Note-Taking Methods: 11 Effective Ways to Step Up Your Note-Taking Skills (& Tips from Successful Students)


Note: I just moved this super old post from Improveism, my old website. I will update this post in the near future, because it doesn’t reflect my views on effective note-taking anymore.

Taking notes is quite frustrating.

You listen attentively, jot down what you think is important, but then comes the test, and you can’t remember anything you wrote.

It’s a little bit frustrating, “how come I take notes more religiously as a Straight-A student, but get lower grades?”

Now there’s rewriting notes, highlighting important parts, but you can’t seem to remember them as well as those Straight-A students.

Here’s the deal: The magic happens not while you are taking notes, but BEFORE you even do it.

In fact, if you scroll right to the part where I show successful students’ Note-Taking tips, you’ll see a pattern going on!

Lucky for you, because this guide will show you how you, too, can become an effective note taker yourself.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this post:

Sure, we all take notes, but many students seem to take notes with a defeated purpose. (Perhaps, also the reason why they don’t remember anything.)

They take lecture notes verbatim, use different colors and highlights, and everything in between.

While not an entirely bad idea, these seemingly “organizational” actions are usually a waste of time when it comes to academic performance.

I emphasize the word usually because some students can pull it off without compromising its benefit.

The reason behind these inefficient methods is the fact that effective note-taking is not intuitive, and is ironically not taught in school.

Effective Note Takers take condensed, personalized notes in a deliberate manner.

By taking notes effectively, they’re able to shave off minutes, or even HOURS of their time reviewing information.

Why take notes, anyway?

Taking down notes can serve two purposes:

  1. help you keep less important things out of your head (through externalization/journaling — a la GTD), and
  2. help keep important things into your head (through better thinking)

In this post, we’ll focus on how to keep important things INTO your head.

But we especially want to achieve two things at once with our notes:

  1. Force ourselves to filter important information
  2. Create a condensed, personalized record of heavily processed information — i.e. what we understood

Here, note-taking effectively “extends” our memory. It’s NOT supposed to kill your ideas once they land on paper.

I was once a skeptic of note-taking. I thought it was a complete waste of time.

In fact, I hated everything that falls under conventional learning methods.

Back then I’d tell myself,

“Why do I even have to take conventional notes? It’s not effective for remembering the material.”

Well, partially, I was right. But that’s because I was an ineffective note-taker.

Partially right, because note-taking alone isn’t effective for retention.

And that’s what happens when we don’t take effective notes and/or review our notes the smart way. 

Does note-taking help you learn?

Effective note-taking involves a lot of cognitive effort. When note-taking, you filter out what’s important, you try to understand it, try to condense the information based on your own mental representation, organize it, and then write it down. The combination of these processes helps you learn better.

So, yes, note-taking can help you learn and understand the material better.

Note-taking, especially when done longhand (not digital), provides a number of learning benefits:

  • Forces us to actively filter out important information and listen more intently
  • Makes us more selective about what we’re going to write (simply because lecture speed is faster than writing speed)
  • We are forced to compress the main ideas that we understood (again, because of speed)

Many students, however, seem to think that just the mere act of taking down notes will help them learn and remember information because taking notes seemingly “involves more senses”.

If that were true, we could theoretically copy an entire textbook and remember all of it. But as we all know, that’s NOT the case.

I used to think “Oh, that’s an important idea, might as well write that down” without even trying to synthesize it intently.

And quite sadly, taking down notes verbatim is only a passive way of taking notes.

Note-taking helps us learn, but does not automatically make us learn. There’s a big difference.

Sometimes, it even creates the erroneous idea that “I took note of everything, therefore I must have remembered the material completely. If I didn’t remember the material after re-writing or re-reading it, then I conclude that I have a bad memory.”

What separates good note-takers from bad note-takers is how they think BEFORE writing down their notes.

Good note-takers condense and synthesize the information in their brain before writing them down. They learn while taking down notes.

Bad note-takers just reiterate information from lectures/textbooks. They just record information.

However, there are some occasions where recording information is perfectly fine:

  • When lecturers are just extremely fast (In that case, just watch a YouTube video before even going to class. You’ll filter out main ideas faster.)
  • You want to just “capture” the information for future reference (You don’t want to remember ALL hyperlinks, titles, and authors for references, do you?)

