It’s a race against time.

The projector’s light burns brightly against the canvas as the lecturer paces back and forth, the PowerPoint clicker clutched in hand, words spilling from his mouth faster than you can follow them. The lecture hall is hushed, your fellow students bent low to their pages, furiously writing, copying down the information on the slide.

The clock is ticking.

Sweat beads across your forehead—the slide has been up for a whole minute now. Any second, the lecturer is going to raise that clicker and skip to the next slide. But you’re not done yet. Time is running out. You grit your teeth, pen flying furiously across the page of your notebook. Almost finished ... almos—CLICK!

“And as we see on this next slide”

Noooooooo!

There is hardly a student under the sun who cannot relate to this dramatization. We put so much pressure on ourselves to capture in writing everything our educators tell us and show us that we forget to do the most important thing of all:

Hear what they are saying.

The result is that you walk out of the classroom with next to NO recollection of the lesson.

Sure, you’ll have your notes (which look like they were written by a spider that fell in an inkwell and staggered across the page), but you’ll only look at those again when the next test or exam comes your way. And by that point, you’ll struggle to make head or tail of them.

Man holding head because he doesn't know how to take notes
When you open your notebook to study and realize you remember nothing.

We’re here to change that.

The team here at Brainscape has spent over a decade rigorously asking ourselves, the scientific literature, and our millions of users what it takes to learn efficiently, comfortably, and conveniently.

What we have discovered has become the foundation and framework of our awesome web and mobile flashcard app, which applies tried-and-tested cognitive learning principles to help students prepare for high stakes exams.

It has also taught us that note-taking is one of the primary tenets of education. Note-taking can vastly improve student learning. Yet, most students have been doing it wrong.

This doesn’t have to be the case.

By taking your focus off the notebook in front of you and returning your attention to your lecturer, you can spend more time learning in class and less time relearning everything from scratch when exam time comes.

So the Brainscape team put our heads together, geeked out on what science has to say, and came up with this super helpful guide on how to take notes well (and how not to), which we now offer to you to help you succeed.

Let’s jump right in!

The secret for how to take notes well: preparation

How to take notes on a desk

As students, we think the best way to take notes in class is to be thorough. The more the better. But the tragedy is, for all your efforts, this way of recording information is just not benefiting you as it should. In fact, it’s handicapping you.

While you’re so busy writing everything down, you’re missing out on:

  • Engaging in the lecture,
  • Hearing what your teacher is saying,
  • Processing the information, and
  • Asking questions about what’s unclear to you.

This is what genuine learning looks like: listening and engaging in class. The missing link in facilitating this ... is preparation.

Preparing for class beforehand is a fundamental step that almost all students are missing in their note-taking approach.
Dusty old book

Okay, so nobody actually reads the textbook before class. But you can!

In other words, the ironic secret to taking better notes isn't as much what you do in class as what you do before it.

Reading the relevant section or chapter before class:

  1. Fundamentally takes the pressure off of you to write everything down during the lecture,
  2. Alerts you to what information is to come, which primes your brain for learning,
  3. Contributes enormously towards your ability to understand the information presented in the lecture,
  4. Frees up your concentration and focus, which you can now direct at the lecturer and to asking questions,
  5. Deepens the memories you make of the information, and
  6. Saves you hours of time later on.

With this preparation done, you can walk into class primed to learn and fully equipped to sit back, listen, engage, and only take notes when needed. Keep reading for a step-by-step on how to best prepare for class.

Use these 8 steps to learn how to take notes

Benjamin Franklin wearing sunglasses
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ― Benjamin Franklin (and he’s on the $100 bill so he knows what he’s talking about)

We have 8 steps for effective note-taking strategies. The first four steps are all about how to best prepare and make the most out of your class:

Step 1. Review the previous lesson

In most subjects, the concepts you learn today logically support the concepts you learn tomorrow. If you don’t know what the heck is going on, anything new you’re exposed to isn’t going to have a framework to fit into, which makes remembering it so much harder.

Ergo, by reviewing the previous lesson’s notes, you (1) reinforce the information you learned (which is critically important) and (2) provide a stable foundation for the new information you’ll be exposed to today.

It’s kind of like reading the previous page of a novel to remind yourself of what’s going on in the story before reading on.

