Take Notes

Learning Objectives

Describe strategies for note-taking.

Taking notes can also advance your ability to be actively engaged in the speaker’s words. You need not write down everything the speaker is saying. First, this is quite likely to be impossible. Second, once you are caught up in recording a speaker’s every word, you are no longer listening. Use a tape recorder instead—having asked the speaker’s permission first—if you feel you really must capture every word the speaker utters. You want to focus your efforts on really listening with an active mind. Learning to focus your attention on main points and key concepts, and gaining the overall gist of the speaker’s talk are other skills to develop. You might endeavor to develop these skills by jotting down a few notes or even drawing visuals that help you to recall the main ideas. The manner in which you take the notes is up to you; what is important is the fact that you are listening and working to process what is being said. Writing down questions that come to mind and asking questions of the speaker when possible are two more ways to guarantee effective listening as you have found an internal motivation to listen attentively.

Note-Taking Systems

The following is a chart with a brief explanation of the main note-taking systems.

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 listeners use as a fallback if they haven’t learned other methods. This method typically requires a lot of writing, and you may find that you are not keeping up with the speaker. It is not easy for students to prioritize ideas in this method.
Outlines The outline method places the most important ideas along the left margin, which are 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. A good method to use when material presented by the speaker is well organized. Easy to use when taking notes on your computer.
Concept Maps When designing a concept map, place a central idea in the center of the page and then add lines and new circles in the page for new ideas. Use arrows and lines to connect the various ideas. Great method to show relationships among ideas. Also good if the speaker tends to hop 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. The Cornell method can include any of the methods above and provides a useful format for calling out key concepts, prioritizing ideas, and organizing review work. Most colleges recommend using some form of the Cornell method.

Cornell Notes

Cornell notes are often used to keep track of the structure and main points of a speech or lecture. You begin by creating two columns on your paper—draw a vertical line about 1/3 of the way across the paper. On the right-hand side, you write down notes as you listen or read. In the left-side column, you add in questions and elaborate on the things you wrote on the other side. It follows this general structure:

  • Record: write down notes from the reading or lecture on the right side of the paper.
  • Question: write down questions or keywords on the left side of the paper that connect to the notes on the other side.
  • Recite: Cover the detailed notes on the right side of the paper and ask yourself the questions from the left side, or use the keywords to see how much you can recite from the reading or notes.
  • Reflect: Think deeply about the notes and try to make connections between what you already know and what you learned.
  • Review: Review your notes frequently—before class, after class, before an exam, etc.[1]

You can view the transcript for “How to use the Cornell note-taking method” here (opens in new window).

  1. The Cornell Note-taking System. The Learning Strategies Center. Cornell University. http://lsc.cornell.edu/study-skills/cornell-note-taking-system/