Saturday, March 16, 2019

Note-Taking Skills: What methods work for you?

*This post will eventually be linked to an additional post with digital tools for note-taking.

Note-taking is a skill students should learn. What we may not be doing clearly enough is deliberately teaching students a range of note-taking methods and how to identify when one method may be better than another. Moreover, having a wider note-taking toolbox allows for differentiation and supports a range of learners and learning styles. Note-taking also helps with memory, organizing ideas for pre-writing, and review for tests/exams.

Note-taking is an active process, helping us concentrate and keep us engaged with our task - when conducting research, when listening to lectures, or when we discuss or debate. It helps us focus. This allows us to keep a permanent, condensed record of what we researched, heard, or independently thought for later review. Note-taking can help us organize ideas and processes, while not having to write down everything. As we actively process our thinking we can better understand what we’re learning, or question what we don’t understand. If taking notes from a lecture, we may learn information and ideas not found in a text.

Click the image to access a downloadable and editable Google Slides deck.
*It is admittedly text-heavy - please modify to your needs.

What should good notes have? 
(this will vary depending on what you are taking notes for)

  • Key concepts and main ideas
  • Examples
  • New vocabulary and definitions
  • References that may help you later
  • Questions, things you don’t understand
  • Your thoughts, ideas, and insights

  • Decide on simple drawings, symbols, abbreviations and acronyms for quick note-taking
  • Use colours, underlining, circling to highlight keywords and concepts
  • Paraphrase so you understand what has been written
  • If taking notes on a computer master the keyboard shortcuts you could use most

These are what I’ve found to be the most common forms of note-taking. (see the Slides deck designed for in-class use though it is admittedly somewhat text-heavy)


The Sentence Method
A basic method that writes all details in a chronological order.
  • Helpful when you don’t know the structure of an investigation or lecture
  • May be helpful for fast writers, but not for slower writers
  • Good for taking notes on a laptop

What’s the structure?

  • Start with a main topic written as a heading
  • Break main topics down into subtopics
  • Focus on the main ideas and supporting ideas only - not every detail and anecdote
  • Separate main topics from each other

Outline Method
A method that separates major to minor points.
  • Works well when there is a clear structure of a discussion, lecture, piece of text
  • Highlights the key points
  • Simplicity allows you to focus
  • Less time needed for reviewing and editing
  • Simple structure leads to better organization/scaffolding

What’s the structure?

  • List key ideas into a list of notes, scaffolded with subheadings and sub-notes (major points to the far left)
  • Indent each point as you go into greater detail
  • You can use letters of the alphabet and/or Roman numerals or decimals to further organize/scaffold
  • Go back and highlight/underline/circle keywords and concepts
  • *Easy way to remember is: main topic > subtopic or key concept > supporting detail or evidence > further detail or evidence/elaboration

Cornell Method
An organizational framework to take notes.
  • Separates major to minor points
  • Provides for noting keywords and questions

Focus is on

  • Recording information
  • Recording extra comments, questions, thoughts about the information
  • Summarizing the main ideas

What’s the structure?
Page is divided into three (or four) sections
  • One row at the top for title and date
  • Two columns in the center - the left side for keywords, concepts, and questions; the right side for a list of notes, scaffolded with subheadings and sub-notes (like the outline method in the previous slide)
  • One row at the bottom for a summary

Table / Chart / Matrix
A method that converts linear notes into a chart format.
  • Simplifies long notes or detailed topics notes into topics and categories (for example, when studying a historical event in detail)
  • Helps to be concise, emphasizes relationships and patterns, helps to identify gaps in the information
  • Helps with large amounts of information and specific details such as statistics
  • If you know there are only two topics, perhaps a T-Chart will work best (which helps with comparisons)

What’s the structure?

  • Divide your sheet into columns
  • Option one - columns only: Write a separate topic for each column and beneath these write key points (if you have too many columns, write a new set of columns below)
  • Option two - chart: Write a separate topic for each column and beneath these write key points.; you can also create a chart, and fill in categories both horizontally and vertically
  • Option three - a T-Chart: Set up a two columns with the one topic at the top of each column and write the key points under each relevant topic

Boxing Method
A method in which all notes that are related to each other are put into the same box or shape.
  • Good for isolating independent ideas
  • Supports organization
  • Visually separates ideas
  • Helps focus when reviewing (one box at a time)
  • Doing it digitally? Use iPad, Padlet, Google Drawing, Google Slides, Google Keep, etc. 

What’s the structure?

  • Identify your topics with the intention of grouping each one into a single box
  • Draw a new box as you enter into a new topic BUT don’t draw the bottom line until finished that topic (or leave it open in case you want to add ideas)
  • Depending on the topic (an event or a process) consider using chronological order
  • When reviewing draw lines or arrows to make connections

Mind Maps / Concept Maps
A graphical way of organizing your thoughts and showing how concepts are related or different and helps critical thinking.

  • Used to organize information, facts, concepts, equations, theories, etc
  • Breaks down difficult and/or detailed topics
  • Can be used to make connections between key concepts
  • Great for visual learners

What’s the structure?

  • Starts with a central idea with “nodes” that branch off into more related “nodes” with short notes - choose your central theme or topic and write it in the middle or top of the page
  • Determine your key themes and write them into separate branches called “nodes” (and decide a way to highlight them so they stand out as different from the other nodes)
  • Add keywords, ideas or concepts into sub-branches
  • Continue this until you’ve reached the core of the topic or subtopic
  • *integrate visual cues, such as diagrams, arrows, or colours, to emphasize concepts and connections
  • *use numbers or marks (ie) asterisks to help organize

Sketchnotes / Image Journaling
A method that involves bringing more visuals compared to typical note-taking.

  • Use images and text in a logical flow
  • Helps you to focus, listen actively
  • Helps you to remember
  • Images/sketches are simple and quick to draw - you don’t have to be an artist
  • Taps into a part of the brain that is ignored when only writing

What’s the structure?

  • Try to think of a structure or pattern in the beginning (a little difficult if it’s a lecture and an outline hasn’t been given)
  • Start in a top corner (doesn’t matter which one) or in the middle
  • Continue writing notes and drawing simple visuals, but keeping with a pattern that can be followed later (though sketchnotes can become wild and random)