Note Taking Strategies of Highly Successful Students

Successful students are able to take notes in a variety of ways that make learning more accessible. In order for successful students to succeed, they must find the best note taking strategy for their needs and goals.

The “5 methods of note-taking” is a list of methods that highly successful students use to take notes. The list includes outlining, mind maps, and more.

We wrote an article on study ideas to help you ace your exams a few weeks ago. I suggested in that piece that I may write a follow-up essay on note-taking, and several of you urged that I do so. And I’m delighted to help. I’ve included a primer on note-taking techniques below, many of which I utilized throughout my academic career. A lot of this is really basic information–there are no “secrets” to effective note-taking. But maybe, a couple of these pointers will assist you in improving your note-taking skills.

Tools for Taking Notes


Vintage man working on a big computer machine in room.

I suggest taking notes on a laptop for the majority of your lectures (particularly lecture-heavy social science courses). You can type quicker than you can write, which makes it simpler to organize your notes, and your notes will always be in readable type rather than the chicken scratch that passes for handwriting.

Make use of a note-taking application. While you may use your computer’s default text file editor or word processing tool, I suggest utilizing a note-taking program instead. Two that I’ve had success with are listed below.

Evernote. During law school, I utilized Evernote to keep track of my notes. If you’re a student, I strongly advise you to utilize it as well. Evernote is a powerful, free(!) note-taking program that helps you recall and organize everything your lecturer says.

Evernote desktop software notes are instantly synced with your Evernote account online. Your notes will be protected in the cloud even if your laptop dies or goes missing. If you prefer to write your notes by hand but want to save them digitally, Evernote allows you to do so. Simply scan your handwritten notes into Evernote, and Evernote will employ image recognition technology to enable you to search inside the program for your handwritten notes. It also allows you to record your lecturer using the microphone on your computer (just be sure to ask your professor first whether recording him or her is alright).

OneNote. Microsoft’s note-taking application is called OneNote. Before Evernote came out, I used it as an undergrad. OneNote is a good tool, however it does have a few flaws. The first is the price. OneNote is only available if you purchase Microsoft Office. This will cost you $119. Check with your school’s IT department to see whether MS Office is available at a reduced price. In law school, I recall being able to get it for $20. Another issue is that OneNote does not sync as well as Evernote does. In conclusion, Evernote is the way to go.

Figure out how to type (faster). Learn to touch-type if you don’t already know how. It will make it much simpler for you to stay up with your lecturer. Start utilizing the many free internet tools that teach you how to type that are available. is my personal fave. It’s completely free. If you already know how to type, try to improve your speed.

Learn how to use keyboard shortcuts. You’ll probably want to bold, underline, or italicize specific points and phrases while you take notes in class. Save time by utilizing a keyboard shortcut instead of moving to and clicking the “Bold” button in your toolbar with your track pad.


Here are several keyboard shortcuts that every excellent note-taker should be familiar with:

Control+B (Command+B on Mac) to bold text, then write what you wish to bold. Control+U (Command+U on Mac) to underline text, then input what you want underlined. Control+I (Command+I on Mac) to italicize text, then input what you want italicized.

To make a bulleted list, follow these steps: It is dependent on the platform.

  • Control+Shift+U (Command+Shift+U on Mac) Evernote/OneNote
  • Control+Shift+L (Command+Shift+L on Mac) is a key combination.

To make a numbered list, follow these steps: It is dependent on the platform.

  • Control+Shift+O (Command+Shift+O on Mac) Evernote/OneNote
  • Control+Alt+L is a word.

Control+F (Command+F on Mac) to locate text This comes in helpful when you’re going through your notes and want to locate occasions when you wrote about a certain subject.

Use text expansion software. If you find yourself typing the same phrases or words over and over again, use a text expander application to save time. You may set specified keystrokes to complete words and phrases using text expander tools. The text expander will write out the whole word or phrase whenever you enter that keystroke.

Instead of typing out “intentional infliction of emotional distress” every time my professor stated it in Torts during my first year of law school, I developed a text expander to produce “intentional infliction of emotional distress” anytime I entered “iied.” Isn’t it amazing?

For the numerous operating systems out there, here are several text expander programs:

PhraseExpress is a service that allows you to search for words (Windows 7)

Message sender (All other versions of Windows)

TextExpander is a program that allows you to expand the (Mac)

AutoKey is a program that automates the (Linux)

AutoHotKey (Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux)

a pen and some paper

Some teachers are beginning to prohibit the use of laptops in their classrooms in order to prevent pupils from browsing the internet during class and compel them to pay attention. If you end up in one of these seminars, you’ll need to utilize the same note-taking equipment that your father and grandfather did: a pen and paper.