Step 2. Skim through the new material

Being primed to learn makes your brain receptive to new information. So, read through the sections your lecturer intends to cover in the next lesson before you arrive for class.

Reading ahead in the textbook takes new information you need time to process, and makes it familiar. Then, in class, you can focus on consolidating that information and filling in the gaps.

This may feel super nerdy. Who reads the textbook before class? But think about it. You're gonna have to eventually read the chapter anyway. If reading it before the lecture is so much more effective, why not do it in this order?!

The idea here is not to memorize or become 100% confident in the material but rather to establish:

  • A high-level view of what’s to come,
  • A preliminary understanding of the chapter’s key concepts, and
  • An idea of the concepts you might struggle with.

It also makes you curious to fill in the gaps ... and a curious student is an engaged student!

Step 3. Write down any questions you might have

Writing down notes

Once you’ve finished reading the chapter, think about some questions you should ask to bridge any gaps in your understanding.

For example: let’s say you’ve read a chapter on thunderstorms, and you mostly understand the atmospheric requirements for their formation. But cloud electrification makes you say "DOH!" harder than Homer Simpson. You might write the following questions:

  • How do particles within a cloud become positively and negatively charged?
  • Why do the positive ions travel upwards while the negative ions travel earthwards?
  • Do people who play golf in thunderstorms have a lower-than-average IQ?

Simply jotting these specific questions down awakens your powers of metacognition.

Oooh, aaah.

Metacognition is your awareness and understanding of your own thought processes and using it prompts your brain to form deeper memory traces.

In your head, it might sound a little like this: “Do I fully understand this concept? Or could I use some clarity on a few points?”

This type of inquiry encourages engagement in class and puts your brain into problem-solving mode, both of which are powerful for learning and remembering. And this takes the pressure off the note-taking in class, since you’ll already know the information your lecturer will be presenting.

Step 4. Make preliminary notes before class

Now your task is to create your own chapter outline with preliminary notes from the textbook. The idea is to have the basic structure of the chapter with its main concepts laid out in logical connection with one another, leaving plenty of space for you to write down additional information in class.

Keep this summary succinct and with only the key points, concepts, and definitions from the chapter written down. Anything time-consuming is probably going to deter you from doing this all-important prep work so keep it concise! You can go into greater detail where your understanding falters and you may require richer explanations.

With your preparation done, we will now address how to take good notes during and after class with the following four steps …

Step 5. Note-taking in class

Lecture hall

With your preliminary notes done, you can focus on the lecture, using the spaces you’ve left to flesh out the information rather than writing everything from scratch. Just remember to remain calm and keep your perspective on the material so that you don’t slip back into your old habits.

Also, keep a record in the margin of your page of the most important points so that you can turn these into flashcards later (more on this in a moment!).

Pro Tip: If the information in a particular lecture is super important, or the course you’re taking critical to your overall education, you could even use your device to make an audio or even video recording of it. This frees you up to pay total attention in class rather than writing down notes.

But, be SUPER sparing with this technique. It has the nasty habit of making students lazy and seducing them to put off the necessary preparation and consolidation work until right before the exam. It can also be time-consuming working through 23 hours of audio/video content! Like people who take videos of fireworks displays, you might both miss the moment and then never look at the video again.

Step 6. Consolidate the material

Study books and notebooks

Before the lecture (with your preparation work) you were introduced to the chapter’s concepts for the first time. During the lecture, these concepts were reinforced and expanded upon. Now, after the lecture—ideally within 24 hours of it—you should sit down with your notes and combine everything you have into Version 2.0: your new, improved, and rewritten sexy study notes!

This consolidation of your study notes after class strengthens the memory traces you’ve created in your brain, while also helping you to understand the section’s most important concepts and paraphrase them in your own words. It also leaves you with a valuable learning asset, which you can use for studying for tests and exams!

Step 7. Transform the salient concepts into flashcards

What you really need to do after taking notes is to transform them into a format that you can actively study later. And this is best done by turning the material’s salient points into Cue/Target pairs (i.e. Question/Answer card), which you can review in a custom pattern based on how well you know each one.

That’s right: we’re talking about flashcards. And, naturally, flashcards are Brainscape’s favorite study tool!

Brainscape helps you take notes
Brainscape's online and mobile flashcards provide a personalized study system based on active recall and spaced repetition.

