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3.7: Reading Strategies - Taking Notes

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    Note-Taking Methods

    One final valuable tool to have in your arsenal as a student is a good note-taking system. Just the act of converting a spoken lecture to notes helps you organize and retain information, and of course, good notes also help you review important concepts later. Although taking good notes is an essential study skill, many students enter college without having received much guidance about note taking.

    These sections discuss different strategies you can use to take notes efficiently. No matter which system you choose, keep the note-taking guidelines in mind.

    General Note Taking Guidelines

    1. Before class, quickly review your notes from the previous class and the assigned reading. Fixing key terms and concepts in your mind will help you stay focused and pick out the important points during the lecture.
    2. Come prepared with paper, pens, highlighters, textbooks, and any important handouts.
    3. Come to class with a positive attitude and a readiness to learn. During class, make a point of concentrating. Ask questions if you need to. Be an active participant.
    4. During class, capture important ideas as concisely as you can. Use words or phrases instead of full sentences and abbreviate when possible.
    5. Visually organize your notes into main topics, subtopics, and supporting points, and show the relationships between ideas. Leave space if necessary so you can add more details under important topics or subtopics.
    6. Record the following:
      1. Ideas that the instructor repeats frequently or points out as key ideas
      2. Ideas the instructor lists on a whiteboard or transparency
      3. Details, facts, explanations, and lists that develop main points
      4. Definitions of key terms
    7. Review your notes regularly throughout the semester, not just before exams.

    Organizing Ideas in Your Notes

    A good note-taking system needs to help you differentiate among major points, related subtopics, and supporting details. It visually represents the connections between ideas. Finally, to be effective, your note-taking system must allow you to record and organize information fairly quickly. Although some students like to create detailed, formal outlines or concept maps when they read, these may not be good strategies for class notes, because spoken lectures may not allow time for elaborate notes.

    Instead, focus on recording content simply and quickly to create organized, legible notes. Try one of the following techniques.

    Modified Outline Format

    A modified outline format uses indented spacing to show the hierarchy of ideas without including roman numerals, lettering, and so forth. Just use a dash or bullet to signify each new point unless your instructor specifically presents a numbered list of items.

    The first example shows Crystal’s notes from a developmental psychology class about an important theorist in this field. Notice how the line for the main topic is all the way to the left. Subtopics are indented, and supporting details are indented one level further. Crystal also used abbreviations for terms like development and example.


    Idea Mapping

    If you discovered in Chapter 1 that you learn best with visual presentations, you may prefer to use a more graphic format for notes, such as an idea map. The next example shows how Crystal’s lecture notes could be set up differently. Although the format is different, the content and organization are the same.



    If the content of a lecture falls into a predictable, well-organized pattern, you might choose to use a chart or table to record your notes. This system works best when you already know, either before class or at the beginning of class, which categories you should include. The next figure shows how this system might be used.

    Jean Piaget Switzerland

    1920s through


    1. sensorimotor (0-2)
    2. preoperational (2-7)
    3. concrete operational (7-12)
    4. formal operational (12-adulthood)
    Erik Erikson Denmark (studied in Austria, emigrated to US in 1930s)

    1930s through


    1. trust vs. mistrust (infants)
    2. autonomy vs. shame and doubt (toddler)
    3. initiative vs. guilt (preschool-K)
    4. industry vs. inferiority (elementary school)
    5. identity vs. role confusion (teen years)

    ***See also stages of adult development

    The Cornell Note-Taking System

    In addition to the general techniques already described, you might find it useful to practice a specific strategy known as the Cornell note-taking system. This popular format makes it easy not only to organize information clearly but also to note key terms and summarize content.

    To use the Cornell system, begin by setting up the page with these components:

    • The course name and lecture date at the top of the page
    • A narrow column (about two inches) at the left side of the page
    • A wide column (about five to six inches) on the right side of the page
    • A space of a few lines marked off at the bottom of the page

    During the lecture, record notes in the wide column. You can do so using the traditional modified outline format or a more visual format if you prefer.

    Then, as soon as possible after the lecture, review your notes and identify key terms. Jot these down in the narrow left-hand column. You can use this column as a study aid by covering the notes on the right-hand side, reviewing the key terms, and trying to recall as much as you can about them so that you can mentally restate the main points of the lecture. Uncover the notes on the right to check your understanding. Finally, use the space at the bottom of the page to summarize each page of notes in your own words in a few sentences.

    Using the Cornell system, Crystal’s notes would look like the following:



    Often, at school or in the workplace, a speaker will provide you with pre-generated notes summarizing electronic presentation slides. You may be tempted not to take notes at all because much of the content is already summarized for you. However, it is a good idea to jot down at least a few notes. Doing so keeps you focused during the presentation, allows you to record details you might otherwise forget, and gives you the opportunity to jot down questions or reflections to personalize the content.

    Over the next few weeks, establish a note-taking system that works for you.

    1. If you are not already doing so, try using one of the aforementioned techniques. (Remember that the Cornell system can be combined with other note-taking formats.)
    2. It can take some trial and error to find a note-taking system that works for you. If you find that you are struggling to keep up with lectures, consider whether you need to switch to a different format or be more careful about distinguishing key concepts from unimportant details.
    3. If you find that you are having trouble taking notes effectively, set up an appointment with your school’s academic resource center.

