5 Note Taking Strategies for College Students

Note taking is the practice of recording information that is heard or read. In the college context, note taking is most often a task related to lectures, labs and discussions. There are many methods of note taking in college that organize the information logically for easy understanding, synthesis and review.

Note taking promotes retention better than simply listening. Researchers from Utah State University found that if important information was recorded in notes, “it had a 34% chance of being remembered (Howe, 1970, in Longman and Atkinson, 1999). Information not found in notes had only a 5% chance of being remembered.”

Note taking is important because the student actively generates the notes, rather than passively receiving them, and active learning improves deep learning. A study in the Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences Education concluded that physical note taking, “can enhance learning due to the generative effect – students retain knowledge better when they generate materials themselves rather than having materials given to them.”

What is the Importance of Note Taking for College Students

Note taking improves students’ ability to learn through gaining, retaining, and remembering knowledge.

A study published in the International Journal of Instruction indicated that note taking improves students comprehension of material, their exam preparation and the ability to recall the information when needed. Data from the study demonstrates a correlation between note taking and GPA or grade point average. The conclusion is that good note taking leads to higher grades.

The main benefits of note taking that lead to higher GPA are:

  • Improved learning, comprehension and recall: Note taking is an active learning technique that engages students in the process rather than passively listening to information without taking notes. The study Enhanced Memory as a Common Effect of Active Learning concluded that enhanced memory is a common effect of this type of active learning.
  • Better information management and organization: Notes improve the student’s understanding of primary concepts and supporting information.
  • Increased critical thinking: Because note taking involves summarizing and synthesizing information, the student is able to see how concepts are related and fit into the broad base of knowledge on a subject.   
  • More effective exam preparation: Notes enable students to identify key concepts and the information supporting them.

Finally, note taking allows students to review the information shortly after it is presented. This is one of the key study habits for academic success. If the student does not take notes, there is nothing to review.

What Are Effective Note Taking Strategies for College?

Effective note taking strategies are techniques that produce deeper learning, better organization of the information, enhanced retention and recall. Ultimately, they lead to note-taking students earning a higher average GPA compared to those who do not take notes.

Note Taking Strategies for College Students

Not all note taking methods yield equal results. The most effective ways to take notes are:

  • The Cornell Method
  • Hierarchical Outlining
  • The Sentence Method
  • Concept Mapping
  • Charting

The Cornell Method

Taking notes with the Cornell Method was developed by Dr. Walter Pauk at Cornell in the 1940s, and students at Cornell and other universities are taught this method each year. It is considered to be one of the best note taking methods, a claim supported by many case studies. Also called Cornell Notes, the Cornell Method is a nonlinear technique that produces deeper coding in the brain.

This note taking method involves dividing a page into 3 sections. General notes are taken in a wide, right-hand column. Keywords and questions that arise are written in a narrow left-hand column. A section across the entire bottom of the page is used to summarize and synthesize the information above, which is typically done after the lecture is completed. 

The Cornell Method has been compared against outlining and taking verbatim notes in several studies. One key study published in Journal of Education and Practice indicated that, “Cornell note-taking was the most effective in enhancing retrieval of lecture information,” more effective than outlining or taking notes verbatim.  The Cornell Method stimulates the mind to actively organize and process the information as notes are being taken. Because the notes are well organized and summarized at the bottom, they are also more useful for review (Akintunde, 2013).

The Cornell notetaking method is useful in all lecture-based classes including humanities, sciences, language arts, business, engineering, technology, health and medicine, and education and teaching classes.

Hierarchical Outlining

Outlining using the hierarchical method is similar to the way students are taught to outline a paper as they organize the material, with main points and supporting subpoints. This is another nonlinear note taking technique.

Hierarchical note taking is logical and organized around main topics. Each main topic may include key subtopics, and then the notes are filled out with supporting and essential details to provide additional layers and a more comprehensive summarization of the material presented. The benefits are good organization, better understanding of the relationship between ideas and more efficient review of the notes when studying them later. And non-essential details are not included in the notes, leading to a streamlined note taking process.

Data analysis from a key study from British Journal of Educational Technology revealed that, “the non-linear note-takers were significantly better than the linear group both in terms of the quantity and the quality of the learned material. This study demonstrates the importance of using cognitively compatible note-taking techniques. It identifies the cognitive mechanisms behind effective note-taking and knowledge representation. Using such techniques enables deeper understanding and more integrated knowledge management.”

Outlining notes is a good choice for taking notes lectures in humanities, social sciences, business, economics, engineering, computer science, health and medicine.

The Sentence Method

This common note taking method involves writing down as a separate sentence or line each major new thought, topic, concept or detail. Some students give each new line a number. Students focus on the main ideas and concepts using the sentence note taking method.

