If you're going to be successful as you move through high school and on to college, you must get better at taking notes during classroom lectures and from reading assignments. This guide will give you some ideas about how to take better notes and then use the notes to study.

The fact is that if you take good notes, it's easier to study, to learn, and to make better grades.

Taking notes in class

Before class

1. Preview the chapter or section in your text that your instructor will cover. It won't take a lot of time, it makes it easier to learn from the lecture, and you’ll take better notes.

2. Get your act together. Bring to class the material you need, including pens and paper for note taking.

3. Psych yourself up so you’re ready to listen, ready to pay close attention to everything that’s said.

Tip #1: Your attitude more than anything else is what makes the difference between good grades and poor ones.

During class

1. Don’t try to write down everything the instructor says; it’s waste of time. And don’t write in complete sentences – you won’t be able to keep up.

2.  Capture only the main ideas and the details that support the main ideas.

How do you find the main ideas and supporting details? Listen for verbal cues, phrases such as, “There were four main causes of the Civil War.”

Other examples:

“First . . . Second . . . Third . . .”
“Remember that . . .”
“The basic concept is . . .”
“The most important thing to remember . . .”

Many instructors will repeat important points. I had one in graduate school who used to say, “This will be on the test.” That simplified things!
4.  Do whatever it takes to get the information down on paper. Use diagrams, words, pictures, sketches, graphs, mind maps, abbreviations, whatever works best for you.

Tip #2: When taking notes give yourself lots of room and don't be afraid to use lots of paper.

5. During the lecture, ask yourself questions, such as: “What are the main points?”, “What do I need to remember?”, or “Would this make a good test question?”

Simply asking yourself questions about the lecture can make life much easier because you automatically pay closer attention.

6.  If the instructor writes it on the board, write it in your notes -- word for word.

7.  If you fall behind, leave some space and move on. You can get the missing information from a classmate or from the instructor.

8.  Handouts are pure gold. Save them. Study them. Incorporate them into your study notes.

9.  Ask your instructor questions about things you didn’t understand.

Tip #3: Use a ball point  or gel pen. Ink last longer than pencil.

After class

1.  Rewrite (or type) your notes

Just re-reading your notes over and over isn’t enough. When you rewrite you notes, you automatically review them and can organize them and fill in the gaps to make them more effective.

2.  Try to rewrite the notes as possible after class. If you have questions, write them down and ask your instructor later.

Tip # 4: Many students say that re-writing notes the best ways to remember the material.

3. Mark up your notes using a highlighter. Or add diagrams, drawings, or different colored inks. The key is the make the notes your notes.

4.  Make up your own test questions.

As you review the notes, think up questions that might appear on the test. Then write out (or type) the answers in complete sentences.

Yes, it takes time and effort, but you find out what you don’t know BEFORE you take the test.

Tip #5: Self-testing is the best way to prepare for a test. Period.

5.  Review your notes every day. If your notes are good enough, you won't have to spend hours studying.

Taking notes while reading

1.  Read with a purpose – to get the main ideas and the supporting details associated with each main idea. Textbooks are very good about highlighting the material you need to know.

2.  Your goal is to have a conversation with the authors, to ask them questions, then look for their answers.

For example, the authors may write, “The causes of the Civil War were varied and complex.” Your question may be “What were the varied causes?”

3.  Before starting, pre-read the assignment.
  • Check out the summary and learning goals at the start of the chapter.
  • Pay attention to the section headings. Ask yourself questions based on these headings. Write the questions down for later use.
  • Review the maps, photos, charts, graphs and other visual material.
4.  Now go back to the beginning and begin to read, taking notes while you go. Write down the main ideas in you in you own words. A sentence or two is enough.

Also write down the answers to questions you came up with during your pre-reading.

5.  Most textbooks have review questions are the end of each chapter. Write out (or type) your answers to the questions without looking back at the text or your notes. Then go back and correct your answers. 

6.  Many textbook publishers have put supporting material in a website. Scan this material and copy into you notes (or print out) those items you think will help you prepare for the test.

Some methods for taking notes

You should develop your own personal method for taking notes. The three described below are fairly easy to learn.  If you don’t like these, there are many others you can find on-line. For example, a time line is a great for history notes. The key is to find one that works for you; one that helps you organize, study, and remember the material.


This old-school method of organizing information shows how details are related to main ideas. You use it to list ideas in relation to their importance. It’s probably the method most students use. Don’t get too caught up in the format when taking notes; you can clean them up later with you rewrite them.

Mind maps

Mind mapping is a graphical method for taking and organizing notes. Students around the world, especially in Asia and Europe, use this method as the primary way to take notes.

Here’s it works. In the middle of the page write the subject of the lecture. Then as you dig out the main ideas, write them at the end of lines that radiate from the central subject. The supporting details radiate from each main idea and finally individual facts will branch off from the supporting details.

A completed mind map will have main topic lines shooting off in all directions from the center. Sub-topics and facts will branch off the main topics, like branches and twigs from the trunk of a tree.

There’s no right way to do a mind map. You can draw them by hand in class , then either clean them up when you re-do the map later or use software to recreate the map on a computer.

Tip #6: If you are able, use technology to help you study. For example, I use the free software Freemind; there are many free mind mapping apps for Macs and PCs.

Google “mind maps” for more information. Also check out the Google images.

Cornell method

The Cornell note taking methods requires you to use of specially formatted pages, which you can download for free from many websites. (Printable Cornell Note Paper is one site.).

The paper is divided into three area:

The Note Taking Area is where you write notes during the lecture or when reading.

The Cue Column is used after the lecture or reading to reduce you notes down to concise words, diagrams, and phrases.

In the Summary Section, you summarize each page in a sentence or two or three.

This format was developed to use with the following steps:

1.  Record. During the lecture or while reading, write down the main ideas and supporting details in the Note Taking area.

2. Reduce. After the lecture or reading, pull out the main ideas from the Note Taking Area and write them in the Cue Column. Use single words or phrases. By doing this, you distill and summarize the material. This sets the cues you will use for using the three steps.

3.  Recite. Cover the Note Taking Area and, using the notes in the Cue Column to trigger your memory, repeat in your own words the lecture or reading assignment. When you’ve finished, uncover the Note Taking Area and see if you've covered the information accurately. This is a great self-testing method.

4.  Reflect. In the Summary Section, write two or three sentences summarizing what you learned in class and why it is important. This is the most important step. When you take time to reflect on and write down why the material is important, you are much more likely to remember what you’ve studied.

5. Review. Spend time every day reviewing your notes. With great study notes, it won't takes hours and hours.

Some final thoughts

1. More than anything else, your attitude toward studying and note taking is what will make the difference. Actively listening and studying, asking questions and re-writing notes is the easiest way to learn.

2. Find a note-taking system that works for you and use it. Great notes make studying easier and lead to better grades.

3.  Self-testing is the best way to prepare for a test. It takes time and effort, but it will help you find out what you don’t know BEFORE the test.
 Just sitting there re-reading your notes hour after hour the night before the test doesn't work. You must study with a purpose. You get that purpose automatically by self-testing.

4.  There are some great study advice sites online; take some time to look around. One of the very best is Study Hacks.

5.  If you can, use computer technology such as mind mapping software and apps. Search on-line for educational sites like the Khan Academy. There are some students who record their notes as podcasts, then listen as they exercise or walk between classes. Others make their own videos.