Five Classic Ways to Boost Your Note-Taking

Aug 13  Author. Comments: 0
If your note-taking skills are suffering from summertime rigor mortis, now's as good a time as any to throw a new technique into the mix. Let's take a look at some new and old tools for improving your ballpoint repertoire.

The Cornell method

This oldie is a highly-regarded, very common system that makes it especially easier to retain information. By reviewing things as you go, you might even get away with less studying.

Divide your page into two columns. The left one (which could also just be the back of the previous page in your notebook) is narrower. You're going to jot larger ideas in this column: the 5-dollar-words and big bullet points. In the right column, you're going to take down as much information as possible. The right column is allowed to be messy, have pictures and tables—it's not necessarily organized. To some students, it's just regular notes. But as you go, record the main corresponding idea in the left column.

Every so often, cover the detailed notes on the right and just examine the main points and new vocab. See how much you can recite and explain in your own words. Then remove your hand and see how you did. Depending on the teacher, you might do this during lulls in the discussion or after class.

Some versions of the Cornell system leave the last few lines on each page for summarizing the whole page. Since what's on a given page doesn't necessarily group together nicely, I don't recommend doing it. But summarizing can help you with wading through piles of pages when studying time comes.

For a more in-depth look at the Cornell method, take a look at our previous guide to taking study-worthy lecture notes.

Go visual

It's tough to enter a classroom with colored pencils and still expect your fellow students to take you seriously. But unless you try it, you'll never know if it works better for you. Forget the status-quo and try something visual. Color-code with different pens, pencils, and highlighters. You might not have seen a web-style map of ideas since elementary school, but mind-mapping is hailed as quite an efficient way to group data. It needn't even be a rigid classification system—anything is better than doodling in the margins.

Switch mediums

For how tech-savvy our generation is, I still see surprisingly few laptops in classrooms. Try it out a few times and see if you like it. Particularly, if you're the type who outlines, computers let you go back and organize information on-the-fly. Laptops also let you and your classmates AIM with real-time questions about the opposite sex the lecture. There are also programs made just for taking notes, sharing them, organizing them, etc. Wikipedia has a great table that compares them all, or you can take a look at Lifehacker reader's favorite note-taking tools.

On the other hand, if you already use a laptop, try the pen-and-paper route again. Let loose a bit and see how that goes. Try scribbling out mistakes and drawing arrows everywhere. Or try one of the visual techniques above, most of which are difficult on a computer.


Notes are probably the only place in the classroom where internet slang is commendable. Trying some new shorthand is a really geeky way to slightly tweak your engravings and get you amped about taking notes again. Here are a few resources to get you started:

A Guide to Alternative Handwriting and Shorthand Systems
Shorthand Shorthand Shorthand

My favorite method is called Teeline—anyone can look at this one and learn a few things. It's mostly based around removing unimportant letters and making complex letters easier to write quickly.

Instead of converting entirely to shorthand, you might try translating just some of your most-frequently used words into a shorthand "language" that takes less time to write.

If you're taking notes on the computer, supercharge your repetitive typing with tools like our very own text-replacement application Texter (Windows) or TextExpander (Mac).


Oh goodness! Don't take notes? How controversial!

Well, it couldn't hurt to relax every once in a while. Especially in small classes and seminar situations, staying engaged through discussion and questions might do you better than scribbling every word.

Here's another way to avoid taking notes: Record your lectures. Digital recorders can capture hours of audio. Sit back and just listen. After class, you can play it back at double-speed and take notes in half the time. Take that, engineers!


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