Better Note Taking Skills

In high school, I thought the purpose of taking notes was to get lecture information down so I could pass that test.

Seems logical… but I was wrong.

I wrote down pretty much everything I was fast enough to down.

Later, when studying for the test, I read back over those notes and hoped I hadn’t missed anything.

Surprisingly, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s just not the way to take notes.

There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to take notes! In my college years, I discovered techniques that saved me countless hours and dramatically improved my understanding and recall.

Even after college I continued to improve the skills I learned and began to teach my methods to my students. I have spent years and hundreds of hours researching and developing a superior way to take notes.

It’s like a brain upgrade. 

I’ve shared these methods with hundreds of people–middle school kids, housewives, business owners, post doctoral students–with powerful results. 

These simple note-taking skills will save you hours of academic life every week! And it’s not just for the hallowed halls of academia. These skills translate to any realm where you need to capture, process, and understand new information.

Note Taking; What’s the Point?

Most people think, as I did, that taking notes is for capturing information.

While that’s true, it’s only a small part of what good note taking should do.

This is an example of a normal set of notes.

It’s not hopeless. This note taker did some things right.

In this set of notes, for example, the note taker did not write down everything. That’s good. They also used some headings and they added some structure to the notes with things like bullet points.

But here’s where it gets fun! These notes could be drastically improved while actually writing less.

If your notes looking something like the example above, don’t sweat it. I can show you easy ways to make these much more effective.

The , most effective notes not only capture the information, they…

  • Weed out the non-essential information
  • Allow you to capture information quickly and efficiently
  • Help you process and understand content
  • Bring out connections and relationships in the material
  • Increase recall and help with your studying
  • Boost interest and during boring lectures/readings

If your notes aren’t doing all of those things, fasten your mental seatbelt and hang on. I’m about to give you a brain upgrade.

Cornell Note Taking and Visual Note Taking

I used to teach a class called AVID. It’s a powerful program that provides college prep skills to kids from 6th grade through 12th.

AVID teaches, among other things, better note-taking skills using the Cornell note taking method.

It’s a great method, but it still falls short.

Let’s look at some of the key takeaways from Cornell Note Taking, and then I’ll show you how to go way, way beyond .

Cornell University has taught their Cornell Note Taking method to students since the early 1950s. They–along with many other institutions–continue teaching this style of note taking because it helps.

Cornell notes are concerned not only with capturing information, but with processing the information as well. That’s powerful. That’s a real game-changer!

Notice two key things; the left-side column and the summary section at the bottom.

That left column is where you put your main ideas and key . These later function as the “front of the flash cards” for study purposes.

The summary at the bottom is one of the things my AVID students fought.

They did NOT want to do it. But it really pays off. It forces your brain to assimilate the information and put it all together.

When I asked my AVID students what part of AVID they most disliked, it was having to take Cornell notes and especially having the write the summaries.

When I asked students what AVID practices they would continue even if they were no longer in AVID, it was… Drum roll, please…

The Cornell Notes and summaries.

Even though it’s hard, students really saw the benefits.

Useful. Powerful. But my StudyProf Note Taking is even better!

More about that in a minute, but there is a little more to be gleaned from a different note taking method; visual note taking.

Visual note taking has received a lot of attention because of its effectiveness. It involves using simple pictures and colors to capture and process information.

This form of note taking can also teach you some useful improvements, but it still falls short.

Since most of us tend to remember pictures better than words, these notes improve recall. Plus, summing up concepts with pictures requires you to process the information.

That increases comprehension.

Both Cornell note taking and visual note taking encourage what psychologists call ‘elaboration.’ Elaboration is working with the information (ie., illustrating the concept or writing a summary paragraph). 

The powerful thing about elaboration is that it increases recall. In fact, elaboration is much better at increasing recall than rehearsal is! 

But again, even though Cornell note taking and visual note taking are good, my StudyProf notes beat them!

Remember that brain upgrade I promised? Here it is…

StudyProf Note Taking

StudyProf Note Taking capitalizes on the best parts of Cornell note taking and visual note taking. It’s practical and doable in the classroom, boardroom, or living room.

