Note Taking Styles and Strategies

Taking notes is a vital skill in acquiring and retaining knowledge. Unfortunately, note-taking skills are not always explicitly taught in schools, or, when they are, they are often taught in a one-size-fits-all manner. A teacher or tutor can have an immediate positive impact by matching a student to a note-taking style that blends their learning style and organizational preference. Here are some potential note-taking styles and strategies you can offer to your students. By presenting multiple options, you allow your students to choose an organizational method that works best for their needs. 

Traditional Outline

When most people think of taking notes, outlining is one of the first methods that comes to mind.  Outline styles can vary, but in most cases, outlines are combinations of titles, headings, subheadings, and supporting details nested together through aligned levels of specific characters and indentation. Most word processing programs support outline creation natively and allow the user to make clean, organized notes easily. Outlines are also simple to produce by hand and result in information that can be easily read and referenced later.

Outlining is a solid note-taking format for individuals who are good at organizing ideas and information hierarchically, however the rules and formatting can be a bit daunting to keep straight for novice note-takers. Furthermore, there is a high level of on-the-spot decision making when it comes to differentiating between the most vital and the more detail-oriented information which can be challenging when engaging with new information for the first time. If teaching outlining to a student, it may be most beneficial to try it out as a way to summarize a text or concept rather than a real-time exercise like a lecture.

The Mapping Method

For visual learners, creating notes that are more free-form and geometric may be a more logical way to organize information. Mapping (or mind-mapping as it is sometimes known) is a flexible, imaginative way to condense and classify information.  The added degree of creativity in the mapping process allows the note-taker the freedom to infuse notes with diagrams and varying types of text. Ultimately, the absence of a prescribed, rigid format can prove to be a more freeing and less stressful note-taking experience than more formal note taking styles.

While mapping is easy to do on paper or a whiteboard, traditional word processing programs do not tend to work well with the free-form structure.  Tablet based apps like Notability, however, can make the process work quite naturally.

Online services like Prezi and MindMeister have taken the mapping technique a step further by creating a platform whereby users can organize information spatially in cloud-based, digital environments. Prezi adds a laver of panache by allowing users to attach various forms of multimedia and tie the whole product together into a striking, animated experience.

Cornell Notes

The Cornell Note Taking Method is an additive note-taking practice that focuses on revisiting notes to help organize knowledge and make learning “stick.” By following some simple steps, note-takers create deliberate space in the margins of their notes for summarization, questions, and connections. After completing a set of notes, the learner revisits the material to complete these components and, at the same time, reinforces their understanding of the concepts within the notes themselves.

Cornell Notes are a great addition to any note-taking style, including those mentioned above. All note-takers can benefit from the purposeful revisiting of annotated content (after all, why create notes if you aren’t going to go back and use them?).  When teaching note-taking, consider adding a process like Cornell Notes to help demonstrate what can be done with notes after they have been taken.

What are your preferred methods of note-taking? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Sheldon Soper is a ten year veteran of the teaching profession and currently serves as a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey and as a writer for The Knowledge Roundtable, a free tutoring marketplace. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He holds two degrees from Rutgers University: a B.A. in History as well as a M.Ed. in Elementary Education. He holds teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. 

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