Flashcards have been used for centuries by serious students to efficiently learn knowledge-intensive subjects, from biology, science, and medicine to history, law, and language.

What flashcards essentially do is break subjects up into their fundamental (and manageable) bite-sized facts, making them much easier to digest. They also leverage your brain's innate wiring to help you absorb information by engaging:

  • Active recall: Thinking of the answer from scratch rather than passively reading through your notes or textbook,
  • Spaced repetition: Repeating your exposure to the information in order to better memorize it.
  • Metacognition: Assessing the strength of your knowledge as you go.

Decades of cognitive science research and thousands of academic studies prove this method's effectiveness.

[Use Brainscape to start studying with flashcards]

Just remember, no matter how great the flashcard tool you use—and Brainscape is pretty great—if you didn't first record and consolidate your notes effectively, you may be missing the key content that’s likely to be on your exam!

Step 8. Reframing content as concept maps

Finally, if your subject is riddled with complex, interrelated topics, it might also make sense to transform the content into a mind map or concept map. These are useful, adjunctive tools for consolidating information presented in your textbook and in class. And they have the added benefit of engaging your critical thinking skills, which form more permanent, long-term memories.

BUT while concept maps are great exercises to consolidate notes after the lecture, they are not the best format for studying that information later on. Similar to reading a textbook, simply staring at a concept map only engages your brain on a passive level and doesn’t establish any strong, meaningful connections to that information. This tends to form shallow memories that disappear quickly.

Flashcards, on the other hand, compel you to actively recall information (by answering questions) and repeat difficult concepts to you more often, which, as we have explained, establishes deeper memory traces.

So, be cautioned: making concept maps can be a useful tool, but if you think that continually reviewing them will help you prepare effectively for your exam, you might be making a version of the #1 biggest studying mistake!

What about the Cornell Method of note-taking?

Course book with glasses on top of it

Most resources that dive into how to take good notes mention the “Cornell Method”: a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes designed for high school or college level students. Very briefly, the Cornell Method pivots on the same approach we have discussed in this article (record, question, recite, reflect, and review) but requires students to divide their page into two columns with keywords and questions on the left and discussion on the right.

You can also combine this with the visual icons for deeper learning.

The Outline Method is another popular note-taking strategy (also for college-level students). An outline naturally organizes the information in a highly structured, logical manner, forming a skeleton of the subject. This can later serve as an excellent study guide when preparing for exams.

Which note-taking method works the best? Quite simply: the one that works for you. Nowadays, most of us tend to take our notes digitally anyway (e.g. in a Google doc), so it's increasingly easy to move your notes around or turn them into an outline after the fact, rather than sweating precisely how we divide a sheet of paper before even beginning to record any information.

Writing smarter (not harder): a summary

Now you know how to take notes the right way; follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Remind yourself what you learned the day before
  • Step 2: Read through the new material
  • Step 3: Write down any questions you might have
  • Step 4: Make preliminary notes before class
  • Step 5: Note-taking in class
  • Step 6: Consolidate the material
  • Step 7: Transform the salient concepts into flashcards
  • Step 8: Reframing content as concept maps

All of this—the pre-reading, preliminary note-taking, jotting down of questions, information consolidation, and flashcard-making—may sound like a lot of extra work.

It’s not.

It is the work you should be doing to (1) truly master your subject, (2) prepare for your exams throughout the semester, and (3) save yourself hours of study time later on, not to mention the anxiety that comes with cramming an entire semester’s worth of information into a few days or weeks.

The note-taking approach we have outlined in this guide sets the excellent students apart from the mediocre ones, who have only average results and a nasty case of carpal tunnel to show for their efforts. So, go forth and write smarter (and not harder) with our eight steps on how to take good notes!

Sources

Chang, W. & Ku, Y. (2014). The effects of note-taking skills instruction on elementary students’ reading. The Journal of Educational Research, 108(4), 278–291. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2014.886175

Kiewra, K. A. (2002). How classroom teachers can help students learn and teach them how to learn. Theory Into Practice, 41(2), 71-80. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4102_3

Rahmani, M. & Sadeghi, K. (2011). Effects of note-taking training on reading comprehension and recall. The Reading Matrix, 11(2). https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/85a8/f016516e61de663ac9413d9bec58fa07bccd.pdf