Note-Taking: Why and How

There are basically two types of note taking that a student will be faced with:

  • Making notes in class
  • Making notes as a result of private study and reading

There are many ways of writing notes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, and it is best to try them all to see which method works for you. Certain subjects or topics may lend themselves to one particular method. The most important point is that they are useful later when you wish to re-use them.

Why make notes?

  • Notes make you concentrate on what you are learning
  • Notes make you put ideas into your own words and so aid understanding
  • Notes help you remember things better
  • Notes are excellent for revision

Taking notes in class – how to improve your technique

Thankfully, fewer and fewer educators dictate notes these days, realising that dictation goes from ears to hand without stopping in the brain in between! However, many adopt a lecture style where students are required to take notes. In such a situation the following may be helpful:

  • Don’t try to write down everything the educator says
  • Concentrate on picking out the relevant points only
  • Write notes in point form with separate sub headings
  • Develop your own shorthand (see examples below)
  • Leave plenty of space between your notes for later additions
  • Jot down any references given in class to read later
  • Number any handouts issued with a corresponding number in the relevant place in your notes
  • Underline key phrases in red, or with a highlighter pen
  • It is always advisable to date and number each sheet of A4 as you use it
  • Before your next lesson expand on your class notes from text books, etc. using the tips given below

Finally, always ask the teacher for a further explanation if there is something you do not understand – you can be sure there is someone else in the class who has difficulties too!


In the first few weeks of your course, listen to the news and make notes on the information given. You should aim to write as little as possible (one side of A4 maximum) identifying the key points of each story.

Taking notes from written sources – how to improve your technique

Below are 5 possible methods you may wish to try:

  1. Making notes on books or handouts

    • Quick
    • Key phrases can be underlined
    • Comments can be added in the margin


    • Can only be used if you own the book!
    • You haven’t summarised points in your own words to reinforce understanding
    • It is very difficult to revise from these notes later; you will probably have to re-read the whole book/article

In summary, quick in the short term only.

  1. Making summary notes or a precis
    This involves reading all the information, working on each paragraph in turn, re-writing in your own words. A brief introductory and concluding paragraph is advisable.


    • Detailed notes obtained
    • Helps to develop your written style


    • Time consuming
    • Continuous prose is difficult to revise from
    • The salient points do not stand out easily

In summary, a useful exercise but not ‘user friendly’ in the future.

  1. Sprays
    This involves quickly jotting down all your ideas on a subject and linking them up.


    • Very quick
    • Good practice for essay plans in the examination
    • Makes you think analytically


    • May not be suitable for more complex notes
    • Could be difficult to revise from later

In summary, very useful in organising thought processes, especially in the exam room but has limitations for general use.

Example: A spray about the effects of a strong £

Practice this technique by making a spray about regional unemployment problems

  1. Visual and pattern notes
    This method involves using flow diagrams or ‘concept trees’ (another name for pattern notes) to record information.


    • Can sum up many pages of written notes
    • You concentrate on the fundamentals
    • Very active form of learning
    • Visual images are a great aid to recall
    • Add a ‘fun’ element to note taking


    • Could be too absorbing!
    • May be difficult to express more complex ideas clearly

In summary, a valuable supplement to ‘linear notes’.

  1. Linear Notes
    This method involves reorganising information in a written format using your own shorthand and personal style.


    • Makes you think analytically
    • Aids your understanding
    • Simple to revise from and use later


    • Initially quite time consuming
    • Doesn’t aid visual memory like pattern notes

In summary, initially takes some thought and time but probably most useful method for expressing complex ideas clearly.

Some tips!

  • Use titles, subtitles and bullet points
  • Avoid lengthy prose
  • Underline key points in red or with a highlighter
  • Produce a summary list/table at the end of a section
  • Don’t be afraid to produce tables e.g. Advantages & Disadvantages of…
  • Include topical examples and case study references in your notes as you go along but remember you would only have time to write a paragraph in an examination answer so this is how long it should be!
  • Write memory jogs to yourself in the margin e.g. ‘Good diagram p 146 in Book X’
  • Develop your own shorthand.