The list isn’t limited to these two, that’s just off the top of my head, but I’m saying we should still use our common sense and ask why we are taking notes in the first place.

In summary, note-taking helps us learn by forcing us to select and condense main ideas in an instant.

Note-taking, then, is a tool for learning new material; it’s not a magic bullet that imprints concepts into your brain.

11 Best Note Taking Methods and Their Best Uses

Some note-taking techniques are better suited for just recording information and referencing them later, some for connecting relevant information, and some are just really good as an exam prep material.

Back then, I preferred the Cornell Note-Taking method combined with Flow-Based Note-Taking, Visual Notetaking, and Outlining. (Now that I’ve edited this post, that sounded a bit silly. It’s actually just freestyle note-taking)

Now, I prefer taking temporary notes, and then atomize them into permanent notes and Anki cards. This way, I form schemata and other models that help my retention.

In this post, I’ll show you how each note-taking method works and what they’re good for so you can choose what you like best.

#1: The Outline Method – Best Note-Taking Method for Organized Notes

The Outline Method is by far the most commonly used note-taking technique of all time–simply because it’s simple and intuitive.

“I find that this method is perfect for recording a concise picture of the entire book without losing any important details.”

Thomas Frank from College Info Geek, 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades

Because it’s a linear note-taking method, you’re able to take note (and quickly too) of the most important ideas along with their supporting ideas, facts, and so on.

I’d say that it’s perfect for subjects that have more structure, meaning you already know the flow of the discussion.

One thing to look for is when the professor has powerpoint slides, it usually has a structured discussion fit for the Outline Method.

The downside, however, is that students (myself included), tend to become mindless of taking down notes when outlining.

It becomes more of a “Oh, that’s important, I should write it down” instead of “This is what I understood as the main idea…”.

Another problem is that it’s hard to add in ideas to previously outlined ideas when using handwriting. This is solved by either creating spaces, or using digital notes.

That said, I usually combine this technique to other ones presented in this guide. More like a freestyle way of taking notes.

#2: QEC Method – Best Note-Taking Method for Reasoning and Concepts

I learned this one from Cal Newport’s book, How to Become a Straight-A Student.

Just a slight disclaimer, though, I haven’t had much experience in using this method because I prefer more flexible and faster methods.

To be honest, I find using this method cumbersome to apply efficiently.

What I like about this linear method, though, is that you’re actually giving yourself a solid understanding of what the topic is REALLY about.

I think this comes from its structure of Inductive Reasoning, where conclusions are made based on the evidence.

So, somehow, it’s “nonlinear in your mind” because you connected non-sequential, but relevant ideas together.

In other words, you’re always on the lookout for the BIG IDEAS, rather than everything that strikes your interest and “might be important”.

It’s perfect for use in subjects Philosophy and History subjects.

This is because professors who teach these subjects are more likely to proceed in lectures using this sequence.

By doing this method, you’re not only making effective notes and understanding the big ideas, but you’re also creating some excellent study material through incorporation of Active Recall.

If you want to know more about using this method, I recommend that you check Cal Newport’s book on the topic.

Some Tips on using the QEC Method from Professor Cal Newport himself:

#3: The WOS Method (Write on Slides) – Most Efficient Note-Taking Method

The Write on Slides method is well…you write on powerpoint presentations. As you might have guessed, it’s a linear form of taking notes. (EDIT: It’s a fancy term for annotating slides.) Use it when:

  • You have a powerpoint presentation available
  • You’re lazy af

I find it really convenient to use this technique because we were using Blackboard Learn as our LMS back in College, and slides were already uploaded prior to the lecture.

If your professor doesn’t like your idea of taking out your laptop to take notes (not everyone is tech-friendly) then print them out and bring them to your class just like the example above.

However, the advantage of this method also becomes its disadvantage.

You may not have to think about condensing the information when you see everything already laid out in front of you–and that’s a problem because our goal is to use our notes to help us learn and compress information.

The solution to this is to just use the powerpoint slides as a guide, or study those slides and write questions prior to the lecture to effectively “pre-read” the material.

I’ve discussed the benefit of pre-reading in my other post, How to Learn Faster, and how pre-reading helps you create “hooks” for information to hang on.

