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Helping Students Take Better Notes

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Dr. Rick Sheridan, EducationWorld Teacher of the Day and Assistant Professor of Mass Media Communications at Wilberforce University.

Students often spend hundreds of hours taking notes in class. Unfortunately, these notes are often inconsistent or ineffective. Since Carrier (1983) showed that effective note-takers do better in their courses, it’s worthwhile to teach students good note-taking techniques.

Having taught college classes for over 16 years, I have noticed which note-taking methods consistently work best for students. For example, Robinson and Kiewra (1995) found that some students benefit from visual representations of ideas (i.e., mind-mapping) more than text-based notes.

With that in mind, share with students the following classroom-tested and research-based methods for better note-taking.

General Tips

  • Constantly think of intelligent questions that you could ask about the material being discussed. Include these questions with your notes to help add perspective.
  • Try to picture everything the professor is talking about instead of just writing it down. This can help your ability to remember it later.
  • Participate in the class discussion and ask questions during the lecture. This helps you to learn more than just listening to the lecture.
  • Remember the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, why) so that you can put the material in context.
  • Get in the habit of bringing your mind back if it starts to wander to other topics.
  • Review your notes for at least 10-15 minutes each night. Add any important information that you might have forgotten to write during class.
  • When you review your notes, circle or underline main points. While reading the chapter, go back and add to your class notes and include the page number so that you can find that section in the textbook later.
  • Compare the notes you took in class with the main ideas in the book chapter.
  • Compare your notes with someone else’s notes to fill in any gaps.
  • Never throw away notes, since they may be valuable for another class or for your career (file them away after the semester is over).
  • Sit close to the front of the class. Studies indicate that students who sit close to the front take better notes and focus more effectively on the learning materials.

Proven Methods

Below are four note-taking methods with which students may want to experiment. Encourage them to try several methods until they find one that works best for them.

The Cornell Method - This is similar to how most people already take notes, except that you use a wider left-hand margin. After writing the notes in the main space, use the left-hand column for keywords, arrows, etc.

Mind Mapping - Put circles around the most important topics and squares or other shapes around supporting concepts. Create a large circle for a main concept, such as marketing. Then connect it to smaller circles with related concepts such as advertising, public relations, etc. This format helps you to visually track relationships among various components.

The Sentence Method - Write every new thought, fact or topic on a separate line, numbering each sentence as you go. Later, you may want to re-write the notes or simply use arrows to show the relationships between sentences.

The Note Card Method - Write each unique concept on a separate note card. Write up a summary of that concept on the back of the card. These note cards can be used as flash cards. This is especially useful when studying with others.


Related resources

Five Lessons for Note-Taking Fun


Carrier, C.A. (1983). Note-taking research: Implications for the classroom. Journal of Instructional Development, 6(3), 19-25.

Dartmouth College, Academic Skills Center - Classes: Notetaking, Listening, Participation. Available at

Newfields, Tim (2000). Creative note-taking and study skills. Journal of Nanzan Junior College, 28, 59 -78. Available at

Robinson, D.H. & K.A. Kiewra (1995). Visual argument: Graphic organizers are superior to outlines in improving learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(3), 455-467.


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