An Overview on Note-taking

Few student skills are more valuable--or more underdeveloped--than that of taking good notes. Class or textbook notes not only provide you with a way to "capture" and hold onto valuable information, they also serve other functions. First, they help keep you focused and active during the class itself. Giving your brain the task of listening, digesting the teacher's thoughts, and putting them into your own words is very much preferable to taking a passive role in the class and letting your mind get distracted or drift from thought to thought. Secondly, taking notes increases the likelihood that you will remember the material, even if you do not review it again. The physical action of writing the words on the page and the visual experience of seeing them there will make it much more likely you will remember the material than if you were only to listen casually and have no reinforcement at all.


Note-Taking Tips

You should keep several factors in mind if you wish to take good notes:

  1. Use a loose-leaf system. It is not a good practice to use spiral notebooks. You cannot insert additional pages in them, nor can you easily remove the pages and spread them out in front of yourself to review.
  2. Take notes in a "telegraphic style," like the rest of this paragraph. Key words & phrases--not paragraphs. Saves time & energy. Helps you keep up & makes review easier. Use symbols & abbrev. when poss.
  3. Don't crowd your notes. Make a habit of leaving plenty of "white space" around each section of notes. The white space visually sets off related details into a clear unit of information. Also, it is good to have the extra space to add a few details if you need to later.
  4. Finally, don't try to take dictation. Your task is to digest and summarize what you are hearing or reading. You want to preserve what will help you remember and understand the material later. It is also important to record your comments and reactions to what you are capturing in your notes. Underline what your teacher or textbook stresses as important. If you are confused by the information, make a note to that effect. Your notes should reflect what is going on in your mind, not just what you are hearing or reading.

The I-Note format

The remainder of this tutorial will teach you a very efficient format to use in taking note It is a variation of a method first developed and taught to students at Cornell University. Below is an example of what the format looks like. (You can pick up a sample sheet from the LAC's display shelf labeled "Note-taking" and use it to make copies. Or you can simply draw the three lines on your own paper with a ruler.)

The format gets its name from the lines that form a figure like the capital letter "I." As is readily apparent, the page is divided into four zones, each with its own specific purpose.

The top zone is the heading area. It is important to put the source of the notes and the date you took them at the top, since you will be removing these pages from your notebook when you review them, and the source and date will help you get them back into the right order.

The largest zone, located to the right of the page, is where you actually record your notes. While listening to your instructor's lecture or discussion (or while reading your textbook), you record in this zone the key ideas and supporting details. As noted above, write these in a telegraphic style rather than in conventional sentence and paragraph form. When you have the impression that the teacher or textbook is moving to another major subject or thought, skip an inch or so of space and begin recording those details.

The zone to the left is the cue zone. It is used to record the key words, phrases, or labels for what is written to the right in the notes. Sometimes, your teacher will introduce a new major point with a transition phrase, like "Now let's talk about some of the arguments used by the southern states to justify owning slaves." At that point, you could write a cue phrase like "arguments given for slavery." You would then go on to list those reasons in the notes column as they are given by your instructor. At other times, you may not be sure just where your teacher is heading or what the new main point is. In that case, you record the details in the note column, and once you figure out what the main idea is, you can go back and write a label or cue in the left column.

The bottom zone is what makes the I-note format unique and so valuable. It is reserved for comments and questions. In the comment zone, you step outside your role as just a recorder of ideas and make some judgments about what you have recorded: what is the most important information on the page, what confused you, or what you agree with or disagree with. You may also jot down your speculations about how the material might be tested, perhaps posing a likely essay question or making comments like, "Mr. Smith spent 40 minutes on this--look for it on next test!" You may not be able to jot down comments during the class period, but make a point of doing so later in the class or that evening when you make a quick review of your notes.

I-Notes and Test Preparation

The format described above has plenty of merits as a system for recording your notes, but at review time the I-note pages will give you an added bonus.

You should begin each review by removing the appropriate pages from your notebook and clearing a space in front of you on a desk or table. You then spend a few minutes looking over the cue column to see the topics you are reviewing and reading the notes themselves.

Next use the "cover and recall" method of review. Use a blank sheet to partially cover each page if I notes so that the cue column of is visible.

Now how much information can you write down by each cue. How many times do you need to lift the cover sheet to recall all the notes? As your review continues, you can put a check beside the cues that you can summarize or explain well. You can repeat this process, putting less emphasis on those you've checked off, until you are assured you know all the notes. You can also add mind maps to your cover sheet as you improve your learning.

One of the limitations of notes in a spiral notebook is that it is hard to conduct an "honest" review of the material. As you turn each page, all of the material is there in front of you, and it is difficult to tell if you really know the material, since you have to read through it all to identify the topics and terms you are trying to learn. The I-note system leads to a much more effective review session.

Why not give the system a try? It takes only a little practice and should significantly improve your classroom work and test scores.




More Note Taking Info

Prentice Hall's Student Success CenterNote Taking

CalPoly Study Skills Library

Notetaking Systems

Ohio State AAC Study Tips

Lecture Notes


Dartmouth Academic

Lecture and Class Notes