Here are some tips on using this method.

#4: The Charting Method – Best Note-Taking Method for Synthesizing Relationships

Photo by GoodNotes Blog

Finally, we’re into non-linear types of note-taking!

Charting is like filling in a table that condenses similarities, differences, or broad characteristics of two concepts/objects/events.

It usually fills in the gaps created by other note-taking methods, and that is: other note-taking methods suck for comparison.

The disadvantage of Charting, though, is that it’s rather hard to use during a lecture. When you’re synthesizing information, however, that’s where all of its power is unlocked.

It’s perfect when you’re trying to take notes after class, or if you’re taking notes from a textbook.

#5: Visual Note-Taking – Best Note-Taking Method for Memory Techniques

Visual note-taking is also called Sketch-noting — a more enjoyable form of note-taking and not to mention that it works REALLY well with the Memory Palace Technique.

This is another versatile method you can incorporate with other techniques, by the way.

As a bonus, your notes will look more visually appealing than a paper drenched with text and bullets.

Often enough, I use visual note-taking when there are processes or sequences involved in our lectures.

Sometimes, I use visual note-taking when there are lists or things that are hard to remember: People, Dates, Weird Technical Terminology.

I just draw a picture that reminds me of them, and then use the Memory Palace Technique to ingrain it into my memory instantly.

Don’t worry if you “can’t draw”, we’re not putting your notes out on a Gallery. Just inside your bag is enough.

As we all know by now, even without research, we learn and remember better when there are images involved.

Here’s one example from Chris Noelssen of IBM that I found on Reddit:

He also gave me some tips on how you can create these types of notes!

Visual Note-Taking helps us compress a number of words into an easily retrievable picture. Don’t be afraid to draw or doodle every now and then on your notebook!

Learning doesn’t have to be a dreaded chore, because it can definitely be an enjoyable process that involves creativity.

#6: Mind Mapping – Best Note-Taking Method for Brainstorming

Mind Mapping - Best Note-Taking Method for Brainstorming
Photo by Mindmeister

Mind mapping is another non-linear way of taking down notes.

It’s not only visually appealing but also (according to the proponents of Mind Mapping) promotes what we call Radiant Thinking.

When you think of the main idea, your brain doesn’t think about a hierarchical format of thoughts, but rather in bursts of connections related to that central idea–and that’s the foundation of Mind Mapping.

Tony Buzan, who popularized Mind Maps, said that Mind Mapping “mimics how we think”, and that the brain doesn’t think in a linear fashion, but rather nonlinearly.

I like how mind mapping allows you to constantly expand and connect ideas through branches and lines, and I feel like it’s relatively easy to also learn from another person’s mind map.

In a post by Memory Expert Anthony Metivier, he clarified that these were not examples of mind maps:

  • Spider Diagrams
  • Pyramid Diagrams
  • Concept Maps
  • Fishbone Diagrams
  • Sunburst Charts

The reason, according to Tony Buzan, is that these diagrams do not resemble how the brain thinks.

This rather restrictive rule of classifying what mind maps (are or aren’t) is somewhat annoying for me, to be honest, so I just adopted the nonlinear concept instead of Mind Mapping as a whole.

And I think it’s perfectly fine if you’re just note-taking in class/when reading.

I personally used these with some success when I was reading my textbooks, however, I wasn’t able to review them so I ended up forgetting some details.

Here’s what it looked like:

It’s time-consuming to beautify everything using different pen colors; I found that even mind-mapping in a loose way still delivers its promise: You connect ideas easier.

#7. Flow-Based Notetaking – Best Note-Taking Method for Holistic Learning

Scott Young, popular for his MIT Challenge (he finished a 4-year Computer Science course in 1-year), uses Flow-Based Note Taking in what he calls a holistic learning approach.

I think this method is somewhat of a descendant of Mind Maps because of its non-linear, except that it’s a flexible manner of taking down notes.

Flow notes are meant to be an on-paper representation of your mental picture of a subject, just like mind mapping.

What’s good about it is that Flow-based Note Taking note only prevents you from just reiterating information, but also further reinforces the emphasis on important AND relevant information.

It’s quite recommended that you put what’s called backlinks to connect previously mentioned information to those new ones if ever they’re connected in some way or you have a connection/speculation that they might be connected.

