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The Best Note-Taking Methods

by Chetna Vasishth

Thinking about how to make smart notes and how to prepare notes for any exam. You can learn how to make notes and how to prepare notes with tips on how to make smart notes and how to make good notes, strategies on how to make notes for exams with secrets of how to prepare notes for any exam and how to make good quality notes

We will cover the best techniques for the five steps of note taking –

  1. Step 1 – Taking notes in the classroom
  2. Step 2 – Making notes from the text book
  3. Step 3 – Revising and analysing the content
  4. Step 4 – Recalling material that needs to be learnt
  5. Step 5 – Organising the stationery and other materials

Step 1 – Classroom Notes

Usually in a classroom, the outline method of taking notes works best, especially when the subject is non-mathematical

Pros

  • Simple and straight forward – can be done on a computer
  • Allows you to add points later as well
  • Easy to do this in class

Cons

  • Not suitable for subjects like chemistry and math that comprise of formulas and charts
  • Doesn’t work well if the attended lecture doesn’t follow a certain structure

I will introduce you to the QAEE Technique – This technique is very helpful for understanding the content while taking notes in class. So, as we know, the goal usually is not to copy down what the teacher is saying word for word, but to take down the most important points. Here’s how the QAEE Format helps.

The first thing we do is we always draw a margin on the left side of the paper before starting to take notes. Ideally you can do this in the morning before class begins. This is like the Cornell Method of Note taking that was devised by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University.

This is how we have modified the Cornell Method (power point), by retaining just the left margin. I find that the summary section at the bottom was not fully getting utilised, so I decided to do away with it.

The QAEE Technique

Question

  • Answer
  • Example
  • Evidence
  1. Write what the teacher says on the right-hand side. After a few sentences you will be able to assess what could be the question for which this would be the answer.
  2. Write this question in the margin
  3. Look out for examples that the teacher gives and write them down
  4. If there is data required or further evidence required, write that down as well

And Ta-Daah your answer is exam-ready

Other Tips for Taking Notes in Class

  1. If the teacher highlights a point, mark it with an asterisk or a highlighter in your class notes
  2. Signpost words – if the teacher says any of these words – ‘remember, first, the most important thing is and finally’, note down what follows these words
  3. Use bullets effectively to improve speed of writing in class
  4. Ask your teacher to draw a diagram and explain a concept (if possible)
  5. Use coloured pens if it helps you highlight definitions or important points
  6. Use post it notes for reminders on exam dates, or something you need to look up later in greater detail, or some book to reference that the teacher just mentioned.
  7. Leave blank spaces between sections so you can come back and add stuff later
  8. Carry a small notebook in your pocket wherever you go. When you have an idea, write it down. When you meet someone new, write down everything you know about them. When you hear something interesting, write it down. Writing it down will make you act upon it. If you don’t write it down you will forget it. THAT is a million dollar lesson they don’t teach you in business school!

And after class, sit with your notes for 10 minutes and re-organise them, add the missing pieces that are still in your head, stick post its for questions that are still lingering in your mind. This simple step improves your retention by 80%.

Step 2 – Making Notes in the Textbook

  1. Star Sentence – make a summary sentence from each paragraph and write it in your notes
  2. Use the margins on the left to make your own annotations
  3. In essay-based subjects, used colour coded highlighting e.g. if you were studying a Shakespeare novel, then use different colour highlighters for points related to character sketches, themes, conflicts, context or causes etc.
  4. Use coloured long post its to mark out sections where you need further clarification
  5. If you have an audio book along with the printed book, try listening to it when you are relaxing

Step 3 – Analysing and Revising the Notes

At this point I would switch on some music. Music with repetitive beats without lyrics could enhance learning for some. These techniques are useful both when you are analysing the content alone or in study groups. In this section I will talk about 5 different types of diagrams and their utility.

Why are diagrams so important in learning. In cognitive theory there is a concept called ‘Picture Superiority’ Effect. This refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words. So, I will explain the five main types of diagrams that are useful in note taking.

  1. Mind Map Method – this is useful when you want to represent a lot of information around a central subject. These are also sometimes called Spider diagrams or spidergrams. This can be useful say for instance, when you are planning an essay. You put your main idea in the central circle, and all related sub themes are like the branches where you can keep sub dividing them till you reach the smallest detail.

It is also useful as a presentation tool, for problem solving or during group study. See our 10 Scientific Study Tips

One of the ways to get started with a mind map is to Put you’re the key idea as central topic and start with the 5W+H questions for the branches – What, Why, Who, When, Where, How

Pros

  • Like all diagrams the combination of words and pictures is six times better for remembering informationthan words alone.
  • It gives you an overview of a large subject while also holding large amounts of information.
  • It’s also a very intuitive way to organize your thoughts, since mind maps mimic the way our brains think—bouncing ideas off of each other, rather than thinking linearly.
  • You can generate ideas very quickly with this technique and are encouraged to explore different creative pathways.
  1. Tree diagrams like the one shown in the example. These are easy to make in the classroom and help in listing clusters of terms together
  2. Flow charting – this is helps in looking at cause and effect relationships (see power point). One tip while you are preparing these diagrams and charts is that you should leave some space to add more information, arrows, loops etc, later when you review the information
  3. Tables – Tables are useful when looking at differences between concepts e.g. in geography if you want to understand what the savannah landscape is, and what a tundra landscape is. Writing this information down in the form of tables will helps clarify each one of them in our mind.
  4. Venn Diagrams – These are very useful to visually help you categorise and group items, compare and contrast them. They help show the logical relations between a collection of sets or groups. I find this useful for example when studying classification of animals and plants and comparing and contrasting their characteristics.

Step 4 – Recalling Material that needs to be learnt

Flash cards are one of the most effective tools for promoting active recall. You can use this to recall elements of a periodic table, or SAT words or I used to use it to remember my chemistry equations and nomenclature of chemical formulae as well.

Some important tips that I will give you are

  • Always make your own flash cards, that makes it much more effective. I know that you get decks of flashcards on various apps, but one big step in recall is when you engage with the content and prepare those flash cards. You can either handwrite them or use a software like adobe spark or there are several flash card apps
  • add pictures to the flashcards – remember I told you about the picture superiority effect
  • Use Mnemonic devices on your flash cards e.g. VIBGYOR and MS BENT FIST
  • Keep them simple and put one word or one concept on each flashcard
  • When you are studying them, say the answer out loud before you turn them around. Try to study them both ways whenever relevant

Step 5 – Organising the material and stationery items

  1. Notebook –
    1. I like to keep different notebooks for different subjects, but if you like you could use a multiple subject single large notebook with larger gaps between lines OR
    2. loose punched sheets that you can re-organise and punch into a folder
    3. some people like to use grid paper, since it makes the whole page look more organised
    4. Keep a separate notebook for practice papers and questions for each subject
  1. Stationery – I recommend
    1. Sharpie permanent marker
    2. Three coloured pens (erasable)
    3. Pencils and erasers
    4. 2 comfortable pens – I like the 0.5mm pens to write with (erasable)
    5. I thicker pen for headings etc. a 1.0 roller pen or a Staedler coloured pens
    6. A short ruler
    7. Coloured post its in different sizes
    8. A set of highlighters

The Goal – the goal is not to write down every word the teacher says, but it is to complete the first level of learning in class

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