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The Why's and How's of Note-taking

Listening to a long lecture requires a kind of mental focus that even the most diligent students can struggle with. Since it can be difficult to retain all of the complicated details of a classroom lecture or TED talk, it is crucial to organize your ideas in order to be able to use them effectively in speaking, writing, or in preparation for a test.

This is where note-taking steps in and why it's so important. Studies show that note-taking not only aids in memory and retention of information but also allows students to think critically and reflect upon the input they receive (Boch 2005). Here are three strategies for taking notes, how to do them, and when they are most effective.

1. The Bartush Active Method

Thinking about relationships

This note-taking method utilizes margins and a system of indentation to differentiate main ideas from details. It also supports research that the human brain cannot retain more than seven figures at a time (hence seven-digit phone numbers). For that reason, this method instructs students to note no more than seven main ideas in a lecture and then, no more than seven supporting details related to each main point. Main ideas are written at the left margin. Details are indented to the right of the left margin beneath their corresponding main point.

Example (using "Note-taking" as the main subject):


Method #1

Method #2

Method #3

This style of note-taking is very effective for lectures that are dense in facts and figures and can help when studying for exams that will test on highly specific information. Organizing information based on primary, secondary, and even tertiary importance allows the relationships between ideas and concepts to become more evident. Instead of a lecture with endless amounts of information, you have a clear system of main concepts and corresponding details related to each.

2. Summary and Response

Thinking critically

This style of note-taking is all about asking yourself to think critically about the information you are receiving. Divide your paper into two columns. The left-hand column should be significantly larger than the right-hand. In this first column, take notes on the lecture. As you note the main points, ask yourself questions about what it is you are learning. Do you agree with the material? If so, write "Yes! I totally agree with this" in the right-hand column directly across from the material. If you're unsure about what you've heard, you can write "Wait, but does that always apply in all situations?" or something similar. In this way, once the lecture ends, not only will you have the facts and figures, but also your thoughts and comments about them, in real-time. Sometime after this, look back over the notes you have in the first column, and add additional comments to the second column.

This structure is extremely useful when asked to write a summary/response essay. Often, when too much time has passed between the lecture and your written assignment, it can be difficult to reconnect with the material. Maybe you've forgotten the main points. Even if you haven't, you've most likely forgotten your initial response to them. This style of note-taking can also be very useful for studying for exams where you'll be asked to think critically about course material. Responding to and analyzing concepts is much more than simply repeating what you've learned; it requires you to consider what you think of the material, and this style of note-taking sets you up to do just that.

3. Mind Map

Thinking spatially

Every one of us organizes information differently in our heads. Some of us are visual learners, others more logical. Unlike a computer screen, which forces you to organize information linearly, what's great about having paper and pen in hand, is that you have the freedom to organize your ideas in a way that makes sense, to you.

Mind-mapping involves a series of circles and figures that connect ideas. It allows you to go back to the information you've heard and interact with it in a new way. You can circle ideas that are repeated and stressed, draw arrows to connect those ideas to others, and use size to emphasize major and minor points (big circles and words for major points, smaller circles and words for minor points).

This style of note-taking can help students to tap into their creative side and allow their brain to process information in a way that is subconscious and intuitive.

Any one of these three note-taking methods will lead to success. Try them all out. Find the one that works best for you. Maybe that's a combination of all three. The important thing is to find a system of note-taking that will work for you and that allows you to retain and utilize information in a meaningful and effective way.


Boch, F., & Piolat, A. (n.d.). Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research. The WAK

Journal 2005:16

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