Your guide to the best note taking strategies is finally here.
The days when you’re looking over your notes and struggling to decipher them are over.
In this post, I go over how to take notes from textbooks, the best way to take notes electronically as well as the most effective note taking methods and systems you can use right now.
I’ll also share with you the key difference between note making and note taking, something many students get wrong by mistake which unknowingly jeopardises their grades.
These are the top note taking methods, tried and tested, which helped me to gain 12 straight A*s in high school and a first class honours degree at university.
Here’s proof of what having an effective note system can do for your grades.
In this post, I’m not holding anything back either. This is the ultimate note taking system I and many other students have since used to get these top grades.
Before we jump into the good stuff, you’ll want to know exactly what note-taking is and isn’t.
WHAT IS NOTE MAKING VS NOTE TAKING?
Surprisingly, there’s a distinct difference between the two.
One is for collecting key points of information, the other is for condensing and studying the information. You can think of it like a 2 step process.
Step 1: NOTE TAKE. This is when you’re in class and need to jot down key information on a new topic or subject. However, this does not mean write down everything your teacher or lecturer is saying. Here, you’re listening for trigger phrases. I’ll cover this in the rest of the post.
Step 2: NOTE MAKE. This is when you’re condensing the information you took in class and transforming those scribbles and jumbled heap of keywords, key phrases and concepts into effective study notes.
See the difference? Most students leave it at the taking step and think they can effectively study from their first set of notes.
I highly recommend you don’t do this, and instead create highly condensed, ultimate study guides.
Again, I’ll show you how to do this below.
IMPORTANCE OF NOTE TAKING SKILLS AS A STUDENT
Understanding the key difference between note taking and note making meant that I could;
- Revise and study more effectively. I could study multiple topics with ease.
- Cut down on the time I actually studied. I shaved an extra 3-4 hours off my study schedule every week.
- I always knew where my most important, condensed information was for when my other responsibilities outside of school or college become more important.
QUICK NOTE: Want the exact templates I used to get top grades? How does all 62 of them sound? As it was highly requested, I’ve listed my ultimate study success planner for high school, college and university students on Etsy. It features my note taking templates, my revision strategies, cheat sheets and so much more! Check it out here.
MOST EFFECTIVE NOTE TAKING METHODS AND STRATEGIES
USE THE TRIGGER NOTES STRATEGY WITH THE CORNELL NOTE TAKING METHOD
I know, you’ve probably read about the cornell note taking method before, or you might even be using it already.
The question is: are you using it in the most effective way?
The Cornell Method is one of the best note taking strategies a student can use.
Why? Because it allows you to take notes in class using what I call the trigger notes strategy.
A trigger notes strategy helps you to eliminate unnecessary notes and only jot down what is truly important for you to know.
This makes the after class ‘condensing’ step super easy to follow (I’ll cover that soon).
HOW TO TAKE NOTES USING THE TRIGGER STRATEGY AND THE CORNELL METHOD
You should use the Cornell Method during your lectures, lessons and classes.
Wondering how to take notes from a textbook? You can either use a simple notepad or better yet, this blended cornell trigger strategy.
It’s best to only have 1-2 note taking strategies in use at any given time. Any more than that and it becomes incredibly confusing.
STEP 1: Listen for key trigger phrases.
As you’re listening in class, listen out for key trigger phrases your lecturer or teacher says and note the short length answer in the right hand side column.
Phrases such as ‘there are 3 major reasons why X happened…’, ‘the 2 main implications of this are…’ and ‘this key event happened during X because of X…’ are all good things to note here.
Dates, event names and topic key phrases are also good to record here.
Make sure you’re only writing short, key phrases and not everything your teacher or lecturer says.
If you’re in a big lecture, or the lecturer speaks very fast, or you know, rushes through the slides at the speed of light (I find most professors do this…), then try listening out of points that are emphasised or repeated, as these are often super important for you to know.
These are all key trigger phrases.
Example: Lecturer says ‘Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus.
Roman legend says that Romulus had a twin brother called Remus. As babies they were abandoned in the area which later became Rome.
A she-wolf found and raised them, but when they grew up Romulus fought and killed Remus and became the first ruler of Rome!’
It would be possible to write all of this down.
So instead, you might write: ‘Rome founded 753BC Romulus. Romulus twin brother Remus, abandoned babies, she-wolf raised, Romulus fought + killed Remus – Romulus = first ruler Rome’.
See how much faster this is to write? You can use symbols and abbreviations to make writing quicker.
If you’re worried you’re going to miss some key information whilst you’re writing away, I highly recommend purchasing a digital voice recorder so you can record your lessons to play back at a later date if you wish!
This was a lifesaver for me when it came to gap filling my notes, which is a key strategy if you want to achieve top grades.
Leave the left hand column blank for an after class review where you can note key concepts and ideas.
STEP 2: File your notes the right way after each class!
Trust me when I say this is a life-saving tip, especially if you have a lot of classes!
I can’t remember how many times I used to write notes on a template, or in a notepad only to head to the library later to spend a good 30-45 minutes shuffling through all of them trying to find the right ones for each subject.
