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The Five Best Methods for Taking Notes in College


One of the keys to success in college is effective note-taking. Taking quality notes will help you to manage large amounts of complex material. The idea is to summarize what you've learned using your own words. When you focus on key concepts and condense them, it will help you to remember them more effectively. It makes studying and reviewing material a less difficult task. This is key to success on your exams. The type of technique you choose will depend on the course you are taking and your learning style. This guide will take you through how to use some of the most popular and effective methods of note taking.

1. The Outline Method

The outline method is probably the most popular method used by students. This method is perhaps the best when it comes to summarizing the main points of a lecture. The method works best in classes that follow a logical structure. It helps you to structure complex material and reduce it down to the main points. As the name suggests, you use an outline structure to list the main topics and subtopics. First, write down the main ideas or topics on the far left of the page. Next, indent and write down a subtopic related to the main topic. Underneath the sub-topic you may want to list any supporting facts or details. Here are a few tips for using this method:

  • Write down the most important points as main topics.
  • List subordinate or sub-topics underneath them after indenting.
  • Make sure to include any relevant details or facts after your sub-topics.
  • Use this method when you have a class with a logical structure. If your professor doesn't use the lecture method or structure, you might want to consider a different method.
  • This method is effective because it reduces complex material to key concepts. It is not as effective in classes that make use of graphs, charts or complex statistics such as math course.

Here is an example of how to structure your notes using this method:

Outline Method

  • Write down your main topic.
    • List your sub-topic related to the main topic.
      • Include any relevant details or facts supporting the topic.

2. Concept Mapping

Concept mapping, also known as "mind-mapping," is an effective way of taking notes in classes with interrelated concepts. It is also useful for helping you to go more in-depth about a particular topic. Subjects such as Science, History, or Philosophy are perfect classes for this method. First, begin by drawing a large bubble in the center with the most general topic. Secondly, draw smaller bubbles with other concepts related to this concept. Connect them to the main topic by drawing lines to connect them. Later, you can add other bubbles that add details or further connect the ideas or concepts that you are learning about. Here are some key things to remember when using this method of note-taking:

  • List your main topic in a large bubble in the center of your paper such as "Causes of World War 1"
  • List the related sub-topics or facts in smaller bubbles connected to the main concept.
  • Later add other small bubbles with facts that connect the sub-topics if applicable.
  • Use this method when you want to connect concepts and understand how they are interrelated. This would not be effective in classes that demand memorization of large amounts of facts.
  • Use brief descriptions or labels in your bubbles. Do not attempt to write long sentences in your bubbles.

Below is an example of the use of this method using a History topic:

Concept Mapping

An example of Concept Mapping
An example of Concept Mapping

3. The Cornell Method

The Cornell method has a different layout than many other methods. It involves a large section at the top for the title. In the center is a section for the main notes or concepts divided into two columns. The smaller column on the left is used for questions and key words from the lecture. The larger right column is used for the main notes and key facts. It is best to use abbreviations here to save space. At the bottom is a section for you to summarize what you learned. To summarize information, read what you've written and try to rewrite it using your own words. Here are some tips to apply when using this method:

  • This method is effective for most types of lectures.
  • It is a systematic way to summarize material and focus on the main ideas behind the concepts you are learning.
  • It does require some advance planning. Draw your layout before you go into your lecture by hand or using a computer.
  • Place your main topic or title at the top. Reserve the majority of the middle section for the main notes. In the smaller left column, list the keywords or questions. In the larger right column, write down your main notes, using abbreviations when you can. Try and summarize your concepts in the bottom section. If you can put the information in your own words, it will help you to remember it later.

Here is an example of the Cornell Method:

An example of the Cornell Method
An example of the Cornell Method

4. The Sentence Method

The sentence method is perhaps the simplest method of taking notes, but it can be effective. When you are taking a course that is fast-paced and involves large amounts of information, this method works best. It involves simply writing down a quick summary sentence for the important facts being covered in a course. This allows you to have pared-down information to just the most important or relevant topics. It doesn't involve any advance planning and can be used for any college class. Here are some things to remember when using this method:

  • Use it to summarize the main facts delivered in a lecture, especially ones that deliver large amounts of information in a fast manner.
  • Every new line should be a separate topic, using headings for the topic if that helps you.
  • This method is great for remembering the main points or facts of a class lecture.
  • It does not require any advance planning to use it.

Here is an example of the sentence method:

Main topic (listed at the top of the page):

  1. A sentence involving relevant details pertaining to the topic.
  2. A sentence involving a separate concept/details pertaining to the same topic.
  3. A sentence involving a separate concept/details from the first two but related to the same topic.

5. The Charting Method

The charting method is best used to organize more complex material. This would be an effective way to organize statistics or other more detailed information. Set it up similarly to a spreadsheet with specific categories in your columns. This can be done on a computer or can be hand-written. The categories should be comparable and related. It may not be the best way to list information that is hard to categorize. It is also time-consuming, but is highly effective for facts and statistics that need to be memorized. Like the Cornell Method, you will need to draw your columns beforehand or create them using your computer. Keep these tips in mind as you implement this method:

  • Use the charting method to summarize material that requires categorization such as science concepts.
  • Either draw or use your computer to create separate columns before you try and use it.
  • The categories that you create should be interrelated. This method is designed specifically to illustrate the interconnectedness of concepts and categories.
  • This is probably not the best method for taking lecture notes. However, it is highly effective when reading textbooks and trying to break down complex material.

Below is an example of the charting method using Scientific Classification:

An example of the Charting Method
An example of the Charting Method

The method that you use to take notes should depend on the nature of your course and your learning style. If you like to have highly organized summaries of lecture material, the outline method may work best. The outline method works best in classes where material is organized. When you need to learn how concepts are related to one another, the concept mapping method may be most effective. Sometimes, putting key words and concepts together by summarizing them in your own words works best. This involves the use of the Cornell method. If you are taking a class that is fast-paced and involves loads of information, use the sentence method. Use the charting method for courses that require you to use statistics or detailed information.

Decide which method works best for you and the course you are taking. Feel free to experiment with different methods to find the right one. Once you do, you will find it easier to digest important information. Effective note-taking leads to effective learning. This will help ensure your success on exams and in your college classes.

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