In short, Flow-Based Notes eliminate the problem with hierarchical types of note-taking, which is the mindless transcription of details.

The number of details is traded off for the big, relevant ideas that are only essential for understanding the material.

If you want to know more about this type of Note Taking, check out Scott’s Guide.

#8. The QA Split-Page Method – Best Note-Taking Method for Factually Dense Subjects

Personally, this is the one that I used when I was reviewing for the board exams, with some modifications: I put in questions instead of keywords in order to incorporate active recall immediately after the lecture/my reading.

Don’t be fooled by the digital format, you can absolutely implement this on paper.

When it comes to taking notes, I prefer those that I can incorporate some type of Active Recall on. Also, I want it to be fast and easy.

The Split-Page Method actually meets my criteria, and it’s why I preferred this over Mind Mapping back then.

To review the whole lecture using Split-Page Method, I just have to cover the right side where I put my notes and answer the questions I listed on the left (it only takes MINUTES) and in my case, I just color the fonts white.

What’s good about this method is that you’re constantly forced to think about “How will my professor test me on this material?”

In my opinion, that’s by far the best way to improve my understanding of the material–by mastering it from different angles.

Lastly, it’s fairly easy to do and doesn’t require an in-depth explanation.

#9. Cornell Note-Taking – Best Note-Taking Method for Active Recall

It’s highly likely that you’ve already heard of this method, and for good reason!

It’s famous because, done right, it could lessen your study time, and allows you to revise effectively by using the cue column as prompts for review.

In addition, this method can be used for BOTH technical and non-technical subjects.

What do Cornell Notes give you? I condensed them into an acronym, CARS:

  • Condensed: Similar to Flow-Based note taking, you’re taking incredibly condensed, and selective notes instead of passively recording them.
  • Active Recall: Similar to the Split-Page Method, you can just easily cover the right side of the page and start recalling the material from the questions you created.
  • Synthesis: The summary section at the bottom promotes the synthesis of the whole material studied.

Some research may tell you otherwise.

Click here to skip.

Studies show the “problem” of Cornell Note-Taking

Although these studies concluded that the Cornell Note Taking method did not have any significant difference in performance, they did not provide any guarantee that the students actually reviewed their notes using the cues on the left column, let alone actually test them for long term retention given that they actually performed the recall part of Cornell Note Taking.

Just to be clear, though, the focus of their studies involved taking the results given by Note Taking methods, NOT the actual revision feature provided by CN Method.

So, their conclusions are still valid for their purposes.

However, these studies solidify my hypothesis that note-taking methods alone do not actually determine academic performance and that how you encode and recall your notes do.

Also, I think the students’ revision strategies might be a better indicator of their test performances more than their strategy on taking notes.

I still believe that effective Note Taking decreases the amount of time needed to revise your material, though. But it’s not quite the major indicator.

Some of these studies emphasize the benefit that this kind of note-taking can improve the students’ ability to synthesize information and listen more actively compared to other note-taking methods.

Here are those studies, if you’re interested:

#10. Index Card Method – Best Note-Taking Method for Research

(Under construction)

#11. The Zettelkasten Method – Best Note-Taking Method for Lifelong Learners

Let me say it’s the best note-taking method, period.

Have you ever took notes that were actually useful after 3 months? How about after a year?

If your answer is no, then that means your note-taking efforts doesn’t scale yet — mainly because the note-taking methods above don’t suffice for making permanent notes. They can’t possibly take care of your notes for the long-term!

Sönke Ahrens, author of How to Take Smart Notes, says what the Zettelkasten Method will give you:

Only if you can trust your system, only if you really know that everything will be taken care of, will your brain let go and let you focus on the task at hand. That is why we need a note-taking system that is as comprehensive as GTD, but one that is suitable for the open-ended process of writing, learning and thinking. […] The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.

Anyway, I just got started using this method a couple of months ago, but already I’ve been seeing great improvements in my learning workflow.

I started to think better, because now I’m forced to think “one idea at a time.”

I get more out of books and articles I read, because it encourages me to process text more deeply.

I started to condense ideas better. (A main flaw of SRS-only learning — but really this shouldn’t happen if you’re treating Anki only as a part of your system.)