I promise you, you can do this!

It’s a much more fast and efficient way of taking notes, even when the lecturer is motoring through the material like a rabbit on Red Bull.

StudyProf Note Taking also increases recall, comprehension, and makes your notes easier to study. It makes your notes sticky! You’ll have a hard time forgetting your notes.

Best of all, you don’t have to learn this method all at once. Take it in baby steps. Each tiny step improves your note taking speed and power.

I’m about to give you the ten skills you’ll need for taking StudyProf Notes, but don’t try to tackle this all at once. Remember, it took me years to develop this method and months of practical application.

I’ve refined it so you can easily master this method in a few days, but It’s okay to take your time.

One easy way to do that is to implement the skills one or two at a time. Begin adding those methods to your current style of note taking until the skills feel normal and natural.

Then add another skill or two. Work up to using all ten skills.

Trust me. You’ll have more success if you do it bit by bit.

An alternative way to do this, for those who prefer a more holistic approach; read over all ten StudyProf Note Taking skills. Begin implementing a few of the ideas that stick out to you.

A few days from now, reread these ten items and work on integrating a few more. Repeat.

Regardless of which way you choose, your notes will be getting better and better. You’ll be understanding and remembering more and more. Your grades will begin to rise!

Ten Skills for StudyProf Note Taking

1) Leave Space as You Take Notes

Paper is cheap. Do not use every square inch of your paper.

By the way, you are using paper to take your notes, aren’t you? Digital paper is fine, but don’t type your notes unless you just have no choice. Trust me! There is good research out there: you remember more when you handwrite versus typing.

Space those notes out. Space between the lines. Space between key points. Space in the margins.

Why?

You will come back later and fill in that space with your own additions and expansions. That space is where you will process the notes.

Space is good!

Leave a nice wide margin down the left-hand side of the page maybe a quarter to a third the width of the page. This is where you will write down key headings and words, just like in the Cornell Note Taking method. More on that later.

Also leave lines between each set of sub-points. This is room to illustrate, make connections, clarify, and add your own questions.

This is the way most of us us take notes…

That way doesn’t have enough space.

Make it more spaced out and leave a wide margin down the left side, like this…

More space is a great first step, but we can do better! Read on to find out how we can use all that space to increase recall and comprehension.

2) Leave Things Out of Your Notes

Don’t write down every word, or even every letter, when taking notes.

Less is more!

This is one of the key things note-takers have trouble with. People are always complaining, “I tend to write down everything in my notes.”

First of all, that’s not really true. No one writes down everything.

When was the last time you wrote down the greeting, “Good morning. Good to see you all this morning. Are you doing okay today? Were there any questions from last time?”

Most lectures/talks start out that way, but you know not to write that down. You also know that when your significant other says, “It’s not you. It’s me.” they really mean, “It’s you.”

See? You’re good at extracting key points!

It can feel a little scary to not write everything down, but consider, you aren’t actually going to memorize every word of your notes. Writing down every word now just means you are postponing the inevitable.

Also, you left all that extra space. If you end up leaving out something important, you’ll have space to go back and add it in later.

You will have to weed out the golden-knowledge nuggets from the rest of it at some point. Do it during the talk and you won’t even have to write it down to begin with.

That saves you TIME, and you know that TIME = $$$, so you are actually making money by weeding out the non-essential bits now.

Here’s how you know what is not important to get down…

During the lecture/talk/lesson, be asking yourself some key questions…

  • Is this info important?
  • Will I be expected to know this later?
  • Do I already know this?

I’m always amazed at how many note-takers write stuff down just because the speaker wrote it on the screen.

The lecturer writes, “911 Attack – Sept. 11, 2001” and you write that down, even though you’ve known that since you were eight. If you already know it, don’t write it down.

Or, worse…

The lecturer says, “This isn’t on the test, but…” and launches into a 30-minute diatribe on how vastly superior burning ketones is to burning glucose.

