Note taking

Strategies and techniques to develop your note-taking skills


Note taking at university

Whatever it is that you are studying, it is your job to filter and manage a vast wealth of information to arrive at your own understanding of any problem with which you are presented.

Choosing when and how to take notes is one crucial part of this work of filtering. Taking clear and manageable notes is a good way to save yourself time and effort in the longer term.

Active note taking will also help you to understand, recall and represent ideas, concepts and information in a range of different ways, which can help with the recall and synthesis of material.

Different people find different note-taking strategies suit them best, so experiment and develop a systematic approach that works for you. The following are some techniques that you may wish to try out:

Cornell method

Divide your page into three with a margin and a bottom bar. During the lecture, take notes in the right-hand (further notes) column, using your usual techniques.

After the lecture or seminar, pick out keywords based on the notes in the right-hand column. Write these in the left-hand (cue) column. Writing these keywords helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships and summarise information.

After class, cover the note taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the keywords in the left-hand column only, use the space at the bottom of the page to summarise the most important information.

Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions. For example: Does my summary match the notes in the right-hand column? Does the information make sense? Are there any gaps in my understanding? Do I need to do any further reading?

301 Recommends: The Cornell Method

Click on the following example to explore how to use the Cornell Method (PDF, 420KB) in your note taking.

Note taking techniques

The following are some common strategies to help you get the most out of the notes you take during your lectures and reading.

Smart wisdom

  • Listen for keywords and place them in a chain. Drop unimportant words, eg "Is it suitable for my way of thinking and my day-to-day job?"

  • Then put the words in a chain – use joins to replace the dropped words, eg suitable-way-thinking, day-day-job?

Mind mapping or concept map

  • Mind mapping takes advantage of how the human brain processes information

  • Start in the centre of the page and build up a network of facts, information and ideas

  • Use a variety of colours and illustrate with images if possible

  • Be bold and creative

  • Find out more about mind mapping.

Colour coding

  • Using eg red for main points, blue for secondary points, green for examples

  • This will help you find things easily when revising.

  • Studies suggest using warm colours for all your note-taking improves concentration and memory

Top tips and resources

  • Be concise: keep to the point and use abbreviations and bullet points rather than full sentences when appropriate.

  • Keep it readable: OK, you can read it now, but will it be readable later today? Tomorrow? Next week? Think about your handwriting and space material out on the page.

  • Be organised: include references cited or suggested by your lecturers, make sure your structure is easy to follow and be sure to store your notes somewhere safe afterwards.

  • For further information and ideas on note taking, visit the Open University Note taking techniques resource page. 

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Summer Research Skills Programme, 12 June - 14 July

Are you working on a dissertation or research project this summer? The Summer Research Skills Programme offers workshops that will help you through every step of the process. 

Delivered by 301 Academic Skills Centre, The University Library and the Careers Service, you'll have opportunities to plan your projects, develop your research skills and explore dissemination techniques. 

Booking of online and face-to-face workshops is advised to avoid disappointment. (current students only)

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