And because of the improved levels of processing, I better retained what I read.

If you identify yourself as a lifelong learner, I think you’ll love it. There’s quite a learning curve, but you can read more about how you can start using the Zettelkasten Method here.

Note Taking Tips from your Favorite Bloggers and Vloggers

While I can certainly take effective notes myself, I give credit to my virtual mentors for my ability to do so.

My virtual mentors are Bloggers and Vloggers.

To potentially connect you with your virtual mentor, I created this list. Make sure to let me know if I’ve helped you do so! I’d highly appreciate it.

I chose these people because 1) I personally follow them, and 2) They completely back up what they’re saying.

#1. Note-Taking Tips from Scott Young

Scott Young is famously known for his feat of finishing a 4-year CS Degree at MIT in 1 YEAR. Yes, he just sped up his learning by FOUR TIMES.

That’s why this guy definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to learning. Here are his tips on note-taking:

  • Flow-Based Notetaking. This note-taking method allows you to learn ONCE, and not aim to “study your notes later”.
  • Emphasize the important details, omit or downplay the irrelevant
  • Write down notes according to your mental picture of the subject, going back to add details and departing into new sections as you learn
  • Transcribe information in a completely original way from its presentation
  • Create a new set of ideas and understandings, based on the original lecture
  • In his words: “With flow-based notetaking, your goal isn’t transcription–it’s learning. This may sound obvious, but that isn’t how most people take notes. When most students take notes, they take them with the goal of learning the material later. When you take flow-based notes, your goal is to learn it, while in the class.

#2. Note-Taking Tips from Cal Newport

I’ve talked a LOT of Cal Newport‘s ideas on this blog, and for good reason. Just like what he preaches, his work is rare and valuable. (That link goes to his Wikipedia page, by the way)

From his book, How to Become a Straight-A Student:

  • Gather the Right Materials. Notebook, Laptop, Loose Paper, Folders, Pen–make sure they’re of good quality!
  • Identify the Big Ideas for Nontechnical Courses.
  • Format Your Notes Aggressively. Your notes are yours and yours alone. It doesn’t have to makes sense for anybody else. Use bullets, boxes, stars, arrows, dashes, or drawings! It doesn’t matter as long as you’re smart and systematic about it.
  • Capture all solved problems for Technical Courses. This comes in handy when it’s time to revise the material. When you have a copy of the solutions, you’ll have an immediate feedback loop when you ever get stuck in solving a similar problem. I personally find this to be useful especially when you put annotations about why the next step works with the previous steps. Put simply, it helps you create chunks for FASTER problem-solving.

From his blog, Study Hacks Blog:

  • Never Record Raw information. NEVER. Just like any other tip here, the key to note-taking isn’t parroting, but rather condensing relevant information that perfectly describes our mental picture of the subject.
  • Question Connections. Ask questions in class about the connections between the information you’re writing. Cal says, “The less sure you are of your answer the more important it is for you ask.”
  • Adopt an Idea-Centric Note-Taking Format. This is where the Note Taking Styles come in. You want to have a note-taking format that will support your understanding and retention of main ideas. When you have a system, you don’t anymore have to spend mental effort to constantly guess how to format each mental picture you’re writing down.

#3. Note-Taking Tips from John Fish

John Fish is a Harvard Student who has an amazing channel on YouTube. He gives not just school advice, but personal growth advice, too.

Put away the screens. John isn’t a big proponent of digital notes; because of this, he avoids the distraction of having to beautify your notes or write down everything that the professor is saying.

Create your mental model. Your understanding of the concept is what you write in your paper, not the actual words you heard in the lecture.

Constantly look for key ideas. Also, he emphasizes formatting your notes differently for key ideas and supporting ideas. He simply uses pen and pencil to separate those.

#4. Note-Taking Tips from YesRenau

YesReneau is another Harvard Straight-A Student who has an amazing YouTube channel as well. I’ve only recently discovered her channel, but I find her study tips quite detailed and incredibly helpful.

Handwritten notes for better retention. For reasons we’ve already discussed earlier.

Develop some shorthand. Well, some classes do have words that are repeated in every single class. Yep, THAT word, and whenever your professor says that word, you take a shot. Ex: People = ppl, Government = govt

Avoid Parroting. Our goal isn’t to regurgitate information.

