This post is part of an ongoing series, “Taking Note,” which outlines the history and styles of note-taking. In this series, we explore how taking notes can improve your creativity and all the work you set out to accomplish.
In classrooms and lecture halls around the world, millions of students—from elementary schools to the highest levels of collegiate research—bear the torch as our most consistent note-takers. While we’ve experienced massive shifts in technology over the course of the past four decades, the essence and methodology of note-taking remains largely intact. Same purpose. Different medium.
Whether scribbling shorthand in a notebook or capturing lecture notes on a laptop or mobile device, students still need to find ways to remember what they are taught. Note-taking is essential to the learning process.
For centuries, we’ve been distracted.
No matter your profession or pursuits, interpreting and capturing information is more challenging than it seems. Students experience this every day. Research shows us that overcoming information overload begins with organization. For students, this starts with having a system for organizing their notes. How students organize notes can have an enormous impact on how well they can recall it later.
Perhaps that’s why professors at Ivy League schools designed their note-taking systems to help students organize information more efficiently. From commonplace (at Harvard and Oxford in the 1800s) to Cornell (1960s New York), best practices for note-taking became a critical component of education. Today, academic institutions such as California Polytechnic Institute to Stanford University still place a premium on educating students about note-taking methodology. But, most of these approaches are designed for paper and pencil.
Many universities still point students toward online resources that offer advice designed for the pencil-based note-taker. That’s a testament to the perseverance of tradition, but it’s also indicative of a need to empower students to use technology to capture and study notes.
Image: The Stanford University Academic Center provides writing tips for paper-based note-taking using the Cornell Method.
How we Learn to Remember
As students, we learn through exposure to information. We keep a record of that information, and, following repeated exposures to the information, we can recall it later during exams, pop quizzes, and tests. Nowadays, the use of smartphones and tablets for note-taking can significantly improve the learning process:
- Capture and record only the information you don’t know.
- Identify the most important material.
- Remember the information by setting time to review it later.
- Recall the information when it is needed (research, connecting ideas to writing, exams).
Psychologists say that to recall information and build knowledge, it’s essential to understand three distinct stages of memory. Interestingly, they mirror the phases of note-taking:
- Encoding (writing down notes, capturing information, capture audio, photographs).
- Storage (physical notebook, pen and paper, or a digital system like Evernote).
- Retrieval (revisiting and reading your notes and the information you captured).
For students, it’s a time-honored system: Capture the knowledge and then find a system to retain that knowledge so that it will be usefully applied in moments that test your abilities later—exams, quizzes, and tests.
Choosing Your Note Style
Note-taking is deeply personal. How you implement a particular method mirrors not only your productivity habits but also the way you think and your creative workflow. For some people, organizing information into outline formats and lists is the key to success. For others, it’s all about visual systems that help them see information in a new light.
No matter your system, the challenge is universal: how do we parse the noise, sift through information, and decide what’s important?
Though the process sounds complicated, there are two primary classifications of note-taking systems: linear and nonlinear. But the method you use depends on personal choice, the class environment you’re in, and the way your brain works. These are the most common approaches—all of which are easy to implement in Evernote.
The Outline Method
With origins dating back to the 1500s, the outline is a classic paper and pencil style of linear note-taking in which you take capture information alongside Roman or Arabic numerals.
Its durability is part of its legacy—it works on paper, but it’s also easy to adapt and implement digitally.
With a linear outline, you can also use bullet points or other characters and symbols.
This tactic of note-taking works in almost any class setting, and helps you record content quickly. In addition to capturing key points, it also helps you catalog and remember what the subtopics have to do with the bigger concepts. Because this style of note-taking aims to capture the most important parts of a lecture, it’s easy to turn your notes into questions you can use later to study for exams.
The Cornell Method
Originally invented in the 1950s at its namesake university, Cornell is considered by many to be the Cadillac of note-taking systems.
Broken down into three distinct sections, the Cornell system allows you to capture and retrieve information in a single place. Using Cornell, you can hone in on major concepts and ideas in lectures and build learning from there. This system is perfect for high school or college students in lecture situations. It is also a good system for attorneys and knowledge workers. Here’s how it works:
- Record: During a lecture, use the note-taking column on the left to record the lecture using sentences.
- Questions: Formulate questions in the right-hand column based on your class notes, shortly after class ends (while they’re fresh on your mind). Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Jotting down questions also sets the stage for exam-studying later.
- Recite: Cover the note-taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the questions or cue-words in the right-hand column only, say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the questions, facts, or ideas indicated by the cue words.
- Reflect: Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions, for example: “What’s the significance of these facts? What principle are they based on? How can I apply them? How do they fit in with what I already know? What’s beyond them?
- Review: Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes. If you do, you’ll retain a great deal for the exam.
Additional tips helpful for Cornell:
Add symbols for clarity. Add highlights, underlines, or symbols around information that is important to your studies. If you can, avoid writing out entire sentences. The point of note-taking is to clue yourself into things your professor indicates may be important, and to help create personal study guides.
Shorthand. Create your own shorthand language to help you type faster. If you use abbreviated language to chat with friends on Snapchat, implement it into your note-taking. Use w/ (with) and % (for percentages).
The Sentence Method
This method is a good way to capture content in sentence-sized pieces. Although you lose the ability to organize through numbered or bulleted lists, the sentence method allows you to capture a running list of information that is new to you.
Since what you have written is not organized into paragraphs, you can return and review material later. Sentences have the benefit of making sense because of they are easily readable. If you type quickly, and if the information is presented in an organized manner, this may be the perfect note-taking system for you.
If you’re a visual thinker, then mind maps are an opportunity for you to connect ideas and notes together visually. In class, mind maps are an efficient way to sketch out topics. Here’s one Evernote customer’s mind-map for remembering how to use Evernote. In this method, sketching and doodling are encouraged because these types of drawings are relevant to the notes.
More tips for taking great notes
From annotations to highlights, here are some additional ways to take your notes to the next level.
Attend lectures regularly. It goes without saying that consistent class attendance is a huge part of being successful in school. You have to absorb lecture material in class to understand textbook reading, and to prepare g for exams and final projects.
Become an active reader. When you’re studying for class or developing ideas for writing projects, push hard to read actively and understand the material.
- Ask questions.
- Think through the material you’re reading.
- Cite sources. Many classes require annotated bibliographies, so you’ll save time if you capture your sources as you study.
- Use Amazon Kindle. Capture and save your Kindle notes and highlights into Evernote in three simple steps. Learn more.
- Blinkist. Blinkist curates the world’s best business books and distills them into manageable, easily readable 15-minute summaries offered in both text and audio formats in a mobile app for smartphones, tablets, and any web browser. As you save highlights in Blinkist, they automatically sync to Evernote—which are all easily discoverable and searchable any time you need to access it. Learn more.
- Instapaper. With a single click, you can save articles you’re reading on the Web. You can save anything you read on iOS, Android, and Kindle. Save your notes, comments, or highlights directly to Evernote with this IFTTT recipe.
It’s amazing how the legacy of note-taking has both evolved and endured. Spanning centuries, the concepts have remained the same. Notes help us separate the important stuff from everything else so we can learn more efficiently. How are you using these note-taking systems? Share your stories with us in the comments below, or on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.