Note-taking Formats

In this section:

The Cornell Note-taking System

Example of Cornell Notes

Mind Maps

Example of Mind Map


In addition to learning how to listen effectively to a lecture, it will be important for you to develop the ways in which you record your information. Many ineffectively organized notes resemble a simple "shopping list" of points with no apparent relationships between the ideas noted and this usually reflects a note-taker's lack of understanding of these relationships. The effective listening skills outlined above will assist you in comprehending the lecture. In this section we will consider two common formats for structuring notes, the Cornell Note-taking System and Mind-Maps.

The Cornell Note-taking System

Throughout the popular student manuals on study skills (Walter Pauk's How to Study in College and David Ellis' Becoming a Master Student, for example) , the Cornell Note-taking System is commonly suggested for students who want to improve the organization of their notes. One of the keys to the system is that Cornell notes make use of your existing strengths as a note-taker so that learning the system requires a minimum of preparation and adjustment. Additionally, it permits you to develop study notes very soon after taking original lecture or text book notes without the added work of re-writing vast amounts of material.

Below is an example page of Cornell style notes. You'll notice a couple of important features of the notes. First, the page has been divided into two vertical columns prior to the note-taking session; one is a third of the page wide (the key word or review column), the other two thirds (the notes column). You'll notice that the notes you would regularly take are written down in the wider of the two columns and that headings are underlined, main ideas are indented slightly under the headings, and details which elaborate on the main ideas are indented further under the main ideas -- good suggestions for structuring your notes even if you don't use the Cornell style.

Secondly, you'll notice that the review column has been filled with key words and phrases and with questions. The idea is that you complete the narrower column after the note-taking session. The words and phrases you place here are meant to represent your selection of the key points of a lecture or reading. The questions you enter either serve to help you clarify unclear ideas and to elaborate on the notes by connecting ideas together. You can connect ideas from the same lecture or with ideas from other notes in your course. The contents of the key word column are your study notes and can be used to practice your recall of the material. Simply cover up the notes column of the page and use the keys in the key word column to trigger your memory. If you have difficulty recalling the information successfully at first, and need a tip, simply look over at the detailed information in the notes column.

The notes shown below are idealized; that is, they are meant to show common features of well organized notes. As a result, you may find that your notes differ considerably from these notes. The reasons for this are clear -- your notes are taken in real lecture situations or from texts under the time pressures of the term. It isn't necessary for your notes to be perfect -- they only need to be useful in identifying and recording main ideas and important details for later use in writing, thinking, and preparing for exams.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these notes is that they link the activity of note-taking to preparing for exams in a direct and practical way that can save you time. It may be the case that you have reasonably good notes already but want to take advantage of the features of Cornell notes without having to rewrite them. To convert existing notes, simply staple together notes from one chapter or lecture and add a blank cover page or two. Key words and phrases and questions can be listed on the blank cover pages and the notes can be used to review actively as we've described here.

Mind Maps

In addition to the Cornell Note-taking Style, you may wish to use a non-linear way of organizing your notes called Mind Maps (see Tony Buzan's Use Your Head) Mind Maps are diagrammatic ways of organizing key ideas from lectures and texts which emphasize the interconnection of concepts and illustrate the relative hierarchy of ideas from titles, to main concepts, to supporting details. Because they are diagrammatic, they have the potential to capture a lot of information on a single page. They help show the conceptual links between ideas and allows for additional material to be added without the need to crowd the page. And, because they typically feature key words and phrases, they allow for the same kind of review that is facilitated by the Cornell notes. The Mind Map below has been constructed from the review column of the Cornell notes shown above.



In this Mind Map the central topic has been placed in the centre of the page and the main ideas related to it are placed on branches that directly connect to the central topic. The details which support these main ideas are then directly linked to the main ideas (and thereby, indirectly to the central topic). There is room to add information on further main ideas and you can add colour or doodles to accent your work. Each time you work with the mind map, you will make use of the key words and phrases that you developed in the review column of the Cornell notes and as a result you will interpret these keys each time you work with the Mind Map; essentially, you will be reviewing your material in a brief and active way.

Some students find that it is difficult to record a lecture using Mind Maps because they are unsure of the structure of the lecture in advance. If you feel the same way, you might try using Mind Maps to collect up the key information from a group of notes that you have already taken to get a sense of the overall themes of a section of your course. Or, you can use Mind Maps to capture and organize ideas you have about writing a paper as they occur to you randomly. The key here is that Mind Maps allow for a great deal of information to be summarized in one place in a way that emphasizes the interrelationships among ideas.


Key Points:

1. Try to be an effective listener. Avoid early judgment of the speaker, pay attention, have an interest, develop a purpose for listening to the lecture. Use your ability to think to summarize the lecture during short pauses and use it to anticipate the direction of the lecture. Above all, avoid the passive listener mentality which says you have to "get it all"; instead, listen for key ideas, main details, and transitional phrases which point to the structure and focus of the lecture.

2. Use short forms when recording information. Point form phrases, abbreviations and symbols should probably be used in place of full sentences in most situations. Obvious exceptions would be when there's a definition or you don't understand or there is some indication to write something out in full.

  3. Be alert for both verbal and non-verbal cues. These indicate structure in the lecture, the relationships among ideas, and importance. These cues include transitional phrases and words, body language, voice tone and pace, repetition of ideas, and the time spent on certain subjects.

  4. Notes are taken to have a permanent record of the understanding you have of the lecture. This forms the basis for regular review, exam preparation, critical thinking, and it gives an opportunity to get involved in an exchange of thoughts, an active interaction with the material.

5. Be selective. Take notes which reflect the interests of the professor, themes of the course, keywords or phrases on overheads or chalkboards. Choose information according to your purpose, what you want to learn, and ideas and thoughts which need clarification or which extend prior reading and learning.

6. Takes notes according to an organized format. The organization and relative importance of ideas should be reflected in the notes. Consider a format which promotes returning to them within the first twenty-four hours and which can be used to self-test your understanding of the material. Cornell notes and Mind Maps (mapping notes) are ideal for this purpose.

7. Review your notes regularly and cumulatively, looking for developing course themes, and relationships between the ideas of successive lectures. Doing this regular review can assist you in "seeing the big picture" and makes note-taking a task which is part of an integrated system of study.

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