William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

Effective note-taking is one of the most important skills to master as a (new) university or college student – or at any stage of your academic career! So you need a good note-taking strategy.

Why bother nailing down a proven, effective note-taking method?

Taking notes during classes and lectures is pretty popular, so you might feel like you’ve got it down already. But a disorganised jumble of scribbles isn’t going to help you approach your exams with confidence …

What’s more, there are LOADS of benefits of taking notes more efficiently. These benefits will improve your college experience and help you to boost your final grades:

  • Taking effective notes can help you to digest large amounts of material with greater ease
  • You’ll learn to prioritise important information and listen actively (no scribbling down everything said!)
  • Your lectures will be far less stressful if you’re confident about retaining what you’re learning
  • Organised note-taking will keep you alert, active and engaged in lectures, avoiding drowsiness!
  • Picking a method that’s ideal for your subject will maximise the usefulness of your notes
  • Structured note-taking can enhance your understanding of the materials
  • Well-structured notes can be a vital study tool when it comes to revision time – a big confidence booster!
  • Taking (hand-written) notes boosts your memory as you process the information given

So read on, and let’s explore the top tried-and-tested note-taking strategies suitable for a wide range of subjects:

 Ready? Let’s find the perfect method for you.

Look out for one that caters to your strengths as a learner, your tools and your time – and is best suited to the type of material you’re learning!

1.      The “Outline Method”

The Outline Method is a well-established note-taking strategy that’s ideal for learners needing to digest large amounts of information after lectures.

It promises to keep your notes organized and well-structured and should allow you to make connections between ideas pretty easily.

If you’re wondering how this method works, it’s rather simple (hooray!):

  1. To create your outline, choose four of five areas (main topics) that you expect to be covered in your lecture
  2. Add those points as headers down the left-hand side (or margin) of your notepaper
    • Leave enough space between them for your notes! You might choose to have a page per heading.
  3. During your class or lecture, write bullet points below each sub-heading as it’s covered by your professor

Here’s how to organise and categorise all your points:

  • Each point should have a new line
  • Keep the most important details flush to the left – these are your key points for each main topic
  • Use indentation to categorise your notes: indent your points down the page as they increase in detail or become less central to the topic
    • These are your subtopics
      • These are your key points
        • And these are your thoughts, supporting evidence, facts and data etc

You’ll find your notes end up looking a little like this:

What does the Outline note-taking strategy work well for?

What I love about this method is the fact that it allows you to see the key points of a lecture, summarized clearly

When you come to review your notes, this will be an absolute godsend. It will hugely reduce your review time and give you a clear and structured set of notes to revise from.

The Outline Method is a note-taking strategy that works best for subjects and topics that are full of facts, dates, definitions, ideas and concepts. Think humanities – history, literature, politics etc! It’s not ideal for sciences and mathematics which rely on formulae and graphs.

2.      The “Boxing Method”

The name might fool you, but this note-taking method won’t take you through twelve rounds in the ring.

However, it does help you to group relevant notes on your page.

The Boxing Method is a little more time-intensive as a note-taking strategy because it requires you to review your notes after class. This is when you rearrange your notes on the page until they’re comfortably “boxed” by idea or topic (hence the name!).

Here are the key ideas:

  • Each box should relate to one idea and be fairly small and compact
  • The boxes don’t need to be equal in size – draw them around each single idea
  • Adding arrows between boxes can help distinguish the flow of ideas of events
  • You can add boxes within boxes to distinguish between main topics and subtopics
  • If your notes are interrelated, you can group boxes as you choose

Your notes should end up looking a little like this:

note taking strategies for students

The Boxing Method is a popular note-taking strategy for college students because it turns out aesthetically pleasing notes. What’s more, your information will be easier to process and memorize when compartmentalised into bite-sized visually distinct chunks.

When you come to revise, having your notes ready-formed into boxes can be a great help when allocating review time, and focusing on areas you’re less confident about.

What does the Boxing note-taking strategy work well for?

This is an excellent note-taking strategy for iPad or tablet enthusiasts who can easily shift text around within their digital notes. It’s great for making sense of a disorganised jumble of notes.

It’s much less suited for those students who prefer hand-written notes – all that rearranging will be tough and time-consuming!

