Notes are for remembering

Notes are for remembering. There are two approaches to this:

  • Note-taking means copying other information word-for-word
  • Note-making is creating your own format or information 

Taking notes is passive. We don't have to think or understand. It's hard to remember notes that we take. They can be challenging to study.

Making notes requires thinking. We better remember notes we make. They are usually easy to study.

Improving your note-making approaches can help you study better and get higher grades. It's also a good idea if you're a peer note-taker.

Make good notes by picking the right format

Two good formats are the Cornell system and mind maps. You might find some days one method works better. It's okay to play around with the way we write information down.

The Cornell system works great for linear topics with a lot of information or details.

Mind mapping is best for complex topics that jump around and are less focused on specifics.

Some general tips on notes

  • Title & date your notes. You will also have to cite your notes if using them to write an assignment, so it's good to have the date handy.
  • Keep it short: short notes are faster to review.
  • Use your own words, except for key terms. Exceptions to this include course vocabulary and useful quotes.
  • Think about readability. Use clear writing and leave lots of empty space. 
  • Avoid perfection to make notes faster. If your notes are only meant for yourself, you can also shorten words (e.g., attention -> attn)
  • No sentences - less writing. It's also faster to read.
  • Visuals can often express concepts better than words and add variety.
  • Include humour. We tend to remember funny things.
  • Ask questions on your notes to help you remember your frame of mind.
  • Review your notes a day or two after class. Spaced review during the term reduces study time for exams.

The Cornell system uses memory cues

The Cornell system divides a page into two columns on a page, with an optional summary on the bottom, like so:

Cornell method template

Date & Title

Always date and title on your notes. If they become disorganized, you'll be able to sort them again. It also makes it easier to cite your notes if used on an assignment.

Notes

Write your notes in this column. They should be short and to the point, using the general tips listed above. 

Cues

Memory cues or things that will help you remember go in this column.

Add questions about the notes. You can then cover the notes column to self-test while you're studying. Self-testing is more effective than reading notes.

Other cues might include an outline, funny examples to help you remember, mnemonics, or visuals. Put anything that helps you remember the content of your notes column.

Summary

At the bottom of the page, you can write a short summary of each page. It's effective to do this a day or two after making the notes, as it can then be review. 

Mind maps show visual relationships

Unlike most notes, mind maps are usually done in landscape (sideways on a piece of paper) for more space. As with all notes, date and title these. The date and title usually go in the middle of the page.

Example mind map

In this mind map, the topic is on the left and branches out to the right. Often, topics are in the centre and branch out in all directions.

Lines connect the topic to different subtopics or headings. These connect to individual pieces of information.

As with all notes, mind maps are better with fewer words and no sentences.

Visuals and drawings are particularly effective with mind maps.

Mind maps have lots of empty space. This makes it easy to go back and add more information later. They work well for brainstorming or creating outlines for written assignments. 

Mind maps are hard to create using a word processor. If you prefer taking notes on a computer and are interested in mind maps, there is mind mapping software on PC, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS.

Note-making in class

We can make better notes when we're prepared:

  • Do the required readings.
  • Check the day's topic on your syllabus.
  • Reviewing the previous lecture's notes. 

Sitting near the front will increase your focus. At the front you can see fewer of your classmates. Sitting in the front tends to result in higher grades. 

Remove distractions. For example, having your smartphone nearby will reduce your brainpower. To focus and take useful notes in class, bring the supplies you need. Put away anything else that could distract you.

Avoid using the same wording as your professor in your notes (note-taking). If you can express the same idea in a simpler way, then write that (note-making). It will be easier to understand later.

Avoid copying information you have in your textbook or on provided slides. Instead, write down page numbers or slide numbers.

If something doesn't make sense, ask! If you're prepared and listened during class, then you've got a good question. If you're shy about asking in front of your peers, visit your instructor during office hours. That's what office hours are for.

Note-making from readings

Notes help us remember. Good notes are short notes. If you write notes on a reading, you should be able to review your notes much faster than re-reading the whole thing. Note-making is a time investment. This becomes important before exams.

Good notes tend to follow some kind of structure. If you're making notes from a textbook, the chapter outline could be a great structure.

Avoid writing notes as you read.

If you don't fully understand, you might include too much or find yourself copying. Sometimes we'll also catch ourselves writing things down we don't even understand yet.

Another reason for this is that multi-tasking is actually task-switching. We don't actually read and make notes at the same time. We stop and switch between them, which causes a performance hit.

It's better to wait until after you've read to make notes.

Break up long readings. Find which lengths of text works best for you.

Review your notes to save time

A habit of reviewing notes reduces future study time. It also makes information stay with you for longer.

To do well, review your notes in a spaced way:

  • a day or two after taking them
  • in a week
  • in a few weeks
  • a couple of weeks before exams
  • a night or two before your exam

Reviewing like this reduces stress before exams. It can also prevent the need to relearn.