Even if your professor does not prohibit the use of computers, there are certain courses where taking notes by hand is preferable. Calculus, chemistry, physics, economics, symbolic logic, and other classes with a lot of numbers, equations, and formulae are best suited for handwritten notes. It’s simply too difficult to spell out that kind of thing on a keyboard. I’ve also discovered that for language lessons, pen and paper works well. You’ll often be copying conjugation tables from the blackboard, which is simpler to accomplish by hand than by typing.

Each class should have its own notebook. Each class should have its own notebook. It maintains everything in order. Furthermore, if you retain all of your class notes in the same notebook and lose it, you’re pretty much screwed.

Write in a clear manner. Make sure you can see your notes afterwards if you’re going to handwrite them. PenMANship. It’s macho since it contains the word “man.”

Prepare for Effective Note-Taking Before the Lecture

Complete the reading assignment. Doing the prescribed reading is the greatest way to prepare for class. You will be better able to grasp the professor’s lecture and separate out the relevant aspects if you are acquainted with the content. Take notes on what you believe are the major points as you read. Highlight, underline, and scribble in the margins of the book. As you read, jot down any questions that come to mind.


Arrive 10 minutes early for class and go through the prescribed reading and prior class notes. Arrive a few minutes early to class. Take a seat at the front of the class and gather your belongings. Examine your reading assignment as well as your notes. Make a list of any questions you had throughout the reading that you’d want the lecturer to address during the lecture.

Block the internet or turn off the wi-fi card. You will not be able to concentrate in class if you are surfing Reddit. Use one of the internet filtering programs we discussed in a previous article or disable your computer’s wifi card.

What to Write Down During the Lecture

Only jot down the most important elements from the talk. Don’t jot down everything! Your aim is to extract and capture the key ideas of your professor’s lecture, not to copy it word for word. Learning to separate the wheat from the chaff is the key to effective note-taking. During the lecture, your lecturer will most likely go off on tangents and say things that will not be on the test. You don’t want to spend time writing down and learning information that will not be examined.

So, how do you determine the professor’s important points? Pay attention to any intentionally or unconsciously given clues from your educator. During the lecture, your lecturer may offer you a few indications. Whenever you see them, it’s likely that he’s saying something significant, so take notes.

  • “You must know this,” or “This will be on the exam,” says the lecturer. Duh.
  • When the lecturer keeps repeating himself.
  • Anything the lecturer scribbles on the board or incorporates into a Powerpoint presentation.
  • Anything the lecturer says slowly enough to be written down word for word.
  • If your lecturer begins to speak more rapidly, loudly, or emphatically.
  • Keep an eye out for language that demonstrates how concepts are connected. Professors often acquire their test questions from places like these:
    • first, second, and third place
    • particularly, crucially, crucially, crucially, crucially, crucially, crucially, crucial
    • On the other hand, if you’re looking for a unique way to express yourself
    • because, because of, because of, because of, because of, because of, because of, because of,

At the conclusion of class, write the professor’s summary, then at the start of the following class, write his review. Your lecturer will often highlight the important takeaways at the conclusion of class. Make a note of it. Your lecturer is simply summarizing the most important issues she wants you to be aware of. Your lecturer may conduct a fast review of the previous class and then provide a preview of how those points connect to the day’s lecture at the start of the following session. Make a note of it.

Make a note of any instances or hypotheticals that the lecturer brings up in class. This is particularly critical in math and science programs. If you’re in law school, make a list of any potential difficulties your lecturer could bring up. A hypothetical like this will very certainly appear on your final test.


Make a note of anything you didn’t understand and come back to it after class. If you don’t understand anything, make a mental note to question the lecturer about it after class. Respect the lecturer as well as the rest of your peers.

Review, Clarify, and Synthesize After the Lecture

Vintage man studying in dorm room at desk in chair.

After class, review and clarify your notes. Organize your calendar so that you have time to check your notes straight after each lesson. During this time, check through your notes and make sure you understand everything you wrote. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something in class that left me scratching my head and thinking, “What the hell did I mean by that?” If you don’t understand a note, go through the reading material again or ask a fellow student or the lecturer. After class, go through your notes again to help with memory retention.

Consolidate your notes into a comprehensive outline. Someone wondered what I meant by “synthesizing your notes” in the comments section of the study suggestions page. It just entails putting your lecture and reading notes together into a logical whole. This is a lot more difficult than it seems. It demands you to examine many pieces of information, determine the essential concepts and their relationships, and arrange them in a logical manner.

Making a master outline is one of the most effective strategies to synthesize your notes. The process of making an outline encourages you to put all of your notes together into a coherent whole. See our post on study suggestions for additional information on how to make an outline.

