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The Five Best Note-Taking Systems for College Students


Making the transition from high school to college can be a difficult and intimidating process. For most new college students, this will be the first time they are on their own. Shifting from a controlled schedule to a customized schedule and class list can bring both benefits and challenges.

In high school, tests and classes were smaller and generally more manageable than the big classes at most colleges and universities. Going from a class of 20-40 students to auditorium-style classes with a hundred students can be a distracting switch. Trying to take notes in a new atmosphere with more distractions and higher-level learning is challenging. By using the right tools, you can customize your note-taking skills to your needs and learning style to ensure you are keeping track of the right information.

Humans have been learning ever since the beginning of our time. Over the years since writing was invented, people have been taking notes. Through trial and error and much practice, five top systems have been developed to provide the best learning experience.

1. Outlines

If you're taking notes by hand, it's very easy to just throw words on the paper and expect to decipher them later as you begin your study. Maybe you think you'll just write down as much as you can and then organize it later. While that may work for some people, others need to have some kind of structure right from the start.

Using an outline is one of the easiest ways to take notes in college. This method comes pretty natural to most people and therefore takes little effort. The concept of outlined notes is simple and can even be started before the class begins, especially if you had reading to do before class. Some basic tenets of outline note-taking are as follows:

  • Choose four or five key points that will be covered in your class.
  • Mark lines or numbers to allow for sub-topics under each key point.
  • Fill in information within the sub-topics as your professor discusses them.

If you are using this method on paper, be sure to leave plenty of space between each item. This will ensure that you have the space you need to keep track of the important parts of the class or lecture.

If you're using this system electronically on a computer, then you can easily add in sections and space as needed. Microsoft Word has a built-in outline numbering system to help you stay organized.

While this method is very organized on the surface, it does allow for a lot of information to be tracked. This can become overwhelming, so it's key to review and summarize the notes as needed.

2. The Cornell Method

According to the CalPoly Academic Skills Center (ASC), The Cornell method provides a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes without laborious recopying. After writing the notes in the main space, use the left-hand space to label each idea and detail with a key word or 'cue'.

To use the Cornell method, divide the paper into three sections: Cues, Notes, and Summary. Make two columns on the paper, with the left-hand column about a third the size of the right-hand column. Underneath these two columns, place a horizontal line across the paper, making the third section. The small top column will be the Cues, the large top column will be the Notes, and the bottom section is the Summary.

Cornell Note-Taking Method
This method is great for keeping notes on courses that focus on concepts and ideas rather than memorization.

During your class, use the Notes area to write down the information you want to review later. Try to keep specific topics on their own line with some space between topics. After class is over, fill in any blanks as soon as you can. Then, when you notice an important piece of information or a key point from the lecture, use the Cue section to write a short cue for that point.

When you're studying, cover up the Notes section and say the cues out loud, then repeat as much of the notes for that cue as you can. Then look at the notes to see if you got it right. It's like flash cards in one paper.

3. Mapping

ASC also recommends the Mapping Method. Most of us are familiar with flow charts that connect ideas or people with each other through lines connecting them. Using that graphical format can help organize concepts and thoughts from a lecture as well. The ASC states, This format helps you to visually track your lecture regardless of conditions. Little thinking is needed and relationships can easily be seen. It is also easy to edit your notes by adding numbers, marks, and color coding. Review will call for you to restructure thought processes which will force you to check understanding. Review by covering lines for memory drill and relationships. Main points can be written on flash or note cards and pieced together into a table or larger structure at a later date.

Mapping Note-Taking Method
This method allows you to track your lecture visually.

4. Charting

Another somewhat graphical method is charting. This note-taking system is essentially creating a table with columns for categories that will be presented in the lecture. For each row, add information as it relates to those categories. This will help to retain connections among concepts for just about as many topics as get discussed throughout a lecture. This format can even be continued through multiple lectures of a specific class, keeping a large amount of information in one continuous document. Some advantages of this method include:

  • Tracking conversations from class that could be confusing
  • Helps prevent relevant content from getting lost in long notes
  • Cuts down on the amount of writing to be done
  • Offers an easy layout for review and memorization

Despite these advantages, this method can be difficult because the categories mostly need to be determined ahead of time. However, if a class is going to be of a specific type, then generalized categories can be used. For example, in a history class, the categories could be as simple as time period, people, event, and significance.

5. Sentences

This note-taking system is probably the one most people use when they first get to college. It has a simple structure and does not require limitations on space due to boxes, lines, or columns. Students use this method to write down facts, information, and/or topics in sentences, with each sentence numbered in a separate line. These sentences are recorded as quickly as possible and often in shorthand form as a lecture or class goes on.

This method is great for retaining larger amounts of information. Sentence-style notes allow students to process information in their own words. Further, the end product is more specific, clearer, and easier for a student to understand later.

The most effective way to use this note-taking system for college students to review and rewrite their notes as soon after class as possible. This method also isn't recommended for classes that have a lot of images, graphs, and equations.

Paper or electronic notes

Once a college student has chosen the right note-taking system for them, the choice can then come down to paper or electronic notes. According to, There are distinct pros and cons for both handwritten and digital notes. Ultimately, what you use is a personal choice, but you should consider the facts before making a decision. And just like the note-taking methods described above, you may find that certain types of notes work better for certain classes.

One combined method can be very useful in knowledge retention: handwrite notes during class, then retype them later. also says, The tactile nature of handwritten notes supports cognitive learning, but there are limitations to analog notes. After writing by hand, type the notes and use the flexible formatting of digital notes. This gives the student the best of both worlds.

The good thing about college is it gives students the time and ability to explore what works for them and make changes as they learn more about themselves and their learning styles. If one note-taking system doesn't quite work, then there is time to try a different one. If none of these styles, work, then the sky's the limit when trying new ways of taking notes. There is no one-size-fits-all way, so don't be afraid to explore and create a system that works for you!

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