Listen to “Today we’re talking about”. Basically, know the main idea to easier classify the sub-ideas.

Write down everything the professor says after “This thing will come out on the test”. It might as well come out, don’t you think? Bonus points.

Format for different kinds of ideas. A dot for the main idea, dash for the supporting ideas, boxes for formulas, you choose.

Have fun, be creative, draw on your notes! And it doesn’t even have to make sense to anyone. I mean, you could absolutely think of anime characters to remember an equation. (or maybe that’s just me)

#5. Note-Taking Tips from Med School Insiders

Here’s another YouTube channel that’s actually one of my favorites. The guy behind this is Dr. Jubbal. This guy’s academic performance is insane. I mean, just read.

Link to YouTube Channel.

Dr. Jubbal uses Evernote for indexing and organization purposes (He puts ppt on the actual note, sometimes annotates them) and also for these two reasons:

  • Evernote can search for text inside the powerpoint
  • Evernote can search for text in pictures of your HANDWRITING (in Premium)

Creates a summary sheet for each lecture note. I think this is how he actively recalls his information aside from using Anki and memory techniques.

Use Handwriting for Diagrams and Annotations. He personally uses iPad Pro now, but back then he used the traditional pen and paper approach for this.

#6. Note-Taking Tips from Dr. Ali Abdaal

As of writing this, Dr. Ali is a Junior Doctor in Cambridge who vlogs about Tech, Evidence-Based Study Tips, and some of his daily routines as a doctor.

He’s where I got my interest for Active Recall. Here’s a link to his channel.

He only takes notes when there isn’t an already accessible summary available. (in Notability)

He uses an iPad Pro + Apple Pencil because using this method eliminates the disadvantages [of writing and typing] and combines the advantages of both. Best of both worlds. (Quite expensive, though)

Numbered Notes rather than Bullets to see the main points.

Screenshot from his video on YouTube

Uses different colors (because he uses an iPad) to make note-taking more pleasant to do.

Dr. Ali doesn’t like the idea of re-writing notes as a revision strategy, but he still finds writing notes the first time/organizing them useful to do. (probably for making Recall material)

Pre-read the lecture so you have a view of the main ideas before taking notes.

Best Resources on Effective Note-Taking Techniques

Prior to making this giant note-taking guide, I’ve taken the time to give you some of the best resources for Note-Taking strategies if you really want to take your game to the next level.

Two of my favorites are How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Take Good Notes.

Let’s get on to the list!

How to Take Good Notes by Angelos Georgakis

If you’re ever interested in the science behind effective note-taking, here’s a good one to start.

Again, you’ll see something along the lines of “Parroting isn’t an effective note-taking strategy”.

Link: “How to Take Good Notes” by Angelos Georgakis on Amazon

How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

If you know anything about Cal Newport, you just know that anything he writes is just GOLD.

He is the bestselling author of SIX books already, including Deep Work–all while getting his academic degrees on point, having an extremely balanced lifestyle, and writing on his blog.

I like this book not because he discusses effective note-taking methods, but he discusses how you should approach note-taking the smart way.

He interviewed a TON of straight-A students for this book and consolidated their common methods into a single book, packed with valuable information.

Link: “How to Become a Straight-A Student” by Cal Newport on Amazon

Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

Got this recommendation from a fellow sketchnoter @ChrisNoelssen on Twitter.

The Sketchnote Handbook is an extremely interactive read, and when I say interactive–you’ll NEVER get bored.

True to its promises, you’ll see a whole Sketchnoted Book that teaches you how to get better at visual note-taking. Give it a shot.

Because of its visual appeal, I challenge you to not to devour this book in one sitting.

Flow-Based Notetaking by Scott H. Young

This one is actually a free guide that I found online. In fact, I already linked this resource earlier in the Flow-Based Notetaking section.

It’s worth reiterating, though.

Here’s the link to the resource.

Blog Posts from Other Sites

While I was researching for this post, I stumbled upon some extremely good articles–they’re just too good to not recommend!

Bottom Line: Note-Taking methods are just means to an end

Everybody takes notes. But not everybody knows how to take notes effectively.

It’s the mental processing that’s crucial.

That said, I might make a more comprehensive post about effective note taking. See you then!