Styles of Taking Notes

Professors and learning experts have recommended numerous note-taking strategies to assist students arrange their notes throughout the years. I’ve tried them all, but I always go back to my tried-and-true technique. Here’s a short rundown of the many note-taking techniques available. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Method of a Rough Outline

My usual method of taking notes is to make a basic outline of the lecture with bullet points. I’ll simply click “tab” and make a nested list if there’s a sub-point. Important points will be bolded or underlined. It’s hardly the most advanced form of note-taking, but it works for me. This method makes it much simpler to eventually organize your thoughts into a final plan.

Notes on Cornell Style

Walter Pauk, a Cornell University professor, created this note-taking technique in the 1950s. It’s a method of organizing your notes in order to make reviewing more efficient and productive. This is how you go about doing it.

Make two columns on your page. The left-hand column should be labeled “Keywords,” and the right-hand column should be labeled “Notes.” Mark out an area underneath those two columns and title it “Summary.” This is what it should look like:

Keywords Notes

Notes should be written in the “Notes” section during the lecture. As you usually would, jot down notes. The objective is to remember important data and the lecture’s primary topics.


Fill in the “Keywords” section with keywords after the lecture. Review your notes in the “Notes” section right after the lecture. Make an effort to condense each line or section of notes into a single term. In the “Term” column on the left, write down the keyword. For example, if you had a full paragraph of notes in the “Note” column on the 1961 Civil Rights Act, you would put “1961 Civil Rights Act” next to the section and in the left-hand “Keyword” column.

Only use the “Keyword” column to test your recollection. A piece of paper should be placed over the “Notes” column, but the “Keyword” column should remain visible. Try to recollect as much of your class notes as possible while looking at your keywords. If you choose, speak aloud or just jot down what comes to mind. Uncover your notes area after you’re finished to double-check what you said or typed down. This will assist you in recalling the facts.

Make a quick summary. When you’re through with the recall exercise, fill in the “Summary” area with a quick summary of the day’s notes.

You may get Cornell Style Notes templates if you take notes on a computer. Simply Google “Cornell Notes template” and choose one that appeals to you. Here’s an excellent one for Microsoft Word.

Mind Mapping is a technique for organizing thoughts.

Mind mapping is a kind of visual note-taking. Instead of typing or writing phrases in a linear fashion, you sketch your thoughts using mind mapping. Mind mapping proponents say that the non-linear, visual style of mind maps allows pupils to discover connections that might otherwise go unnoticed when utilizing typical note-taking methods. Also, since mind mapping is a creative activity, it is thought to boost information retention by activating both the left and right hemispheres of the brain (a claim that some brain researchers dispute).

Simply put the main subject of the day’s lesson in the middle of a sheet of paper to mind map a lecture. Write fresh points around the principal theme as the lecturer makes them. Draw lines to link the various concepts. Instead of writing words, feel free to create pictures. After all, mind mapping is a visual activity.

Philip Chambers has created a vivid example of a mind map:

Mind Mapping drawing by Philip Chambers.

Mind mapping is something that a lot of people swear by. During my academic career, I tried it a few times but never found it to be particularly useful for taking lecture notes. Because I was so preoccupied with sketching and linking concepts, I’d constantly overlook essential aspects. Additionally, the non-linear structure makes it tough to organize your notes.

See The Mind Map Book for additional information on mind mapping.

Methodology for Charting

If your professor’s presentation is going to be about contrasting and comparing two or more topics, you may choose to employ the charting approach. In the note-taking application you’re using, make a table. Create as many columns as the categories you’re contrasting and comparing. Each column should be labeled with a category. Take notes while you listen to the lecture and file them away in the relevant category.


That concludes my advice for effective note-taking. I’d love to hear from the gentleman academics out there about their note-taking techniques!



The “five benefits of note making” is a strategy that highly successful students use. The five benefits are: it helps you remember what you learn, it can be used as a tool to study and improve your skills, it’s good for time management, it can help build confidence in public speaking, and finally it can help with academic work.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most effective strategy for note-taking?

A: The most effective way to take notes is by using the built-in app on your phone, as it allows you to write in a format that is easily understandable and also makes sense of what has been written.

What are 5 note-taking strategies?

A: Here are 5 strategies for effective note taking in college lectures and other classes.
1) Take notes on the blackboard or overhead projector 2) Plan out your lecture ahead of time, writing down key things you want to make sure you cover 3) Write small ideas in the margins 4) Create a mind map using sticky notes 5) Use keywords (to-do lists).

How are good note-taking skills connected to a students success?

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