Back to Basics: Here Are 5 Effective Note-Taking Methods for College Students

Note-taking is an underrated yet crucial skill that you will need as a student, and also during your career. Here are 5 note-taking techniques you can apply today!

Updated 05 Feb 2020

5 Effective Note-Taking Methods for College Students - Feature-Image

Chances are, you've never been taught how to take notes as a student — it somehow just...happens.

However, learning to take good notes is a crucial skill to have as it can help you develop a better understanding of a topic. That’s not all — good notes can help you recall facts and ideas that you may have otherwise forgotten. This is important as research suggests that we tend to lose almost 40% of new information within the first 24 hours of reading or hearing it.

So if you often find yourself shuffling through stacks of disorganised notes or trying to decipher your chicken-scrawl handwriting, you may need to amp up your note-taking methods.

Here are some effective techniques to get you started!

#1. Write down the main points

Note taking methods for students - 1 Write down the main points

Do you often find yourself copying sentences word for word from your textbooks or lecture slides as your “notes”, or highlighting most of the sentences in your textbook, thinking each word is “important”?

Unfortunately, this is not an effective note-taking method as it does not help improve your understanding or memory recall on the topic.

Instead, only write down the main points from your textbooks or lectures. By using this method, you’ll not only have to listen attentively in class to catch the key phrases (or to comprehend what you’re reading from your textbooks before writing your notes), but you’ll also train yourself to produce a simplified version of your notes without including redundant information. This ensures the quality of your notes and not quantity.


 Be sure to include the relevant headings and subheadings for each topic or risk confusing yourself!

#2. Use mind maps

Note taking methods for students - 2 Use mind maps

If you’re often bored from reading long, linear notes, have no fear. Mind mapping is a great alternative to writing long blocks of text.

As the name suggests, mind mapping involves displaying information visually and is a great way to keep track of the relationships between topics and ideas. Using this method, you’re free to use colours and even doodle on a sheet of paper to make the information memorable while you’re studying.

When used properly, mind mapping may "improve learning and retention by 10 percent or more" while research suggests that it “increases critical thinking and memory skills, particularly for students who are visual learners”.

If you’re not sure how to start, simply take a blank sheet of paper, write down the main topic in the centre with the subtopics branched out. You can include keywords and short phrases to aid your memory too. Alternatively, test these mind mapping tools that can help create mind maps.

#3. Tap into the outlining method

Note taking methods for students - 3 Tap into the outlining method

Outlining is a useful note-taking method that gives you the freedom to organise information in a way you understand. You can curate information from various resources (e.g. textbooks, lectures, etc.) and compile it into your notes.

You can start by thinking of a framework of the outline before filling in the main points, and subsequently, its supporting details below it. Feel free to use different bullet points (e.g. ○, , ⬦, ⬟) to differentiate between the main topic, subtopics and keywords or even Roman numerals and symbols and arrows.

It may be useful to sift through all the relevant information related to your subject or topic before you start outlining your notes. For some examples of outlining, check out here and here.

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#4. Write your notes on index cards

Note taking methods for students - 4 Write your notes on index cards

Writing your notes on index cards is useful if you’re someone who is always on the go or prefer to read your notes whenever you have some free time on your hands, especially when commuting via public transport.

You can use plain or fancy index cards and jot down your notes using coloured pens (depending on your preference). You can also store your index cards in a storage box with customisable tabs so that it's easy to identify different chapters or subjects.

The best part about using index cards as a study material is that it makes learning easier as you’ll only be focusing on important materials on your index card, instead of being overwhelmed by a flurry of information in your textbook or lectures. Index cards are also easy to personalise and inexpensive to make.


 Number your index cards to avoid mixing up your notes in the event you drop them. Alternatively, punch a hole in the top left corner of your cards and string them together to keep them in place.

#5. Make notes the “Cornell way”

Note taking methods for students - 5 Make notes the “Cornell way”

The Cornell System helps you to organise and condense your notes into bite-sized information by using 3 neat columns on a page. It is useful as your main points, explanations and summary are in a single sheet of paper while it is also an interactive way for you to jot down your notes.

Here’s how you can organise your notes using the Cornell Method:

  1. Divide your paper into 3 columns — one on the top left corner of your page (the cue column), one on the right side of your page (the notes column), and another below the 2 columns (a summary column). See an example here.
  2. Your cue column should take up approximately ⅓ of your page while your notes column should take the remaining ⅔ of your page.
  3. Write your notes under the notes column as comprehensively as you can during class. Review your notes after class and verify ambiguous information.
  4. Write down cues or flags of main ideas from your notes column under the cue column to help you recall what you’ve learnt. You can also include any questions you might have.
  5. Next, write a summary of your notes (about 2-3 sentences) under the summary column.

Be sure to spend at least 10 minutes a day or every few days to review your materials to help retain what you’ve learnt.

And there you have it! It’s worth remembering that everyone learns using different ways, so don’t worry if what works for others doesn’t work for you. What’s important is to find a technique that you are most comfortable with, as it will not only facilitate your learning in college but will also prove to be useful once you enter the working world.

Do you have trouble memorising your notes during the exam season? Here are some study hacks to improve your memory.


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    Natasha Sin

    Natasha Sin

    I went outside once. That was before Netflix.