Taking Good Notes: Impact of Attention, Memory, Language, Spatial and Sequential Ordering, Motor Functions, and Higher Order Cognition

The ability to take good notes is crucial for learning and succeeding in school. Whether listening to classroom lectures or reading textbook instruction, students must learn to create useful notes that reinforce understanding and trigger recall of information.

Good note-taking requires students to mobilize their attentional abilities. Students must be prepared and focused. They must listen or read actively, pulling out important details and attaching new information to prior knowledge. They must learn to record key facts, concepts, and relationships, so that they can recall this information when rereading their notes.

Good note-taking also depends upon a student’s ability to convert information from the classroom lecture or textbook into a cohesive and meaningful written message, often involving complex explanations, technical vocabulary, or numeric information. This conversion requires students to engage their abilities in both language and spatial and sequential ordering.

The mechanical aspects of note-taking often depend upon a student’s motor abilities, including the ability to write quickly, easily, and legibly.

Finally, learning to take good notes is a complex process requiring students to think critically, to organize and manipulate concepts, and to monitor the ongoing effectiveness of their note-taking strategies.

Here are some strategies to help students develop their note-taking skills.

Identifying Important Information

  • Help students learn how to pick out the salient, or important, information from class lectures and textbooks.
    • Teach students how to look for and listen for verbal organizational cues embedded in text and lecture: “In summary…”, “The five reasons are…”, etc.
    • To model effective highlighting strategies, provide the student with the highlighting already started as a guide.
    • Have students talk about their strategies for deciding which information to underline or highlight and which to disregard. This type of exercise can be incorporated into any activity, e.g., math story problems, a story being read, writing a brochure, following directions in a science experiment, etc.
    • Teach students to use a color coding system as they underline or highlight. For example, they might underline main ideas in red, details in blue, etc.
    • Have students practice both picking out the main ideas or important details, and also restating them or putting them into their own words.
    • Have students write down the information they think should be remembered from a lesson (on a scratch pad or piece of paper). Then help them place the information in a form that is organized based on importance.
    • During instruction, provide students with outlines of lectures so they can follow along and fill in blanks with lesson details.
    • Discuss key words that provide specific directions for tasks in a test, e.g., circle, underline, list, compare, contrast, etc.
    • Have students practice identifying key information at each step, before continuing an activity, e.g., underlining key words in directions, etc.  
  • As a pre-reading activity, have students scan each chapter in their textbook before reading the chapter. For example, have them survey the text for introductions, headings, sub-headings, bold-face/italic type, key terms lists, a summary, conclusions, reading/learning goals, and repeated material.

Becoming an Active Listener

  • Help students learn active, critical listening by encouraging them to summarize main points, compare and contrast ideas with their prior own knowledge, and try to anticipate what is coming next. Prompt students for these activities, e.g. “Now is a good time to summarize the points thus far by jotting them down in your notebook”, “Tell me what you already know about...”, “Based on the activity we just finished, what do you think we’re going to do next‘”, etc.  
  • Use practice listening and reading activities to help students develop their paraphrasing and summarizing skills.  
  • Teach students to use self-monitoring techniques to be sure they are actively listening, for example, thinking of the word FACT (Focus attention, Ask yourself questions, Connect ideas, Try to picture important ideas).  
  • Teach students to engage in the following post-listening strategies: (1) Review notes from a lecture as soon as possible after class, (2) Relate what you heard today to information that is already in your notes, (3) Check to see if there is anything that you don’t understand, if so get immediate clarification, (4) Draw up a summary statement from the lecture, and (5) Read the summary statement as a pre-listening tool at the beginning of the next class session.

