Effective note taking formats & tips for back-to-school season

students taking notes while instructor writes on whiteboard

Taking notes: universally recommended in school, but how do you know if students are doing it right? Here are some tips and tricks on the best ways and methods, backed by the latest research.

High quality notes are like an investment. They take time and often are staples both in class and as part of the study process: as such, it’s all the more important to make sure that time is spent wisely! 

Why is taking notes important? After all, studies show that reading and rereading them is not the most effective way to study. Though it may be tempting to skip over this important, albeit meticulous - and sometimes time-consuming task - note taking has far more benefits than drawbacks as a piece of the academic puzzle.  

Benefits of note taking 

Research suggests that top-notch note taking skills increase comprehension and recall, and students who regularly take notes tend to perform better than those who keep their notebooks shut.

Other benefits of note taking include increased focus, attention to detail, engagement with the material, and organization. 

The benefits of note-taking can be identified early as in elementary school. Developing habits can improve not only retention when it’s time for a quiz, but also other academic skills in the long term. In other words, kids can boost their scores on a reading test and their reading comprehension skills in general by taking high-quality notes. 

Those are some notable benefits, aren’t they?

Realizing all of these benefits, however, can be much easier said than done. In fact, note taking methods matter almost as much as what students write down. 

Note taking formats that work

If you want to make sure your bullet points aren’t bullet pointless, it’s worth thinking through your note taking strategy beyond just writing down as many words as possible. 

Naturally, there’s no one method that will work for every subject, grade level, or student. Let’s kick things off with a few options right off the bat—here are five tried and true note taking formats, complete with pros and cons, to consider in your search for the right fit. 

1. Cornell Notes

Devised in the 1950s by a pedagogical expert, Cornell Notes incorporate both a note-taking system and academic habits into homework and in-class learning. Students use 3 sections: cues, notes, and summary to track concepts, note important details, and conclude each session with a condensed restatement of concepts covered.

Pros: These notes are extremely detailed and well organized. The summary section in particular reinforces retention and adds a unique level of engagement.

Cons: It definitely takes some practice to get the hang of this format, and the level of detail required might be difficult to keep up with during a live lesson.  

2. Mind Map Notes

Mind Map notes offer a more free form note taking strategy that emphasizes a visual approach to learning. Using this method, students create a web of associations, supporting facts, and other information surrounding a central concept. 

Pros: Mind maps offer more flexibility than many traditional note taking systems. They can benefit visual learners and encourage critical thinking while taking notes.

Cons: This format could be distracting to some learners. With no firm requirements for what should go where, students might struggle to represent all the information they’ll need in a way they’ll understand down the road. 

3. The Outline Method

Straightforward and exactly what it sounds like, the outline method uses bullet points, roman numerals, numbers - whatever the note taker fancies - to identify a main topic, sub-topics, and supporting facts. 

Pros: Outline notes make it easy to locate key information and offer built-in organization of facts. 

Cons: It can be tricky to avoid over-saturating outlines with information. An information overload can make the outline format tedious. 

4. The Flow Chart Method

The flow chart note taking method identifies cause and effect, sequencing, and other useful ways of processing information. This system lends itself particularly well to taking notes on historical events, scientific processes, character development in a novel, and other topics that benefit from putting events and ideas in order.

Pros: This method encourages metacognition (thinking about thinking) while note taking, which increases engagement with the material and promotes long-term retention.

Cons: Flow chart notes won’t make sense for every topic, and this method requires a higher level of understanding while receiving new information. 

How to take good notes in class

How do you take good notes and avoid the pitfalls of each method? Here are some pro tips to make sure note taking skills are up to scratch and yield the results you’re looking for. 

1. Pick a system and stick with it

While some research suggests that handwritten notes are more effective than typed notes, these studies are still too new to be conclusive. The best ed tech tools enhance learning, but they can only work their magic if used consistently. 

So, once you’ve found a system that works, whether that’s using Google Docs, a notebook, or some other tool, you can increase your odds of success by sticking with it for at least a few weeks. 

2. Develop a shorthand

When used correctly, shorthand can be a great note taking hack. Especially when using Cornell notes or a detailed outline, abbreviations can be a life (and time) saver. Just make sure to not overdo it; future you will want to be able to understand what past you wrote! 

3. More is (generally) more

According to one study, “Note taking is a complex activity that requires comprehension and selection of information and written production processes.” 

Translation? The more detailed the information selection, the higher the level of engagement that will develop into comprehension in the long term. Notice I said “more information selection,” not “more notes.” When it comes to note taking, more is only more when students take the time to narrow down chunks of information into the most important components. 

4. Combine note taking with other study strategies

That’s right, taking notes isn’t enough—no matter how high quality they are. Combine rereading notes with practice questions, activities pulled from an educational YouTube channel, making flashcards, and/or other study strategies to complete the process. 

(If you’re getting ready for an exam or quiz in math class, check out this guide on how to study for a math test for more pro tips!)

5. Review often, and ask for help if needed

You know that feeling when you’ve reread the same sentence 10 times and still have no clue what you wrote down? Yeah, that’s a sign you might need to follow up with your instructor or a trusted peer for clarity. 

Of course, the best time to do that isn’t the evening before a major deadline or exam. Give yourself plenty of time to get the answers you need, and consult this handy guide on how to ask your teacher for help if you could use a few suggestions. 

6. Incorporate visuals and other representations of information

Note taking is a proven method to master material and remember key concepts. That said, it’s not the be all and end all of learning! 

Embrace diagrams, timelines, images, charts, and other ways to represent information; research shows that visuals enhance understanding. You’ll engage different centers of your brain and learning styles, and by approaching the same information in a variety of ways, you’ll understand (and enjoy!) it better. 

Head back to school better than ever! 

As we dive back into the world of in-person learning, we all could use some additional support. 

To kick off the 2021-2022 school year on the right foot, we’ve got resources to help! Check out this back to school checklist, ultimate guide to online tutoring services, brand new Online Private Lesson topics, and back-to-school tips to make this year one for the books! 

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains.