The 6 Most Effective Note-Taking Methods

These are efficient note-taking methods that anyone can pick up and use to take better notes.

Note-taking methods

“Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work.”

Albert Einstein

When you’re first learning a new concept, you’re taking in new information that has to go through the process of memorization.

The human brain, however, is inefficient at remembering things. 

Within 24 hours of leaving class, your brain will have forgotten more than half of what it remembered at the end of the class.

This phenomenon is known as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve and it highlights the need for note-taking perfectly.

Ebbinghaus forgetting curve
Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. Source.

Compare the right-side green line with the left-side red line. 

Someone who takes notes and reviews them three times (green line) remembers nearly everything after a week. On the other hand, a person who doesn’t review their notes at all (red line) forgets everything within a week.

Don’t be the red line – be the green line. To do so, you’ll need to learn how to take effective notes.

These are the best note-taking methods:

Outline Note-Taking Method

Completed outline note
Example of the outline method of note-taking. Source.

Best for: Most subjects except science classes such as physics or math

Difficulty level: Medium

The outline method of note-taking uses indentation to store information in a clear hierarchy. When applicable, the outline method is one of the most efficient note-taking formats as it creates meticulously well-organized notes. The method can also be used in both deductive and inductive order.

Outlined notes are some of the easiest to review, as it’s one of the few systems that allow you to clearly see space relationships between topics. However, the method is not always suitable for taking notes during a live lecture and outlining requires a clear lesson structure to work. 

Advantages:

  • Space relationships between topics are clearly visible,
  • Information is recorded in a logical, hierarchical manner,
  • Outlined notes are quick and easy to review pre-exam,
  • Special notepaper & preparation not required,
  • Research on the outline method has been positive,
  • Usable during class (slow to medium-paced lectures).

Disadvantages:

  • Unsuitable for some STEM subjects,
  • Learning materials / lectures require a clear structure,
  • Outlining notes requires strong concentration and thought.

Cornell Note-Taking Method

Example of the Cornell method of note-taking
Example of the Cornell method of note-taking. Source.

Best for: Recording main concepts & forming study questions

Difficulty level: Easy

The Cornell method of note-taking, developed more than half a century ago, is a tried-and-true strategy for taking effective notes. It uses two top columns (the “cue” and “note” columns), together with a single bottom row (the summary section) to record notes. 

The method is very versatile, usable for most subjects, and one of the simplest yet most effective note-taking methods out there. By mastering the Cornell system, you’ll always have at least one solid note-taking skill under your belt. The Cornell system is one of the most popular note-taking strategies in the world for good reason.

Advantages:

  • Organized and systematic for both recording and reviewing notes
  • Time-efficient and requires little effort,
  • Taking Cornell notes is very easy to learn,
  • Suitable for most subjects (except equation-based subjects),
  • Fulfills a natural learning cycle within one single page,
  • Good for extracting major concepts and ideas.

Disadvantages:

  • Requires creating or purchasing Cornell-style pages,
  • Large quantities of Cornell notes can be difficult to organize,
  • Not great at reducing the size of notes,
  • Research on the Cornell method is mixed.

Boxing Note-Taking Method

Example of boxing method notes taken on an iPad
Example of the boxing method of note-taking. Source.

Best for: Digital note-taking with a stylus pen

Difficulty level: Easy

The boxing method of note-taking uses boxes to visually separate topics within a page. While the boxing method was designed to be used for digital devices, it’s a technique that can be easily adapted to handwritten notes. 

Using the boxing strategy results in notes that are visually pleasing and easy to review. The method also takes full advantage of digital-only features such as lassoing, resizing, and moving notes after writing. Together with mind mapping, it’s one of the most effective note-taking strategies for visual learners.

Advantages:

  • Takes advantage of digital note-taking tools,
  • Great for learners with a visual learning style,
  • Aesthetically pleasing notes,
  • Notes are reduced well.

Disadvantages:

  • Slightly time-intensive,
  • Not always practical for note-taking during lectures.

Charting Note-Taking Method

Charting Method: Filled chart
Example of the charting method of note-taking

Best for: Recording facts and statistics

Difficulty level: Hard

The charting method of note-taking uses charts to classify information within rows and columns. While the method is not usable for many subjects, it is a remarkable tool under the right circumstances. This method is best used with subjects that have factual or statistical information that can be compartmentalized into tables.

On the other hand, it’s not suitable for note-taking during live lectures, topics that are very detailed, and subjects where the space relationships between content is important. It’s also not well-suited for subjects that have many equation-based problems.

Advantages:

  • Very powerful method for subjects with lots of facts and statistics,
  • Easy comparisons between different topics,
  • Reduces note sizes better than any other method,
  • Charted notes are very easy and efficient to review,
  • Very efficient for studying comparisons.

Disadvantages:

  • Unsuitable for most subjects,
  • Requires a basic understanding of the topic,
  • Very time-intensive.

Mapping Note-Taking Method

Finished and colored map
Example of the mapping method of note-taking

Best for: Analyzing visual connections between key ideas and concepts

Difficulty level: Hard

The mapping method of note-taking connects different thoughts, ideas, concepts, and facts together through visualization. Both Leonardo Da Vinci’s and Albert Einstein notebooks reportedly contained mapping style notes that connected drawings to words and notes.

The mapping method starts with a main topic in the center of the page, before branching out into smaller subtopics, supporting topics, and smaller details. The method provides a one-of-a-kind graphical overview of lecture content that is irreplaceable for visual learners. 

Mapping is best used in content-rich college classes where the information is structured. However, it’s very rarely possible to take notes of a live class with this method due to its time-consuming nature.

 Advantages:

  • Great method for visual learning styles,
  • Gives a comprehensive overview of a large subject,
  • Helps understand the connections between small elements within a major topic,
  • Maximizes active participation,
  • Reviewing mapped notes is very efficient.

 Disadvantages:

  • Requires a good understanding of the topic,
  • Requires strong concentration,
  • Cannot be used effectively during class,
  • Mapping is very time-consuming.

Sentence Note-Taking Method

Example of the sentence method of note-taking
Example of the sentence method of note-taking

Best for: Quick, unstructured note-taking

Difficulty level: Very easy

The sentence method of note-taking uses sentences separated by lines to quickly transcribe as much information as possible from the information source. It requires quick handwriting or typing skills to be used effectively and it’s likely the most commonly used note-taking method due to its simplicity. 

Using the sentence method results in oversized notes that are notoriously difficult to review afterwards. However, for fast-paced, unstructured lessons that you’re not prepared for, the sentence method can sometimes be the only viable choice. It’s often a good idea to rewrite any notes taken with the sentence method after class, though.

Try not to rely on this method when you have a choice, but keep it as a backup plan for those times when you can’t use an alternative note-taking strategy.

Advantages:

  • Can be used for any subject and type of class,
  • Very easy to implement,
  • Good for quick note-taking during class.

Disadvantages:

  • Reviewing sentence method notes after class is difficult and time-consuming,
  • No inter- and intra- relationships between notes visible,
  • Main points are indistinguishable from smaller details,
  • Quick handwriting or typing speed required,
  • No element of metacognitive note analysis during note-taking.

Founder & CEO of E-Student

Sander has a background in medical diagnostics, a love for MOOCs, and a particular interest in evaluating online learning methods and platforms. His publications on E-Student have been cited in scientific journals such as the JML Journal of Medicine, Life and Annals of Medicine and Surgery, and the IEEE. He has also been featured in various news outlets such as The Baltimore Sun, Independent Australia, and RBK.