To solve this, I purchased a cheap expandable file, and inside labelled each division with a subject e.g. biology, chemistry, physics etc, and at the end of each class, simply filed my notes into the right division for that subject. Easy peasy.
Psst, have homework or essays to hand in for each subject?
Create a separate division for them too. Super-duper easy organisation.
STEP 3: Review your notes after the lecture or lesson to fill in any gaps.
I recommend you do this as soon as possible.
Why? Studies have shown that students who review material within the first 24 hours of being taught new material retain the information 8x better in the long run than students who never review the information or even those who review it a few days later.
In the left hand column, add some potential questions that could come up in the exam based on this topic or your set of notes, or use it to simply test how well you understood the class.
Here’s an example, ‘name the legendary founder of Rome?’, or ‘When was Rome founded?’.
These are just basic questions, but you get the idea.
Straight A student hack: Don’t know any potential exam questions? First time sitting this exam? Lecturer being strict and not providing any past exam papers?
Don’t worry, use this super secret straight A hack to find thousands of past exam papers and exam questions based on your topic.
Simply type this formula into google site:edu (subject) (file format) or (past paper questions etc).
This hack will pull thousands of exam papers for this topic from all over the world including university papers, study note guides and exam questions. Great right?!
Step 4: Summarise your main ideas at the bottom of the page.
This is where you can add and select the most relevant keywords and concepts from the right hand column so you can begin creating your ultimate study guides aka start the note making process.
Often, you will find that not every note you take will be relevant for the overall topic.
Try not to simply re-write your notes, as this defeats the purpose of the summary.
I also like to add some extra information to this area stating when the exam is, how difficult or ‘easy’ I personally find the subject and as a result when I need to start revising this material.
This ensures I know what I’m working towards in the next few months, and makes the next step super easy.
STEP 5: Transforming your notes into something you can actually revise and work from
This step is pretty easy, and is one of the best ways to take or rather make notes electronically.
Using this method, I condensed over 370 sets of notes, 42 research papers, and 29 textbooks into just 12 folders of highly condensed, easy to understand ultimate study guides to revise from.
Here’s my example of how I turned my cornell style biology class notes into the ultimate biology revision guide.
If you have 12 subjects, you will only have 12 subject guides to study from instead of 100’s of notes – simple right? Here’s how you can do it!
Trying to revise straight from your notes or note templates is a bad idea! Why?
1) This is purely passive learning (aka you’re not doing anything to actively process the information)
2) Your notes are on different pages
3) Your notes probably won’t contain any extra information you’ve read, noted or learned around the classes, so how on earth do you compile all of this?
HOW TO CREATE HIGHLY CONDENSED ULTIMATE STUDY GUIDES TO GET TOP GRADES
Take your keywords (i.e. summary) from all of your cornell notes for a specific subject e.g. Biology and open a word document or google docs.
Add your keywords to the documents, but this time add any extra information you need to the word document.
Make sure your study guide is full of condensed information though, not full sentences copied from your textbook or class notes! These should all be in your own words.
I also add diagrams, charts, graphs and any other visual material I need to help me understand a concept.
Want to know how to map out a difficult concept when studying, check out this post on how to get top grades.
The reason why you’ll want to make your own notes? It’s classed as active revision.
You’re mentally having to re-process the information meaning you’re 10x more likely to understand it, and 4x more likely to retain it for future use.
If you’ve crosschecked your notes with your curriculum and gap filled your notes as recommended in my other study guide, your study guides will now contain every single topic you need to study to pass your exams, so you can shelve your long form class notes for now.
FINAL STEP: Organisation!
You can wait until the end of the academic year to print these guides off, or you can print them off as you’re going along so you can start revision earlier. Entirely up to you!
Once you’ve printed your study guides off, you now need a system to organise them effectively based on your ability within the subject and when the exam takes place.
Here’s the method I used, which worked like a dream!
Buy some cheap file folders (or any other folders you like), but make sure you have one for each ultimate study guide you have created.
On the file folders, make sure to add a label for the subject e.g history, but next to it, write how easy or difficult you find the topic, as well as the exam date(s) if you know them.
When you come back to revision at a later date, you now know exactly which subjects you have to spend more time on.
I love to use the 1-2-1 study technique so I’m spending more time studying my difficult subjects.
In one study session I will study 1 difficult subject, then switch to an easy subject, then come back to the same difficult subject to make sure I’ve absolutely understood the information I’ve just studied.
I also liked to add any exam papers I may have found for that subject into the file, plus a list of the exam questions I came up with during my Cornell Notes taking session.
If you want all of my ready to use study success templates, feel free to head over to my Etsy and check out the ultimate academic study success planner.
Using this method, I condensed over 370 sets of notes, many essays and research papers into just 12 folders of highly condensed, easy to understand ultimate study guides to revise from.
Now that’s a much easier method to getting top marks and achieving straight a’s right?!
I hope this post on the best note taking strategies has been helpful to you!
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