What types of notes are the best to take in class? That’s a great question we want to address today, for two reasons.
First, this question means you are taking notes in class. Ideally these will be handwritten notes rather than digital. But either way – whether you’re using Evernote or some old-fashioned pencil and paper – taking notes in class will boost your effectiveness significantly.
Second, this question is an important one because the types of notes you take will in large part determine what you remember. How you take notes effects the content in your notes. Since we’re after great content, we also want to make sure we use effective types of notes when taking notes in class. Here are 4 types of notes to consider.
Note-type #1: Two-column notes
This can be one of the most effective types of notes for any student. This is due in part to the ease of learning how to do it.
Step 1: Split your paper into two columns.
Step 2: Take notes.
Okay, it may be a bit more difficult than that – but not a lot. It’s a simple tip you can learn today.
“But what notes should I take?” That’s the difficult part, actually. In our study skills courses we spend a significant part of the teaching on how to know what to study and what things should be recorded in your notes. It’s a really great question. Honestly, it’s one that probably only the top 5% of students really get — hence the time we spend on it in our study skills courses.
So what do you put in your notes? Big ideas go on one side, and key details go on the other.
It sounds pretty simple, as you can see. So why don’t more students use this strategy?
I don’t know, actually. What I’ve seen is that students who spend time learning how to learn tend to get this strategy down. But students who have never done something like take a study skills or speed reading course don’t seem to utilize this strategy as effectively.
If you’re wanting to improve this area of your studies, two column notes are a great tool. They make you start thinking about both what types of notes are best for you personally, and they also help you think about what types of information should be on your notes.
Whatever types of notes you are most comfortable taking, we recommend at least trying two-column notes out.
Note-type #2: Outline
Outlines are a great tried and true note-taking option.
Most students have at least tried taking notes in an outline format. Teachers usually require it at some point.
This type of notes is actually a really effective option. Like two column notes, it forces students to think about what is a big idea and what is a key detail. As I already mentioned, that’s a vitally important distinction. Learning ideas the right way depends on it.
So, are there downsides to taking notes via an outline? Yes. There is a definite downside:
Students hate it.
Maybe you enjoy outlining. Know that you are in the minority.
Are they that bad? No. It’s actually a pretty easy skill once you get it down. But students still don’t like it.
Sometimes students hate these types of notes because it requires them to use a whole lot of paper. I always hated them because of the need for “parallelism” at every line (If you have three sub-points, they all have to be the same structurally). I also couldn’t remember which letter or number came next – is it “A,” or “a,” or “i,” or “1,” or “I”? – which definitely didn’t help the case for outlining.
Here’s an example of a proper outline (*note: depending on your browser, the indentations may be off):
I. Skylar doesn’t like outlining a lecture in class
A. He forgets which numeral comes next
B. He loses track of which subpoint he is on
C. He gets distracted by this type of notes
1. These types of notes are hard for him to make
2. These types of notes are not the best for him to take
II. Skylar decides to try taking different types of notes
Now, even when I tried making an outline the proper way, I almost always ended getting off and mixing up my letters and numbers. When that happened, I had to try to go back and figure out where I got off and fix it. And once that was finished, I’d missed an entire letter and was suddenly off again.
Are outlines helpful? Absolutely — especially when used before writing a paper. Outlining is a vital writing skill for students.
How about taking notes in class this way? In theory, if you want to try taking these types of notes, your should be able to get the format down pat after just a few times taking notes this way. I don’t think I’m talented enough, though.
You should try it. And if it doesn’t work, check out note type #3 (my personal go-to).
Note-type #3: Outline revisited
Of the types of notes discussed here or taught in our study skills courses, this is my favorite.
It has most of the benefits of the first two types of notes, specifically the ability to make big idea and key detail distinctions. It also has the general structure of the outline, which is really helpful.
But it has a benefit that the traditional outline lacks: you get to make up your own symbols.
This is why I like this one. Instead of having to remember if the next point is “ii,” or “b,” or “2,” you just pick a symbol. The only thing you have to do is make sure you keep sub-points of the same big idea using the same symbols.
The outline revisited gives most of the benefits of a traditional outline, but it’s for non-type-A people like me.
Students – look at your desk right now. What do you see? If it’s a clean top, with a filing cabinet next to it, perhaps some hanging folders on the wall, and a neatly organized system for finding school supplies… give the outline a shot. You probably have the personality that can make it work (and oh does it work!).
If you aren’t sure what you see exactly because it’s stacks of papers, piles of pens, and a plate with yesterday’s snack remnants on it… the outline revisited is for you.
Note-type #4: Non-linear types of notes
This is more of a category than a specific recommendation.
The first three types of notes were all linear types of notes. They are helpful because lectures are almost always taught linearly. It doesn’t matter what school you attend, what grade you’re in, or what subject you are learning – lectures are linear.
That means for in-class note-taking, the best types of notes will almost always be linear as well.
But this isn’t a guarantee. Sometimes you just need to try something different. If so, try mapping out the ideas in class.
A good note map can be one of the more effective types of notes, although they can be difficult to make on the fly. They’re often best made after first taking notes in a different format. But if you want to try to make a great non-linear note map, try making a spider web of ideas with big ideas acting as hub ideas and key details acting as the points shooting off each hub.
If you’d like more info on non-linear types of notes, check out Wikipedia’s article on note-taking. It’s helpful.
Which of these types of notes is best?
That’s like asking which type of apples is best.
Honey crisp, clearly.
Just kidding – it’s all based on preference. So, which works best for you? We’d love to hear your response in the comments. After you’ve tried all of these, which types of notes work best for you?