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Different Models of Note-Taking

There are numerous formats for taking notes. Experiment to find a format that best meets your style and subject matter.

Skeleton Prose

This is the most common form of note taking. Notes are structured as a sequence of numbered points and paragraphs, with headings and indentations - a little like an essay plan. This is useful for those books/articles where arguments are static and built up slowly and sequentially. However they can have drawbacks:

  • They are difficult to add to or amend
  • They do not indicate the relationship or connection between different parts of the argument
  • It is more tempting to copy sentences/passages verbatim
  • People ask to borrow them!

Cornell Note Taking System

This method of note taking was devised for students at Cornell University in the USA, and has been publicised through Walter Pauk's books on study skills for University education.

It is a structured, common-sense way of ensuring that you take clear notes, engage with them actively, and have clear material from which to revise.

  • This format is often suggested to students who need to produce summaries of key ideas
  • It is particularly useful for taking notes from lectures
  • It ensures that you actively engage with the material, and aids recall
  • It can be very useful when it comes to preparing and revising for exams

How to do it

Before the lecture:

  1. Get a large (A4) notebook.
  2. Rule off a section at the bottom of each page to create a 'summary' space.
  3. Then divide each page into two vertical columns; the left-hand column should be one third of the page wide, with the right-hand column taking up the remaining two thirds.
  4. Label each left-hand column 'KEY WORDS/QUESTIONS'; each right-hand column 'NOTES; and each space at the bottom 'SUMMARY'.
  5. Do some preparation beforehand, so you have an idea what to expect: does the lecturer distribute lecture notes in advance; what is the title of the lecture; is there any recommended reading; does it link to any material covered seminars?

During the lecture

  1. Arrive on time, and sit somewhere where you can see and hear the lecturer clearly, without distractions.
  2. Record your notes in the right hand side column. Don't attempt to write everything down, but aim to capture the general ideas, arguments, facts, etc.
  3. Do use abbreviations, and paraphrase (i.e. use your own words) wherever possible.
  4. Do leave spaces in between your notes, so that you can amend and add to them later.

After the lecture (within 24 hours)

  1. Read through your notes. Make any amendments or additions whilst the material is still relatively fresh in your mind.
  2. Summarise the main points in the space at the bottom of each page.
  3. Now, in the left-hand column, note down the key ideas or words from your notes on the right. Formulate these into questions.
  4. COVER UP your notes in the right-hand column, and see how well you can answer the key questions from memory.
  5. Re-format the notes: highlight, clarify, expand, make connections and generally refine your notes.

This method should help you to you engage with the material, transfer it from your short-term to your long-term memory, and mean that you have useful notes from which to revise.

Spidergrams, Mind Maps and Concept Maps

Spidergrams, Mind Maps and Concept Maps are all terms for a similar means of presenting and connecting ideas in a diagrammatical, non-linear form.

To create a mind map, start in the centre of a page with an idea or heading representing your main idea or central theme. You then create branches out from the central idea, each branch representing a sub-theme. Each sub-theme can then be subdivided, as appropriate.

This technique has a number of advantages:

  • It enables you to see a large amount of information/thought processing on one page
  • Your central idea is clearly stated in the middle of the page
  • You can show connections between key concepts
  • Additional information can be added easily
  • The open ended nature of the pattern means that you may be able to make new connections

This type of note taking could be well used as a planning technique for an essay, or a section, chapter, or even the whole of a dissertation.

Both spidergrams and linear notes can be used in note taking. Which style you use will depend on your personal preferences and the situation and purpose of your note taking

Some students find mind maps difficult to use in lectures, when they are unsure of the structure of the lecture in advance. You might find this format more useful when you are reviewing or summarising your lecture notes, or when you are taking notes from written materials. Mind maps can also help you brainstorm and organise your ideas about an essay topic.