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How to Take Better Notes in High School and College

Quality, effective note-taking requires practice. Here, a student shares some tips and tricks to help you take the best notes possible.

Are you a bad note-taker? Do you have trouble studying what you’ve learned in class? Are you one of the many students who have no idea where to start when trying to improve your note-taking skills? I'm going to tell you, fellow students, what I have learned about the art of note taking. Notes are extremely useful for learning and practicing outside of class, which is why teachers make you take them! It’s not always fun, but it is always beneficial. Learning to take good notes is something you must learn and practice. It’s a very important skill to get the hang of now in middle or high school, so by the time you go to college you'll be a pro. If you're having trouble learning the art of note taking, keep reading for further assistance!

The structure

In our school we have been introduced to the Cornell note-taking system, which was developed by Walter Pauk, an emeritus at Cornell University. My own modified example of the regular Cornell note format is pictured below. This is usually how I take my own notes in class. You can find the official format for Cornell notes using an online search.

Topic/Title—The title or topic of the notes, lecture, or chapter

Essential Question box—In this section you will create your own question that should ask about the general or main idea, or the most important thing you need to take away after studying your completed notes. Make sure your question is thought provoking and is an intriguing introduction to the ideas expressed in your notes.

Note: Write your question, which can be related to the Topic/Title, after you take your notes in class.

Questions column—This box should be about one and a half to two inches in width and should extend from the bottom of the Essential Question box to the bottom of the paper. Here you will write questions and/or the big ideas. This box may consist of what would be your sub-section titles. This box is also predominantly used for writing questions that should be inserted when you go back to study your notes. Your questions should be challenging and should grasp the main idea of what a section of your notes is about. You want to make sure the questions you develop are similar to questions that might appear on quizzes and tests. The idea of this section of the Cornell format is to allow for longer-lasting learning and memory when you apply what you have learned by reviewing your notes and becoming the “test question maker.”

Note: This column is also more helpful if it is filled out after you have completed your notes.

Notes box—This is the only box you should be writing in during the lecture, while reading a selection or a textbook chapter, etc. Taking good notes can seem like a difficult task, but the art of generating a full understanding of what you are learning while writing quick and quality notes is a skill everyone can master with a little practice. (Tips on taking good notes are listed below!)

Summary box—Write a short one- to three-sentence summary about what you have written down. You want to convey only the most significant information from your notes. The answer to the Essential Question should be what the summary is based upon. Make sure that you have evaluated your notes thoroughly so you can write a thoughtful and helpful summary.

Note: Like the Questions column, this section works best for exercising longer-lasting learning when it’s filled out the first time you go back to study your notes.

Related: Tips for Better Organization and Study Habits in High School

Tips on taking quick and quality notes

Even if you choose not to use the Cornell format, use these tips for effective note taking.

1. Learn to listen and write

Multitasking is an ideal if not necessary skill to be mastered while learning the art of note taking. From experience, I can say this is very true especially in both high school and college classes. The professor might say things that are not in a Powerpoint or written on the board, but are, in fact, very important for you to know.

2. Pay close attention to hints your instructor might give

Staying focused during lectures is crucial. Instructors will often indirectly say or do things to give hints to information and ideas that could appear on tests. Here are some things that I've noticed:

  • The professor might go into a subject or idea with great detail. This usually means that it is something that greatly interests the teacher and may be important to completely understand for questions on a test.
  • They might use signal phrases or words to the rhythm of, “This is important...“ “For this reason...” “It is critical...” etc.
  • They might repeat a question throughout the lecture or ask questions about what you just learned during or after the lecture to emphasize the answer's significance.
  • They might do or say certain things quite often, depending on what the professor is like or known for. For instance, my theatre appreciation professor informed the class about her “weird and funky eyes.” She twitches and winks while announcing that we “may or may not have a quiz on this the next class.” It's obvious what she's hinting at, but this is an example of little quirks you should try and pick up on. Be sure to look or listen for actions or words that you notice your instructor does or says frequently.

Related: Top 7 Apps for Academic Success

3. Don't write down every single word

The majority of professors in college, and even high school, will not stop and wait for you to finish writing everything that's on the board. Try to avoid using small words that aren't always necessary, such as “and,” “the,” “a,” or “an.” Abbreviate words and phrases, use initials, and draw simple pictures or symbols to represent things that you notice occur frequently in the notes. Remember, you should be going back later on, preferably that night, to review your notes and ask questions, so it is at that point that you can finish writing your notes.

4. Use a structured and organized note-taking format

I would suggest using the same note-taking format, whatever you choose, for all classes. The Cornell format does not discriminate and is known for being useful in any type of class. But, of course, you should always use what works best for you and helps you understand the information. There is always a difference between students who take some notes and students who take organized notes and review them daily. Happy note taking!

Know something we don’t? Share your note-taking tips and tricks with us on Twitter - @CollegeXpress!

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About Serenity Bogert

Serenity Bogert is a simultaneous high school and college student. Cares about people, art, science, and education. Adult-escent. Ginger. Can type 56 WPM and likes to annoy famous people infinitely on social media. You can annoy Serenity on Twitter @serenityredsox.


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