How to Take Better Notes During Lectures, Discussions, and Interviews

Tried-and-True Methods and Tips From Expert Note-Takers

Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov reading a book
Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) reading a book in his suite at the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland.

Horst Tappe / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Note-taking is the practice of writing down or otherwise recording key points of information. It's an important part of the research process. Notes taken on class lectures or discussions may serve as study aids, while notes taken during an interview may provide material for an essay, article, or book. "Taking notes doesn't simply mean scribbling down or marking up the things that strike your fancy," say Walter Pauk and Ross J.Q. Owens in their book, "How to Study in College." "It means using a proven system and then effectively recording information before tying everything together."

Cognitive Benefits of Note-Taking

Note-taking involves certain cognitive behavior; writing notes engages your brain in specific and beneficial ways that help you grasp and retain information. Note-taking can result in broader learning than simply mastering course content because it helps you to process information and make connections between ideas, allowing you to apply your new knowledge to novel contexts, according to Michael C. Friedman, in his paper, "Notes on Note-Taking: Review of Research and Insights for Students and Instructors," which is part of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching.

Shelley O'Hara, in her book, "Improving Your Study Skills: Study Smart, Study Less," agrees, stating:

"Taking notes involves active listening, as well as connecting and relating information to ideas you already know. It also involves seeking answers to questions that arise from the material."

Taking notes forces you to actively engage your brain as you identify what's important in terms of what the speaker is saying and begin to organize that information into a comprehensible format to decipher later. That process, which is far more than simply scribbling what you hear, involves some heavy brainwork.

Most Popular Note-Taking Methods

Note-taking aids in reflection, mentally reviewing what you write. To that end, there are certain methods of note-taking that are among the most popular:

  • The Cornell method involves dividing a piece of paper into three sections: a space on the left for writing the main topics, a larger space on the right to write your notes, and a space at the bottom to summarize your notes. Review and clarify your notes as soon as possible after class. Summarize what you've written on the bottom of the page, and finally, study your notes.
  • Creating a mind map is a visual diagram that lets you organize your notes in a two-dimensional structure, says Focus. You create a mind map by writing the subject or headline in the center of the page, then add your notes in the form of branches that radiate outward from the center.
  • Outlining is similar to creating an outline that you might use for a research paper.
  • Charting allows you to break up information into such categories as similarities and differences; dates, events, and impact; and pros and cons, according to East Carolina University.
  • The sentence method is when you record every new thought, fact, or topic on a separate line. "All information is recorded, but it lacks [the] clarification of major and minor topics. Immediate review and editing are required to determine how information should be organized," per East Carolina University.

Two-Column Method and Lists

There are, of course, other variations on the previously described note-taking methods, such as the two-column method, says Kathleen T. McWhorter, in her book, "Successful College Writing," who explains that to use this method:

"Draw a vertical line from the top of a piece of paper to the bottom. The left-hand column should be about half as wide as the right-hand column. In the wider, right-hand column, record ideas and facts as they are presented in a lecture or discussion. In the narrower, left-hand column, note your own questions as they arise during the class."

Making a list can also be effective, say John N. Gardner and Betsy O. Barefoot in "Step by Step to College and Career Success." "Once you have decided on a format for taking notes, you may also want to develop your own system of abbreviations," they suggest.

Note-Taking Tips

Among other tips offered by note-taking experts:

  • Leave a space between entries so that you can fill in any missing information.
  • Use a laptop and download information to add to your notes either during or after the lecture.
  • Understand that there is a difference between taking notes on what you read and what you hear (in a lecture). If you're unsure what that might be, visit a teacher or professor during office hours and ask them to elaborate.

If none of these methods suit you, read the words of author Paul Theroux in his article "A World Duly Noted" published in The Wall Street Journal in 2013:

"I write down everything and never assume that I will remember something because it seemed vivid at the time."

And once you read these words, don't forget to jot them down in your preferred method of note-taking so that you won't forget them.

Sources

Brandner, Raphaela. “How to Take Effective Notes Using Mind Maps.” Focus.

East Carolina University.

Friedman, Michael C. "Notes on Note-Taking: Review of Research and Insights for Students and Instructors." Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, 2014.

Gardner, John N. and Betsy O. Barefoot. Step by Step to College and Career Success. 2nd ed., Thomson, 2008.

McWhorter, Kathleen T. Successful College Writing. 4th ed, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

O'Hara, Shelley. Improving Your Study Skills: Study Smart, Study Less. Wiley, 2005.

Pauk, Walter and Ross J.Q. Owens. How to Study in College. 11th ed, Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2004.

Theroux, Paul. "A World Duly Noted." The Wall Street Journal, 3 May 2013.