    Underline or Highlight Interesting and Important Places in the Text

    Underline or highlight words, sentences, and passages that stand out, for whatever reason. Underline the key arguments that you believe the author of the text is making, and mark any evidence, examples, and stories that seem interesting or important. You might want to differentiate the evidence from the main ideas by using a different color marker or indicating the difference in another way. But don’t be afraid to “get it wrong.” There is no right or wrong here. The sentences in the text that you underline may be the same or different from those noticed by your classmates, and this difference of interpretation is the essence of critical reading. Consider using different colored highlighters or pens for the various categories of the writing, such as new vocabulary, main ideas, and important examples. Otherwise, you risk turning your text into one big underline or highlight of the same color. It is also a good idea to re-state main ideas in your own words. This acts as a comprehension check and gives you a start on any writing you may do later.


    If you merely read a text, start to finish, and don’t write anything, you won’t have a good understanding of what you read. Sure, you might know the main point the author was trying to make, and that may be good enough if you’re reading for fun, but it’s not good enough for college.

    Annotating is good for a number of reasons. It helps you in:

    • staying engaged and connected while you read
    • making sure you understand what you read
    • finding the main points and how the text is organized
    • identifying and sorting information for an assignment
    • remembering what you read and thought about, at that time.

    No matter what you are annotating, you should be writing on the same page, next to what’s printed, on sticky notes, or on a double-entry journal. Annotating consists of many different practices: writing notes in the margins of the page, jotting symbols in the margins next to passages, underlining sentences, circling words, paraphrasing etc.

    Key: We annotate differently depending on the purpose.

    There are four general reasons for annotation.

    1. When you annotate for ENGAGEMENT, your priority is to keep focused on, and emotionally and intellectually connected to, what you are reading.

    What you might do or think: What you might write:

    Respond to the text emotionally

    Inspiring :-) Discouraging :-(

    Relate to the text

    Ref. Psych Prof. point about anxiety

    Me in 9th grade

    Visualize information or concept

    Doodle or draw a picture to remind yourself quickly.

    Ask questions

    How does this compare to middle-class students?

    Observations about text Disagree (with the opinion he just described)

    Predict what is coming next

    I think the character will....

    Connect with other knowledge

    Different cause/effect than Wise describes

    2. When you realize you are confused, you need some strategies for COMPREHENSION.

    What you might do or think: What you might write:

    You don’t understand a word or term, so you go back and reread the sentence and figure it out – or you look it up.

    Circle the word, and, after you figure out its meaning, write the meaning next to the word.

    You don’t understand a word, but realize you can keep reading and still understand.

    Circle the word and look it up later.

    You don't understand what the author is saying as it applies to that particular situation.

    Write your question next to the text and bring it up in class or with a tutor.

    3. When you are annotating to find the author’s MAIN POINTS, you will need to identify the supporting points and details used to build the argument in order to discuss and write about it. This is also a helpful check for your understanding, especially if you try to rewrite the main points in your own words.

    What you might do or think: What you might write:

    You find the sentence that seems to be the main idea of a paragraph.

    Underline and paraphrase it briefly.

    You don’t see the main point actually written there, but you know what it is.

    Paraphrase it.

    The author says she has three reasons for her point, so you decide to make sure you can find all three.

    Write “3 reasons” in the margin, and underline and number the reasons – 1, 2, 3 – when you find them.

    The author gives examples for her point.

    Underline them and write “ex” and draw an arrow to the point that the example is supporting.

    4. When you annotate to find details and INFORMATION to use in your ESSAY, you will want to start to organize that information right on the page itself.

    What you might do or think: What you might write:

    You find a statistic showing that more first generation students than ever are going to college.

    Underline the statistic and write

    1st gen population > ever

    You find a quote or detail that supports the idea that wages of people of color were rising in the '60s due to affirmative action

    Underline it and write

    aff. action 60s ups wages

    Read over your annotations to help you remember what you read and THOUGHT!

    Taking Notes

    Take notes on the margins of the text. If you do not want to write on your book or journal, attach post-it notes with your comments to the text. If your source is electronic, use the highlighting and commenting functions available in many e-readers. Try to avoid reading text on your phone because the screen is small, and cell phones don't generally have annotation capabilities. Do not be afraid to write too much. This is the stage of the reading process during which you are actively finding meaning. Writing about what you read is the best way to make sense of it, especially, if the text is difficult. Writing about what you read will help you not only to remember the argument that the author is trying to advance, but it will also help you create your own interpretations of the text you are reading.

    Here are some things you can do in your comments:

    • Ask questions.
    • Identify unknown vocabulary.
    • Agree or disagree with the author.
    • Question the evidence presented in the text.
    • Offer counter-evidence.
    • Offer additional evidence, examples, stories, etc. that support the author’s argument.
    • Mention other texts that advance the same or similar arguments.
    • Mention personal experiences that enhance your reading of the text.

    Keep a Double-Entry Journal

    Many writers like double-entry journals because they allow us to make that leap from summary of a source to interpretation and persuasion. To start a double-entry journal, divide a page into two columns. As you read, in the left column write down interesting and important words, sentences, quotations, and passages from the text. (Be sure to include the page number to make it easier for yourself later if you use it in your writing.) In the right column, write your reaction and responses to the passages. Be as formal or informal as you want. Record words, passages, and ideas from the text that you find useful, interesting, or in any way striking or unusual. Quote or summarize in full, accurately, and fairly. In the right-hand side column, ask the kinds of questions and provide the kinds of responses that will later enable you to create an original reading of the text, and use that reading to create your own paper.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page most recently updated on June 6, 2020.

    This page titled 3.7: Reading Strategies - Taking Notes is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .