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The art of note-taking: what's really most effective?

Person sitting down cross legged with a laptop on their lap and coffee in hand

Note-taking is the unsung hero of study techniques. Using the right style for you can mean the difference between doing so-so and blitzing a subject. It will help set you up for university courses and your future career.

WACE exams are coming up and ATAR anxiety is all-too-real right now. What more can be done at this stage? Good news – plenty!

Note-taking is an incredibly effective yet grossly underutilised tool. Done right, you can get better results, feel confident about your studies, and you’ll be streets ahead of your peers once you’re at university.

What’s the deal with note-taking?

Firstly, you do not need to write down everything. This is a mistake many students make.

Then there’s the issue of not writing enough or as robustly. As much as we’d like to think we will remember what a teacher or instructor on a video meant, or what those measly dot points mean, most of us don’t have a memory that recalls everything.

And when it comes to textbooks and notes prepared by your teacher, it may feel like overkill to make your own notes, but you really should.

You’ll see it done all sorts of ways but there are a few tried and true techniques.

Note-taking techniques

The Cornell Method

This has been around for decades and was created at Cornell University in the Unites States. There are two columns on the page and five steps: record, questions, recite, reflect, review. It also doubles as a very effective study system. 

The Outline Method

This is a linear method and the one many people naturally gravitate towards. Usually organised with headings and bullet points and written straight down the page. However, it may be more useful as a study technique than when you’re first being introduced to new information.

The Mapping Method

This looks like a tree with branches or a cloud with arms. It starts with one idea in the middle (the main topic), and then has branches (major points) reaching out with smaller branches (sub points) underneath. If you’re visual, you may prefer this system.

The Chart Method

This is good if you know what the topics are before you start and there are distinct categories of information. Divide your page into several columns and start with the main points listed at the top of each column, with sub points underneath.

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The golden rule

Don’t stuff your notes away never to see the light of day again. No matter what technique you adopt, make sure to look at your notes immediately after and organise them. Studies show that those who don’t review will forget 40 per cent of information learned after the first 24 hours, and 60 per cent after 48 hours.

How do I take better notes?

  • Repetition, repetition, repetition. Cramming before an exam doesn’t work. What does work is regularly reviewing your material.
  • Pictures are easier to remember than words so if you’re short on time, draw an image.
  • If you like to colour code, don’t do it during initial note-taking.
  • Write short, succinct sentences.
  • Save time and use abbreviations and symbols.
  • Use your own words that mean something to you.
  • Use your teacher’s notes or your textbook as a starting point and a way to familiarise yourself with the topic. But do use your own note-taking method too.
  • Write questions to yourself if there’s something you don’t understand. Don’t gloss over it and hope you’ll understand later.
  • Don’t try to write everything down. You’ll just get information overload. It’s better to be engaged and have an efficient and effective system of recording the main points.

How to listen and take notes at the same time

Active listening is a skill. Read provided material before class, make sure you are sitting where you won’t be distracted, and be prepared with your preferred note-taking structure. Also watch your teacher’s body language, listen carefully if they revisit a point several times, and if they write something on the board or on their slides, you should make a note of it too.

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Pen and paper vs. typing

Is there a difference between typing your notes on a laptop (or other electronic equipment or using an app) and using a pen and paper? Research indicates there is, and physically writing things down appears to be the winner.

It’s a slower task, so students have to be more selective in what they’re transcribing. Researchers have also found that the mental processes involved in writing by hand mean students have a deeper understanding of the material.

If you’re still going to use electronic equipment over pen and paper, you’re definitely not doomed. You do, however, need to override your instinct to write everything and instead be more selective. And, of course, organise your notes immediately afterwards and review regularly.

Put your studies first and you could be eligible for a Murdoch First Scholarship, or for help with your uni application process, visit our TISC hub for important information.

Posted on:

10 Sep 2019

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