And everyone writes it down. If it’s not on the test, don’t write it down.

You’ll find that in many talks you’ll only need to take notes on less than half the material, either because you already know the information, or because it’s somehow irrelevant.

In a business setting, be thinking, “Will I need to know this little bit of information later? Is it worth writing down?” If you know they’re going to give you a summary chart to refer to later that contains that info, don’t worry about copying it down now.

Pro-Tip: Make friends with other savvy note takers in your group, just in case you miss something that turned out to be important.

You should also skip non-essential words. Words such as ‘the’ and ‘of’ and ‘include’ are often implied without you having to write them in your notes. For example, instead of writing…

The bones of the human cranium include the vomer, sphenoid, zygomatic, occipital, parietal

Write…

cranium bones > 1) vomer 2) sphenoid 3) zygomatic 4) occipital 5) parietal

That one little modification reduced the number of characters I just wrote from 90 to 74. That’s an 18% decrease in how much I wrote–without losing any meaning.

In fact, I added in the numbers (more on that later), which increased my recall and processing.

Imagine taking that same 18% decrease and applying it to 100 pages of notes you might take in the next week or so. You would write 18 pages less!

We can do even better than that.

Skip non-essential letters (usually vowels) and abbreviate as much as possible. It’s AMAZING how much time this will save you.

Don’t skip non-essential letters on new vocabulary, proper nouns, and the like, but use it anywhere else you can. You will have to be thinking carefully as you take your notes to make sure you don’t leave out so much the notes become unintelligible, but that very process increases your recall, engagement, and focus.

For example, change that last paragraph into this…

Dn’t do it w/ nw voc, prpr nouns, etc, bt anywhr els U cn.

Thnk crflly as U tke Nts 2B sre U dn’t lv out 2 mch

Ncrses 1) rcll 2) enggmnt 3) fcs

That is 55% shorter!

What could you do with 55% more time? You might actually be able to actually listen to the talk instead of scribbling feverishly and massaging out your hand cramps.

I know that last example looks like complete gibberish. But consider, if you are the one making the decisions about how to shorten each word, you understand it and remember the notes much better.

Also, this process is designed to help you capture the info as quickly as possible during the talk. It’s your own personal form of shorthand. It is not the end product!

Using Skill 1: “Leave Space” and Skill 2: “Leave Things Out”, plus a few more skills I’ll get to below, here’s what my raw class notes on the American revolution might look like as I’m taking them during class…

As soon as the speaker slows down or as soon as the class/meeting is over, go back over the notes. Read through and expand anything that is hard to understand. For example, change…

Ncrses 1) rcll 2) enggmnt 3) fcs

back into

Increases 1) recall 2) engagement 3) focus

StudyProf notes are not a one-and-done process. While they are much faster at capturing info during the talk, the study part occurs later and will still take time; but it will take less time than ever because StudyProf notes increase recall and understanding.

You will keep going over the notes during and after the class or meeting to clarify, summarize, and process. All of this increases your recall and comprehension.

Another key point; you don’t have to completely convert to this shorthand in one day. Build up your ability over weeks. Leave out a vwl or 2 here and there and slowly increase how much you abbreviate.

3) Add Emphasis To Your Notes

Use bold, underscore, all caps, colors, etc. to draw emphasis to main ideas and topic headings. Just take a look at a well-formatted blog post or text book chapter to see this in action.

In this article, notice where I’ve used different sizes of lettering, italics, bolding, numbering, color, and s p a c i n g, to help you notice key points.

There’s no reason you can’t do the same in your notes.

Concentrate on capturing the information as it comes up during the lecture or presentation. Go back and add emphases during down time, either during the meeting when your boss is telling stories about their cat’s latest endearing antics or as soon as you can after the meeting/class.

The goal of the different underlinings and boldings is not only to draw attention to key points, but also to increase visual interest. That makes it more memorable.

Coloring your notes meaningfully can also increase interest, recall, and comprehension.

The key word is meaningfully. While there is a definite value to making your notes beautiful for beauty’s sake, it’s not why your taking notes.

