not replace the need for personal note taking.
  • If you miss a class, explore your options for replacing your missing notes.
  • Keep your notes organized in a way that makes it easy to study for tests and other uses in the future.


1. Name two advantages of the Cornell system over the list method of note taking.



2. Describe the benefits of and potential problems with taking class notes on a laptop.



3. List at least three ways to make up for missing notes because you miss a class.