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How to Take Effective Notes: 6 Steps to Success

Follow this 6-step process to learn how to take the most effective notes.

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The bottom line

Note-taking is critical for student learning. Not only is note-taking vital for storing information for after-class reviewing purposes, but it’s also a learning process in and of itself due to the semantic processing that takes place during note-taking.

The vast benefits of effective note-taking in classroom lectures have been well-understood for centuries. Yet, the same cannot be said for online classes.

Most online students tend to skip note-taking entirely due to the on-demand availability of online course content. However, learning by passively watching online classes is an ineffective study strategy, and students who do so tend to perform poorly.

Here are a few more reasons why learning how to take effective notes is crucial in both online and physical classrooms:

Now that we’ve got the “why” of note-taking sorted out, let’s get right into the “how”.

This is how you take effective notes:

How to Take Effective Notes

Identify your information source type

We’re starting off with baby steps here, but these first steps are a crucial part of a comprehensive note-taking strategy.

To begin, look at the source material you’ll be taking notes of.

For example, here are a few types of information sources commonly used for note-taking:

  • Classroom lectures
  • Video conference lectures
  • Pre-recorded video lectures
  • Textbooks & e-books
  • Online text-based lectures

All these examples benefit from note-taking, and none of them are better than the others. But it’s important for you to identify exactly which type of information source you’ll be working with. It’ll be required for the upcoming steps.

Get a broad overview of the topic

This step may seem counterintuitive at first.

After all, is not the whole purpose of note-taking to get an overview of the topic?

In some sense, yes. However, the step-by-step note-taking process I’m describing in this article is meant for a deeper level of topic comprehension than just “broad.” Using an effective note-taking strategy allows you to drill deep down and master any topic, so why stop at the surface level?

Getting a broad overview of the topic before you start taking notes allows you to make an informed decision as to what exact method you should be using.

What’s important when reviewing your topic is to identify both the information types and how the information is organized. Some lectures might have a lot of factual information, while others are full of small connected subcategories. 

Choose your note-taking method

Now is the time to take the information you have gathered from steps #1 and #2 and plan a note-taking strategy based on that. There will be a suitable note-taking method based on your answers, even if it’s not obvious at first sight.

I have written an entire article comparing effective note-taking methods and I’ll cover it in a shorter form here.

First, based on information obtained in step #1, narrow the choice down to two large categories:

  • During-class note-taking methods. Taking notes during class requires the method to be quick and adaptable. These methods are good for live note-taking in online video conferences or normal classroom lectures. Examples of methods you can use here include the Cornell methodoutline method, and sentence method.
  • After-class note-taking methods. Taking notes after-class enables you to develop the most comprehensive and effective notes possible. However, these methods are usually too time-intensive for in-class use, and they are meant for pre-recorded sources of information such as pre-recorded video lectures or textbooks. Examples of usable methods here include the mapping methodboxing method, visual note-taking, and charting method

Next, based on information obtained in step #2, you’ll also want to consider whether the information you’ll be noting is:

Other methods, such as the Cornell method of note-taking, are very adaptable and can be used for a wide range of topics. If you’re unsure of what method to choose, the Cornell system is always a safe choice.

By considering all the available options carefully, you’ll achieve the best results as a student.

Prepare to take your notes

The exact nature of the steps from here on out will vary depending on what method you chose in step #3.

For example, if you choose to use the Cornell method, you will need to prepare materials such as Cornell-style papers and pens. That is unless you’re taking the notes digitally. I have covered the handwritten vs. typed notes debate in more detail in the past.

If, however, you chose the charting method, your preparation will include things like developing a spreadsheet, creating rows and columns, and adding colors to the chart to separate topics.

Thus, look into the method you want to use (I have written separate articles on all common methods) and prepare accordingly. The preparation depends entirely on your lecture and chosen note-taking method. 

Once you finish with the prep work, you’re finally ready to start taking notes.

Execute your note-taking method

It only took us five steps until we got to the note-taking!

All the previous steps may seem unnecessary at first, but that’s not the case, at least not until you have mastered all note-taking methods and you have already developed a sixth sense as to which one you should pick. Until you develop this sixth sense, you’ll always want to go through all the steps on this list to make an informed and conscious decision.

This step is where all the preparation and pre-planning start to pay off. Having prepared your note-taking method, you can now take full advantage of the information you’re noting.

Once you master the steps until this point, you’re no longer taking notes on a whim. Instead, you’re executing a well-planned note-taking strategy that is relevant to its source material. The difference between these two forms of note-taking is night and day, and you’ll see this as soon as you start reviewing your notes.

Review your notes

After finishing taking your notes, the note-reviewing process needs to start soon. That is because the human brain forgets information very quickly. 

Within 24 hours, you typically lose an average of 40% of memory retention, and the best way to combat this is by reviewing your notes as soon as possible after taking your notes. 

Then, within one week, you should review your notes at least one more time to ensure that you retain most of the knowledge. Using flashcards during the note-reviewing process has also been proven to be beneficial.

By doing all this, you will never need to rely on all-nighters and cram sessions. In the grand scheme of your studies, learning how to take notes effectively will save you time, energy, and mental health. Learn how to take effective notes, and you’ll be a time-efficient and high-achieving student in no time.

I hope that you learned something new from this guide and feel free to check out our other articles on developing effective study skills