The Boxing method also isn’t suitable for every subject. It doesn’t work well for broad topics that can’t easily be grouped. However, if your subject relates to smaller or standalone topics, or easy-to-split ideas, this can be a great way to separate your information into digestible, bite-sized chunks!


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    3.      The “Charting Method”

    The Charting Method is a note-taking strategy that (you guessed it!), uses charts to organize and break down notes into columns and rows.

    To use this method effective, you need to prepare before your class or lecture. It can be a little time-consuming to use and does require some basic information about the topic and what you expect your lecturer to cover.

    To use the Charting Method for your note-taking, you need to:

    1. Divide your page into a grid of columns and rows.
    2. Add headers to each column – these are usually common keywords that relate to the topic
      • Common headings include advantages, disadvantages, opinions, sources, dates/locations, description, application etc
      • Think of headings that will be appropriate across the topics to be discussed in your class
    3. Each row of your grid will address a new topic – label these beforehand or as they are covered

    During your class or lecture, you can then “fill in the blanks” as each topic is covered. Alternatively, if you’re not confident in your chart headers up-front, organise your notes into the chart after your lecture. You’ll still be perfectly prepared for revising.

    Your notes will end up looking something like this:

    note taking for college students

    What does the Charting note-taking strategy work well for?

    This strategy works wonderfully for taking notes about subjects with comparable topics. You can easily make connections between ideas by comparing your columns.

    In fact, it’s a dream for processing large quantities of information, facts and figures that need to be learnt by heart – think history, geography, medicine, and other fact-heavy subjects! You’ll feel confident come exam season and using this method may even save you time when revising. Especially if you’re a fan of flashcardssimply shift the info over!

    However, the Charting Method isn’t suitable for everything:

    • It doesn’t work for science and mathematics subjects that deal with a lot of formulae and graphs
    • I also wouldn’t recommend this strategy for wildly unfamiliar topics (at least until post-lecture) as you need to categorise your columns effectively
    • And finally, it can be difficult if your topic involves discussion or brainstorming – there’s no room to go off-piste!

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      4.      The “Mapping Method”

      If your lecture is covering a complex topic with lots of content, you may want to turn to the Mapping Method for help.

      This method allows you to easily link topics by connecting them with “branches”. It can also prevent you from getting overwhelmed by facts and figures by clearly separating out subtopics.

      Happily, if you use this note-taking strategy, there’s little to prepare before your class or lecture. It’s pretty simple to use:

      1. Create a header for each new main topic (probably on a separate page)
        • You can write your header where you want on the page – right in the middle or halfway down to the left works well – just leave enough space for all your notes!
      2. During your class, divide your page into subtopics as they are covered
        • Each subtopic should branch off the main header
        • Branch out from your subtopics with for each new point, idea, evidence or fact (etc)
        • You can add arrows to show connections between ideas or topics or distinguish the flow of events
      3. As you get more information on a topic, it’s easy to add branches (and twigs).
        • This makes it easier to pad your notes as you get closer to exam time!

      There’s no one right way that completed Mapping Method notes will end up looking. You can be as free with your note-taking as you like with this method, as it’s all about making connections and having your page make sense to you!

      For example, some students keep their maps more ordered from left (main topic) to right (detailed points). This can be great way to save space on the page. Others produce a more traditional “spider” map look, with points branching out from a central hub.

      Your notes may end up looking something like this:

      What does the Mapping note-taking strategy work well for?

      This note-taking strategy works best for students on content-heavy courses, as it allows them to break down complex and interrelated information into sections that are easy to revisit. Plus, it’s great for having space to go a little off-piste with tangents and discussions.

      Although it’s possible to use the mapping method as a science or maths major, this strategy is usually better suited to essay-based subjects.

      So, if you’re studying a historical period for example, you can branch-off into smaller sub-concepts, add tiny facts, and any dates that you may have missed earlier on – perfect!              

      5.      The Cornell Method

      Students who need to regularly review their notes will appreciate everything that the Cornell Method has to offer.

      Originally devised by Professor Walter Pauk of Cornell University in the 1950s (hence the name!), this method works by dividing your page into several different sections.

      You can technically use as many as 4 columns for this strategy, but the traditional method splits the page into a left side for “cues” (keywords), a right side for notes, and a bottom section for summarizing.