Save the beautification for your free time (you’ll have a lot more of it once you begin taking StudyProf Notes!).

This is what my notes looked like as I walked out of class…

The next skills might be applied during or after the meeting/class. It depends on what you have time for.

During the talk, the priority is getting the information down. Once you have it down, you can apply the other skills.

4) Add Structure to Your Note Taking

I already did this in the sample notes on the American Revolution above. I added numbers to lists, spaced out key points, and indented.

It helps!

Number lists, use bullet points, indent, encircle, and draw separators, as you take your notes. You do this to add structure to your notes and make that structure more apparent.

Numbering items in a list really aids recall. For example, instead of writing…

The Earth’s crust is mainly composed of Oxygen, Silicon, Aluminum, and Iron

Write…

Earth’s Crust mainly…

1) O

2) Si

3) Al

4) Fe

On the test, you might easily recall oxygen, silicon, and iron. Numbering this list in your notes might help you remember, “Wait, there were four items.” and you’ll keep thinking about it until “aluminum” comes back to you.

Don’t worry about doing this perfectly.

You will be going back over your notes later and you can fix anything that needs fixing. Think of the notes as a working document or even a rough draft.

5) Connect Ideas in Your Notes

Use lines and arrows to draw connections between ideas and concepts. Make your lines/arrows thick, thin, different colors, dotted, dashed, squiggly, bold, etc.

Add meaning with these variations. For example, a thick line might indicate a strong connection, while a dashed line might be a weaker connection.

Lines and arrows not only add structure, they can help you notice links that you might have missed otherwise. They can also save you time! Rather than rewriting something, just draw an arrow pointing to it in your notes.

You might draw in some of these connections as you take the notes. Others you will add in during down time in the lecture or talk. Many of them won’t be added in until later.

6) Illustrate Your Notes

Add symbols and pictures, not just to illustrate the concepts, but to symbolize ideas, promote recall, speed up capture, and increase your focus.

Draw (and label) diagrams and charts. Put in maps, not just for physical things, but for concepts.

Do you remember those rebus puzzles you saw as a kid? Use the same concept in your notes, for example, using a simple cartoon drawing of an eye for the word “I” or a drawing of a can of soup for “Can”.

Illustrate words with pictures even when you don’t have to. It increases recall!

Don’t worry if you don’t draw well. Label everything. Use stick figures. We’re not going for great art; just capturing ideas and making them more memorable. Think “Pictionary.”

Any of these drawings could be a flamingo, or a turkey, or a chicken by changing how you label it.

Warning; don’t get side-tracked into making your notes a work of art. It’s easy to get sucked into the time-wasting land of making your notes beautiful because it’s more fun than actually studying.

Don’t do it! After all, you’ll probably never look at these notes again after you’ve fully learned the information.

7) Use Symbols in Your Notes

Use lots of symbols and make up new ones.

Instead of…

Napoleon and Wellington were the commanders of the French and English forces at the Battle of Waterloo

You can write…

Napoleon (Fr) & Wellington (Eng) > cmmndrs @ Waterloo.

If you know certain key words will keep turning up in a given lecture, write an abbreviation key in the margin. In this example you might have a key in the margin that says something like…

N=Napoleon, Wl=Wellington, Wt=Waterloo

That would change our previous note to…

N (Fr) & Wl (Eng) > cmmndrs @ Wt

If you look back at my notes on the American Revolution, you can see that I added little bubbles near the words “American”, “Great Britain”, and “Colonies”, indicating how I would abbreviate those words.

And notice that I’m not bothering to put a period after every abbreviation. I usually don’t dot i’s or cross t’s if I’m in a real hurry.

You might think that such extreme abbreviating would impede your understanding of your notes. Actually, it can if you don’t review them within a few hours of taking the notes.

You must always go back and review while the presentation is still fresh in your mind. If any of the notes are nebulous, you can clarify them during that initial review.