The sentence method of note taking is a linear note taking method rather than a nonlinear method. This technique is best employed when the lectures are fast-paced and fact-based, linear in nature. Its benefit is allowing the student to quickly summarize and record information that is rapidly delivered without giving the student time to organize it. However, the disadvantages are that the information isn’t given hierarchical ranking as it is recorded and takes longer to review.

Sentence note taking is useful in detailed, lecture-based learning with a continuous flow of information. Subjects include humanities, social sciences, science, engineering, and computer science.


Creating charts as notes are given is an ideal note taking method when the information is easily categorized, such as dates, characteristics and specific events. It promotes memorization of facts and formulas, and is useful for comparing and contrasting.

Charting is one of the best note taking techniques for history, science, business or economics, medical, comparative literature and some types of math classes.

Columns or rows are labeled with a heading, and information is organized in them to create charts or tables. A new chart is created for each new concept introduced in the lecture. Charting combines visual and linear means of taking notes.

The benefits of charting include visual learning in which relationships between concepts and facts are shown, easy review of the information and deeper learning or coding.

Concept Mapping

Concept mapping and its related note taking technique mind mapping are, “ways to visually represent information and ideas…A concept map is a more deliberate and structured way of representing the relationship between ideas (Davies 2011, 280).”

Concept mapping is a graphical note taking method that is nonlinear and allows students to structure knowledge in a way that shows the relationship between them. It is most useful for visual learners in science, business, engineering, mathematics, computer science and IT, humanities and environmental studies classes.

Information given during a lecture, for example, is recorded on the page, usually around or near the perimeter, leaving the interior space open. Boxes or circles called “nodes” are used to record the information. Then, lines or arrows are drawn to concepts and information that is related to one another. The connecting lines are labeled with a keyword or phrase explaining the relationship.

A variant is to place main nodes along the top of the page with lines downward to supporting nodes beneath them in hierarchical form. Or the main information node can be the center of a page with more detailed concepts branching out from them.

Why It Is Important to Actively Review Notes After Taking Them

Reviewing your notes after lecture is important because it produces better understanding and retention of the material. It is one of the best study habits to develop and encourages other proven study habits of incorporating study sessions into your schedule, review repetition and internalizing the information progressively so that you do not have to cram for an exam.

Reviewing lecture notes is also one of the steps in the 5-step study cycle that is taught in many colleges and universities and demonstrated to improve grades. It is also the last step of the widely used Cornell Method of note taking and a profitable task for all note taking methods.

A type of note review called spaced repetition in which notes are periodically reviewed in the weeks after they are taken improves long-term memory and learning outcomes, according to Bjork 2009.

There are many benefits of reviewing notes after initially taking them:

  • While reviewing notes, summarizing and synthesizing their content facilitates deeper learning and a better understanding of the relationship between concepts.
  • Annotations can be made with notes, underlining, highlighting text, and other preferred methods. The process reinforces the information in your mind and produces better recall.
  • Gaps in knowledge are identified when reviewing notes, and questions are raised. The student is better equipped to seek the understanding they lack and answers to their questions.
  • It produces critical thinking and the development of accurate conclusions.
  • Revising notes improves organization which structures the knowledge in the student’s mind.
  • Review and synthesis creates more efficient notes for future studying.
  • It improves note taking skills.
  • Reviewing notes creates good study habit formation.

Is Taking Notes By Hand Better for Learning Than Typing Them On a Keyboard?

Yes, multiple studies show that handwriting notes rather than typing them produces deeper learning, greater comprehension and better retention. As a result, it is more likely to be recalled during a quiz or exam, producing better grades.

A study comparing cognitive differences between handwriting and typing notes concluded that handwriting, “showed evidence of more transformation and organization of lecture information…than with typing.” Other researchers agree: “In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” 

What Are the Best Note Taking Apps for College Students?

The best note taking apps for college students are those that promote deep learning of the information, improve organization of the materials for efficient further study and are easy to use.

Best Note Taking Apps for College Students

Here are the best note taking apps for students in college and university.

  • Notability: This is an iPad app for students taking notes by hand, which is preferred to typing out notes on a keypad. Notability also has excellent organization and search features that allow you to locate information in the notes you’ve taken.
  • GoodNotes: This note taking app is similar to Notability in its functionality. It also has an audio record feature that allows you to relisten to lectures.
  • Microsoft OneNote and EverNote: These apps are best for organization and flexibility. Their features include structuring typed notes in various formats, searching for information within the notes and tagging important material.
  • XMind: Designed for mind mapping or concept mapping, XMind has a spectrum of templates and layouts to use when creating graphical mind maps. Maps can be exported to share or edit.
  • Typora and Obsidian: These are Markdown-based apps that offer flexible writing options in simple, text-based format. These note taking apps give you the ability to link related notes for synthesis of concepts and their relationships. 

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