      • The left side of the page is used for keywords, phrases or subtopics that act as headers and prompts for dividing your notes
        • You may choose to fill in these keywords in advance of or after your class – just leave enough space between each one!
      • The right side of the page is then filled with more detailed notes that relate to the headers on the left as your lecture progresses
        • These notes will pad out the key phrases on the left – great for recalling larger ideas and concepts when heading into exam season!
      • The bottom section is the most important part of the Cornell Method of note-taking. It requires you to summarise the main points from your lecture directly afterwards
        • In my opinion, the best way to approach the mysterious bottom box is to scribble the TLDR (or too-long-didn’t-read!) version of the entire lecture in the time after your class wraps up
        • Write your summary in the first free moment you have, so everything is still fresh in your mind
        • Make your summary as simple as possible to give you an easy overview when you come back to review the topic

      Your page of notes should look something like this:

      best note taking strategies for college

      What does the Cornell note-taking strategy work well for?

      This note-taking strategy is appropriate for most subjects but works best for easily digestible topics that rely on wider concepts instead of reams of facts. It can also work great for science and mathematics.

      I say this because you may struggle to get an adequate summary at the bottom, or an appropriate “cue” or “prompt” section sorted if you’re dealing with too much information.

      The Cornell Method will help you to organize your notes systematically, summarize information efficiently, easily pinpoint main ideas, and cut down review time. So, there’s much to love if you’re willing to put in a few minutes to summarize.

      Plus, studies have proven it’s a great note-taking strategy for learning languages (Alzu’bi, 2019, Nuraeni, 2019 and Ahmad, 2019) and increasing students’ performance (Quintus, et al. 2012) .

      Learn more about the Cornell Method with our helpful article, full of tips, benefits and resources!

      6.      The “Q & A Ultranotes Method”

      I just had to save the best for last.

      If you want your notes to stick as you’re taking them, then the Q & A Ultranotes approach is an incredible strategy to try out (if I do say so myself!).

      Why?

      Well, whilst the other note-taking strategies may work well for reviewing, this one transforms your notes into an highly effective study method as you’re writing.

      If you haven’t checked out our article on how to study effectively, then you may not be familiar with Q & A Ultranotes. So, here’s the lowdown:

      This method essentially splits information into question & answer pairs that allow you to easily test yourself by covering the answers column and using active recall!

      This is a very similar note-taking strategy to the Cornell Method above, but with a few crucial differences. It shares the two core columns (left side: questions and cues, right side: details). However, this strategy is far simpler. It does away with some of the complexity and produces more user-friendly notes by focusing on that key question-answer mechanic.

      To make this note-taking strategy work, all you need to do is:

      1. Split your page into two sections:
        • A left-hand column for cues and questions – keep this simple!
        • A right-hand columns for answers and notes
      2. As your class or lecture progresses, write down appropriate questions and answers for your topic on either side of the page.
      3. Start a new question for each idea covered – you may need a few per subtopic
      4. For the most effective Q & A Ultranotes, stick to simple direct questions and brief answers
        • This will give you maximum clarity when you come to revise

      Your notes will end up looking something like this:

      best note taking strategies

      You may find it tricky to distil appropriate questions until you get used to using this method. So, to begin with, it may be more effective to organise your jumble of notes after your lecture. Make sure to do this immediately afterwards, whilst the information is still fresh!

      What does the Q & A Ultranotes note-taking strategy work well for?

      You can use this strategy for virtually any topic, but it works incredibly well with fact-based subjects like history and geography. However, you can easily make this work for scientific formulas, English Literature quotes, and anything else you set your mind to!

      This note-taking strategy works wonders when it comes to exam time as you’re actively engaging with your material in-depth and are regularly working on your retrieval skills. It’s also great for students who need to review their notes regularly.

      Quick tip: Retrieval practice is one of my favourite study methods for information retention and boosting your memory. You can learn all about how to do it, and why it’s so important in our retrieval practice 101 article!

      To Round Things Up

      I hope that this guide to the top, most effective note-taking strategies has made your next lecture feel slightly less intimidating!

      The most important thing to remember with note-taking is to engage with a method that clicks with you.

      Over time, it’ll all start feeling like second nature!

      If you’re looking for some more helpful techniques to help make studying and exam preparation a breeze, check out our highly popular articles on effective study methods and exam preparation strategies.

      You can also sign up below to receive LOADS of free, science-backed tips, tricks and advice to streamline your studying in other ways! Come on and join us!

      Good luck!


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