Come up with standard abbreviations and symbols for common words…

and – &

the – T

at – @

although – but

also – +

is the same as – =

becomes – ?

rising, higher, bigger, increase, etc. – ?

falling, lower, less, decrease, etc. – ?

to – 2

be – b

before = b4

Only use these symbols and shortcuts when you are struggling to quickly get key points down.  Then when the lecturer slows down you can go back and expand the symbols and abbreviations to add clarity.

Also, integrate these symbols into your note taking slowly. Take your time getting used to them.

Try to use more and more of them every time you take notes, and you’ll soon get really fast!

8) Summarize Your Notes

It’s hard, but it pays off big! Remember “elaboration” that I mentioned earlier? It means you work with the information, and it vastly strengthens your recall.

Summarizing is a great form of elaboration. You will not only remember the information better when you write a summary, you will also make connections and increase your comprehension.

For each page of notes, aim for a three to five sentence summary. Don’t worry if your summary isn’t perfect. It’s the act of summarizing, not the summary, that really pays big benefits.

A good summary will answer the key questions that might be asked of you later. For the previous page of notes on the American Revolution, my summary might read…

The American Revolution (War of Independence) from 1775 to 1783 has its roots in the 13 American Colony’s desire to be free from Great Britain’s taxation policies and the Colonist’s lack of say in the matter. Great Britain, in an attempt to help finance the French and Indian War and the Seven Years War sought to raise money by taxing the colonists with the Stamp Act and the Townshend Act. The Colonists opposition to these acts resulted in the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.

Summarizing will often also point out where you don’t really understand. You may have to ask clarifying questions from a prof, teaching assistant, or coworker, or get help from an outside to make sure you understand.

Aren’t you glad you figured out where you needed more understanding before the test?

9) Interact as You Take Notes

Add in your own questions and thoughts as you go through the notes. I usually add in my own comments, thoughts, and questions using [brackets] to set them off. That way I don’t think it was something the speaker said.

For example…

[Did she really mean “perjury” rather than “injury”?]

[So how does that relate to diatoms?]

[Reminds me of Krebs cycle]

[Note the addition of 1 Fe atom here]

[Remember to divide by factorial]

Bonus: If you are actively asking questions as you take notes, when the speaker says, “any questions?” you can be Johnny-on-the-spot with some good questions. That’s good for some brownie points for sure!

Here’s what the notes look like in their relatively complete form, although I will continue to rework them as I review.

Slide the arrows for the before and after!

10) Review and Rework Your Notes

As you review the notes over the next few days and weeks, keep beefing up the notes using the skills above. Add more emphases, colors, pictures, connections, interactions, etc.

Also, use that wide margin on the left to put your study prompts. Think of these as the front of a flash card.

Now you can take another piece of paper and cover up the main body of the notes. The items in the margin become your prompt so you can quiz yourself on the information!

Conclusion

StudyProf Notes have several clear advantages over other note taking systems like Cornell notes and visual note taking while using all their strengths.

  • Fast and efficient for capturing notes during lectures, presentations, videos, and readings
  • Increase recall by promoting elaboration, connection, and processing
  • Aid focus by increasing interest and interaction during the note taking process
  • Maximize comprehension and help uncover gaps in understanding and connections
  • Turn notes into study-ready material. No need to create flashcards later!
  • Save you time during the lecture and decrease study time afterwards

Remember, add these skills into your current note taking process a little at a time. Each little step will improve your note taking skills and begin giving you all the benefits I mentioned.

The Ten Skills of StudyProf Note Taking in Brief

  1. Leave Space as You Take Notes
  2. Leave Things Out of Your Notes
  3. Add Emphasis to Your Notes
  4. Add Structure to Your Note Taking
  5. Connect Ideas in Your Notes
  6. Illustrate Your Notes
  7. Use Symbols in Your Notes
  8. Summarize Your Notes
  9. Interact as You Take Notes
  10. Review and Rework Your Notes

Start applying these easy-to-master skills a little bit at a time. You’ll start seeing huge benefits!

Questions? Let me know in the comments. Also, did I leave anything out that helps you with note taking? Tell me about it in the comments.

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.
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