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Note-taking: a Practical Guide


Dive into the world of effective note-taking strategies.

Note-taking : a Practical Guide

Good note-taking helps you understand what you are learning by...

  • ...clarifying your thinking;
  • ...focusing on what is important by forcing you to be selective;
  • ...organising your ideas and structuring your arguments;
  • ...remembering material and making connections.

In this guide we'll take a look at some note-taking approaches:

  • The Outline method
    Organising notes in a structured, hierarchical format.
  • The Sentence method
    Every new thought, fact, or topic written on a separate line in a full sentence.
  • The Cornell method
    A structured system that organises your notes for review and self-assessment.
  • Mind mapping
    Creating a graphic representation of ideas or principles, showcasing their interrelations.
  • The Charting method
    Compare multiple sources or topics using a grid of columns and rows.
  • Annotation
    Writing directly onto a text such as slides, lecture-notes, or a photocopy/scan.

We'll also take a look at some potentially useful note-taking applications you could use.

But first we'll familiarise ourselves with some of the basic principles involved in good note-taking:

Top note-taking tips

Here's some basic principles for notes that are easy to read and understand:

  1. Keep your notes brief and be selective in what you write down;
  2. Highlight the main points and keywords;
  3. Show connections between points and ideas;
  4. Summarise content in your own words;
  5. Always make note of any references.

Active or passive note-taking

Note taking can be active or passive.

You're less likely to remember things if you make passive — notes that fail to engage critically or add context. With passive note-taking you may end up having to do more checking of your notes when you come to using them.

Active notes include your own thoughts, words, and questions, meaning that you are already engaging with the material and not just copying it out. This should prove more meaningful later on and make what you learn easier to understand and recall.

Active or passive? quiz

This quiz will help you to identify what is active and what is passive note taking so you can think about how you take notes and what you could improve.

For each note taking example, choose whether it is active or passive. Click on the "Next" arrow to begin.

Underline words and quotes in the text


Write your own explanation of what something says or means


Make connections within the text, to your topic and other texts


Write notes on everything you read


Copy direct quotes


Look for answers to questions you have, and make a note of relevant information


How do you take notes?

Well done. You got of 6 questions correct.

Now that you've taken the quiz, think about how you take notes. Do you use more of the active or the passive techniques that were listed?

If you use more of the passive note taking techniques, you may be less likely to remember things you learn, so you may end up doing more checking of your notes when you come to use them.

Reviewing and organising

After you've made your notes, you need to do something with them so that you can locate them again when you need them!

  • Logically label and file your notes;
  • Link new information to what you already know;
  • Cross-reference with any texts you have;
  • Read through and add any additional information or references.

More note-taking guidance

Here's some more tips on note-taking applications, making and organising notes, and annotating electronic texts:

From note-taking to note-making

Good note-making will help you to get the most from lectures and taught sessions:

This video provides four approaches to creating notes: linear written notes, annotated slides, mind maps and an introduction to the Cornell note-taking method.

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Some common note-taking abbreviations

When you're taking notes of a lecture or conversation, it can be difficult to keep pace with your writing. You might therefore want to get in the habit of writing abbreviations. This is often easier to do by hand, as special characters aren't always as quick to use on a keyboard device!

Here's a selection of conventional abbreviations you could use in your notes:

et al.and others
c. approximately
cf. compare
decreases, falls
grows, increases
= equal to
equivalent to
> greater than
< less than
results from
results in, leads to
" same as above
similar to
esp. especially
N.B. Important
i.e. that is to say, in other words
pp pages
e.g. for example
v very
re with reference to