Taking Notes that Work
By Dustin M. Wax (Dustin is a past contributing editor and project manager at Lifehack. His personal site can be found at dustinwax.com.)
Note-taking is one of those skills that is rarely taught. Most
instructors assume either that taking good notes comes naturally or that
someone else must have already taught students how to take notes.
his article “Advice for Students: Taking Notes that Work,” Dustin Wax
shares some reliable techniques that can be used to overcome this gap.
He states, “Whether you’re a high school junior or a college senior or a
grad student or a mid-level professional or the Attorney General of the
United States, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a
crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we
may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to
remember them better in the first place.”
What do notes do?
One reason Wax thinks students struggle with
note-taking is because, in some cases, they really aren’t sure what notes are
really for. “I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt
to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to
create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure. Trying to
get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about
what you’re writing and how it fits together.
If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write
minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to
The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you study better and more
quickly. This means your notes don’t have to
contain everything, they have to
contain the most important things.
And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental
“cycles” to recognize what’s truly important.”
What to Write Down
Your focus while
taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no
point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the
Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason
to write that down. Anything you know you know you can leave out of your
relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a
test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly
relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done
the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:
- Dates of events: Dates allow you to a) create a
chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and
b) understand the context of an event. For instance, knowing Isaac Newton
was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of
other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to
other trends of the 17th century.
- Names of people: Being able to associate names
with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up
again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the
same individuals or by people related in some way.
- Theories: Any statement of a theory should
be recorded — theories are the main points of most classes.
- Definitions: Like theories, these are the main
points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a
term, should be written down. Keep in mind that many fields use everyday
words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.
- Arguments and debates: Any list of pros and cons, any
critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate related in class or your
reading should be recorded. This is the stuff that advancement in every
discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have
changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development within the
particular discipline you are studying.
- Images and exercises: Whenever an image is used to
illustrate a point, or when an in-class exercise is performed, a few words
are in order to record the experience. Obviously it’s overkill to describe
every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short
statement about what the class did should be enough to remind you and help
reconstruct the experience.
- Other stuff: Just about anything a professor
writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either
self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV
series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant
to the topic at hand; I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to
look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay
attention to other student’s comments, too — try to capture at least the
gist of comments that add to your understanding.
- Your own questions: Make sure to record your own
questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you
remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as
prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.
You don’t have to be
super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques
that seem to work best for most people.
- Whether you use Roman numerals or
bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical
relationships between ideas and data. In a history class, you might write
the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or
she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.
Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has
usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go
from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your
lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas
isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot.
- A point
later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture,
leaving you to either a) flip back and forth to find where the information goes
best (and hope there’s still room to write it in) or b) risk losing the
relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.
- For lectures, a mind-map might be
a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between
- Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but
it might just fit the bill. Here’s the idea: in the center of a blank
sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic.
- As new sub-topics are
introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an
outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the
sub-topic along the branch.
- Then each point under that heading gets its
own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is
mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.
thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the
fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch.
Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it
to two different branches.
- If you want to neaten things up later, you can
re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some
wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).
The Cornell System
- The Cornell System is a simple
but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your
notes. About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper,
draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line
to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.
You’ve divided your page into three sections.
- In the largest section, you
take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the
lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right,
questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on.
- This will help
you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as
providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main
section and try to answer the questions. In the bottom section, you write
a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve
- Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to
use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re
trying to find something in your notes later. You can download
instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the
system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.