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Learn To Take Better Notes – 3 Note Taking Strategies Compared

Did you know that some research studies have shown you can forget up to 90% of what you’ve learned in less than a week? Other studies show we retain half of what we’ve learned for 30 days, and there are any number of statistics in between

What’s most important though, is this: over time, we all slowly forget what we’ve learned.  I discussed this recently in an article about the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.

One effective strategy for improving retention is note taking – not just because you’ll have a written record to refer to in the future, but also because the actual act of taking notes can help cement concepts in your mind.

What are some of the best strategies for note taking? You’ll learn about and compare three powerful ones in this article.

Outline System

A lot of people try to write down paragraph style verbatim what they’re learning – whether in lecture form, watching videos, or perhaps even through books.

Rather than taking straight paragraph notes, I use an outline system which looks like this:

Top of page: Date, General Topic of Notes, Course/Book/Video (as applicable)

  • Primary Topic
    • Secondary Topic
      • Detailed paragraph notes in bullet point form as needed
      • Detailed paragraph notes in bullet point form as needed
    • Secondary Topic
      • Detailed paragraph notes in bullet point form as needed
      • Detailed paragraph notes in bullet point form as needed

For a long time, this was my preferred method of note taking.  Compared to more traditional paragraph style notes, this made my notes more skimmable for quick review. It also forced me to think about what I was learning as I was learning it to appropriate group items together.

I made one modification to the traditional way of outlining:  during particularly dense sessions, I would leave 4-6 lines space in the middle of my outlines to allow for my own personal “resource boxes.” I’d draw a box in that space, and put anything especially important in there – insights, important quotes from a book, an important anecdote from a video etc.  Sometimes I would just summarize or even put thought provoking questions there.

Over time, I learned about a new method which I began to use as my primary method of note taking – while incorporating my outlines into it.  I now primarily use the Cornell Note Taking Method.

Cornell Note Taking Method

The basic principle behind the Cornell Note Taking Method is that your notes end up serving multiple purposes:

  • The actual notes from the session so that you have a record of information you may have forgotten
  • A summary of what was covered in the session so you can easily search
  • A set of cues and questions that serve as a mini study guide

The template is shown below.  Note that ” denotes inches, but I’ve also included approximate percentages to give you an idea of where the lines should be drawn.

Taking notes in this way is a multi step process.

  1. Record - During the session, the Note Taking Column is used to record meaningful facts. I prefer using my normal outline method here, but you can use whatever note taking method you’re most comfortable with
  2. Reduce –  After the session (or during), use the Cue Column to summarize facts and questions from the notes you’ve taken
  3. Recite – Cover the note taking column, so that only the Cue Column is visible.  Some people recommend using your hand, I prefer to fold the page.  Using the Cue Words and Questions, in your own words recite the note. During this stage, you may find you’ve forgotten to include a main point in the Cue Column – go ahead and add it.
  4. Reflect –  Look at main points (usually in the Cue Column) and reflect on them.  This is a good time to try and draw connections with other things you’ve learned. I also like to use the Resource Boxes in my Note Taking Column for this purpose.
  5. Review –  As discussed in my previous article about the forgetting curve, over time we tend to forget what we’ve learned.  On a weekly basis, spend some time reviewing the Summary and Cue Column. As needed, refer to the Note Taking Column and resource boxes to keep the information fresh.

A quick note, I prefer to actually put the summary at the top of the page rather than the bottom, but I’ve included it at the bottom in the template because that’s how it’s traditionally done in this system.

Flow-Based Note Taking

Flow based note taking is a brand new concept to me that I’ve been learning about through Scott Young’s fantastic course, Learn More, Study Less. While I’m no longer in college, I don’t think we ever stop learning, so I’m always looking for new ways to improve my own learning process.

Flow-Based Note Taking reminds me a lot of mind mapping.  Here’s what it looks like, and then we’ll discuss it:

Image taken from Learn More, Study Less

The major difference between Flow-Based Note Taking and the two methods discussed above is (in my opinion) that the primary goal of Flow-Based Notetaking is to improve the amount you learn and absorb during the session itself.  The end goal is to improve your own understanding of the material, and the notes end up being a byproduct that can be useful to jog your memory during study sessions – but not to serve as a detailed study guide with all the specific included.

The general process for Flow-Based Note Taking is:

  • In Flow-Based Note Taking you write down major ideas rather than paragraphs and sentences
  • Once you have some ideas written down, you connect them by drawing few arrows, pictures and diagrams to connect them to each other as related concepts.

As the image above demonstrates, this ends up looking like a bit of a mindmap – and forces you to think about how ideas are related while you’re learning them.  One thing I did when I was using this method while reading books was I went ahead and added in concepts outside the book as well – ideas from other video lectures, books, or even experiences I had in real life that came to mind as I was drawing my Flow Based notes.

Better Connections and Alertness

One interesting thing I noticed was that with Flow-Based Note Taking, I feel much more alert during the learning process. I think that by default, when I’m learning new concepts, I primarily engage my left (logical) brain.  I’m no expert on learning, so take this personal experience with a grain of salt, but I think drawing the pictures, metaphors and connections engages my right (creative) brain more – and in that way I think I do absorb more information and learn better during the session itself

One major drawback is as Scott discusses, these notes aren’t as good for sharing with a friend who may have missed class and wants to copy your notes – there’s simply not enough information there because rather than blindly writing down everything mentioned, the notes are meant to jog your memory and your own understanding.

If you’re currently taking note strictly by writing down exactly what has been said, or perhaps even using a more logic based approach like outlining, I encourage you to give Flow Based Note Taking a chance.  I think the one major issue I have with it is with very fact based learning (for example, calculus equations) it may be more difficult to apply.  Scott discusses a few hybrid strategies specifically do deal with those situations – such as taking more rote, “default” notes and then drawing out connections later when time allows – during the session itself, or perhaps after during a review.

When learning about leadership techniques and personal development books in particular though, I think it’s a great way to let the lessons sink it – and to have a quick map to review after.

For more information, check out Learn More, Study Less.

Further Reading

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Please note: I research articles and double check my facts but I can make mistakes.  If you find an error, please feel free to email me sid@sidsavara.com.  I am available on Twitter @sidsavara.  Purchasing products through links on SidSavara.com can result in affiliate commissions to me.  I use A Small Orange for web hosting, and MailChimp as my newsletter provider.

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By Sid Savara
Published April 27th 2014
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