Organizing Information

  • Teach students how to create their own concept maps as one way to organize lectures, reading, and study material. Concept maps are an excellent way to show students how a broad topic, e.g., music, is connected to sub-topics, e.g., their own guitar lessons.  
  • Encourage students to use computer applications that include word processors with spell checkers, and programs that guide outlining and graphic organizing. Programs with concept organizing templates that allow students to move back and forth between an outline form and a concept map are particularly helpful for building organizational skills.  
  • Suggest strategies for students to use when constructing a concept map. One example is TRAVEL (Write and circle Topic, Read material, Ask yourself what the main idea(s) and details are, Verify main idea(s) and details and record them in circles with linking lines, Examine and repeat for rest of the material, Link all main ideas to one another) (Boyle, 1996).  
  • When teaching students how to create and organize concept maps, begin with materials/content that students can use independently to be sure students can attend to the details of the strategy of making a concept map. Initially, keep the maps you use as models and student generated maps simple.  
  • Have students create graphic representations of information they have heard or read, including flow charts (e.g., to show the steps required for a bill to become a law or the process of photosynthesis), tables (e.g., to compare and contrast key concepts in a chapter), and diagrams (e.g., Venn diagrams to illustrate overlapping sets of social groups).  
  • Teach students to recognize the different patterns of organization found in textbooks: definition/example, compare/contrast, cause/effect, sequence (time-related, procedural, importance), listing, description. Help students find examples of each pattern in their texts and reading materials. Use content area textbooks (math, social studies, language arts, etc.) to accentuate the similarities and differences in text organization.

Taking Notes

  • Have students practice note-taking, outlining and concept mapping techniques that are best suited for the different organizational patterns found in textbooks.  
  • Introduce students to note-taking techniques that may be helpful for a variety of materials. For example, a flow chart can be used to show causal relationships. Such a chart might be useful to illustrate narrative happenings in a story, events in history, procedural sequences in science, etc.  
  • As students read, have them develop a list of their own questions to answer, incorporating these questions into their notes.  
  • Provide students with specific strategies to use to guide their note-taking.
    • One strategy to consider is the SQ3R Reading and Study Strategy (Survey the material by looking at title, headings, introductory paragraph, and summary paragraph-Turn headings and subheadings into Question format- Read the text, actively looking for answers to the Questions you formed- Recite important points and major concepts- Review a final time) The SQ4R version of this strategy adds an additional note-taking step: (Survey- Question- Read- Recite- wRite down key terms and a summary of the important points- Review).
    • Another example is the Five R’s Note-taking strategy (Record information on paper-Reduce by rewriting into an outline or summary form-Recite important points-Reflect, or check your notes for accuracy-Review a final time)  
  • Teach alternative note-taking and outlining techniques based on student strengths and class demands. Examples may include index card use, annotation, column notes, notes from front page only, etc.  
  • The Cornell system for taking notes is one technique to consider.
    • Step 1: TO PREPARE: Use a large, loose-leaf notebook. Use only one side of the paper (so that you can lay your notes out to see the direction of a lecture.) Draw a vertical line 2 1/2 inches from the left side of you paper (law ruled paper is already designed this way). This left side column is the Recall column. Later key words or phrases will be written in the Recall column. Notes will be taken to the right of this margin.
    • Step 2: DURING THE LESSON: Record notes on the right side in paragraph form. Capture general ideas, not illustrative ideas. Skip lines to show end of ideas or thoughts. Use abbreviations to save time.
    • Step 3: AFTER THE LECTURE: Read through your notes and make them more legible if necessary. Now add information to the Recall column by jotting down key words or questions that give you the idea of the paragraph. Take time to REDUCE - reread the teacher’s ideas and restate or explain them in your own words.
    • Step 4: TO STUDY: Cover up the right-hand portion of your notes and use the Recall notes to trigger the general ideas and concepts of the lecture. Overlap your notes showing only the Recall columns to do a comprehensive review.

Teacher Techniques

  • Pace presentations and learning activities. Incorporate pauses for quiet processing time and note-taking. Provide time for students to actively review their notes. For example, give students time to check their notes against information in the book for accuracy and content, to organize their notes in a meaningful way, and to rewrite extended notes into outline or summary form.  
  • To provide students with a context for organizing what they are learning, present new information by moving from the global (or general) to the more detailed (or specific). For example, in English, before reading specific works of literature, introduce the author of the works by showing a video and/or discussing his/her life; in science, first discuss the relationship of the brain to the entire body, then explore the brain as an organ, finally, focus on specific parts of the brain.  
  • Group similar concepts in your lesson. Organize your presentation to help students see patterns in what they are learning.  
  • Help students see the “big picture” of the concepts they are learning. Encourage them to think about how key ideas from a lecture or textbook relate to each other, to ideas from other lectures and to themes of the class. For example, have students use textbook chapter outlines as organizing guidelines and look for relationships between items in the outline, or ask students to organize key ideas and supporting information in a diagram or visual format to give them a ‘picture’ of how concepts are related.  
  • During instruction or reading, provide students with complete outlines to follow, partially completed outlines, or blank outline templates to fill in during the lesson.