Note-taking is essential to your learning. Writing down what you are learning, whether you hear it in a lecture, see it in a video, or read it in a book, is your first opportunity to do something with meaningful with that information. And it is critical that you do. The forgetting curve shows that most of what we hear in a lecture will be forgotten by the end of the day — unless we do something active with that information. Indeed, note-taking is your first opportunity to do something active with that information, and to quote one student, “it will change your life”.2
Note-taking, when done correctly, will not only enhance your understanding and increase your retention of information, but it will also improve the efficiency with which you learn and master everything that you need to know. It can also be helpful in keeping you focused during those lectures and classes that are unexpectedly boring or hard to follow.
Although you can easily find information online on dozens of different note-taking techniques, there are three main ones — Cornell notes, diagrams, and comparison charts. Each of these three techniques has an important role to play and can save you hours and hours of time while improving your retention.
#1. Cornell Notes
The Cornell technique is the most commonly used note-taking method in North America. It was developed by Walter Pauk, a professor of education at Cornel University, to help students take, organize and review the information they were learning in lectures. A typical Cornell Note has three sections (see below).
You can make your own Cornell Note by dividing a sheet of paper into three sections, as shown above, or download a blank Cornell Note at the bottom of the page. You can also watch a video to see how it is done.
a) A wide right-hand column. In this column, you write down the information you are listening to in your lecture, as well as draw any relevant diagrams and pictures. Always make sure you write information in your own words and not word for word. However, try to take as many notes as you can. Not taking enough notes is one of the most common mistakes that students make. According to one study, first-year university students miss almost half (40%) of the important points in a typical lecture.
While taking notes, don’t forget to leave some space between the lines. This will make it easier to read your notes and allow you to add extra information if needed when you start reviewing your notes.
b) A narrow left-hand column. After the lecture, in this column, you will write keywords, such as important phrases (e.g., definitions), key concepts (e.g., names of important people, names of theories, important people) and brief questions while reviewing your notes. When you start quizzing yourself on your notes, you can fold the paper so only the left side is visible and look at the keywords to try to remember what you learned.
c) Bottom summary section. In this section, you summarize the notes in your own words using a few sentences. This is a very important part of note-taking because summarizing the material will help you understand what was taught better and remember it longer. Write down what other ideas the information in your Cornell Note is related to and why these ideas are important. By answering these two questions, you build deeper connections with other ideas, which will make it easier to recall and use the information when you need to.
When should you use Cornel Notes?
Cornell notes are ideal for any course in which there is a lot of information to master — in practice, every single course you will ever take.
Should I re-write my notes?
Reviewing your Cornell note after your class or by the end of the week is your chance to see if what you thought you read, heard or wrote down makes any sense. There is a good chance that you wrote down something that doesn’t make a lot of sense — because you wrote it down wrong or because the instructor did a bad job in explaining it. Reviewing it give you a chance to ask questions and do a bit more reading or do some research online to fill that hole in your learning (before you get to the exam).
Is it worth the effort?
Writing, reviewing and when necessary, re-writing a Cornell note does take time, effort and discipline (i.e., you need to do it all the time). However, it is not wasted time or effort. In contrast, just reading the chapter or just sitting in class can quickly become wasted time if you don’t do anything with that information. The forgetting curve says that a good deal of what you read or hear will be lost by the end of the day unless it gets rehearsed. Taking a note is the first (and perhaps) most critical opportunity to do something active with that information.
#2. Drawings and diagrams
Very often, it can be more efficient to make a drawing of what it is you need to learn. Making a Cornell note of all of the elements of the micro-organism or all the bones in your hand doesn’t make a lot of sense and would not be very effective. In addition, a Cornell note would not really tell you how all of the different elements or bones were related. There are a number of instances in which a drawing or diagram will be more effective.
Drawings, diagrams and concept maps.
Drawings, diagrams and concept maps differ from each other in important ways. A drawing is a pictorial representation of an object. The drawing below is a pictorial representation of all of the bones in your hand. If you had to learn all of the parts of the hand, or any object for that matter, drawing a picture (and then being able to draw it for memory) is more efficient than any other method.
In contrast, a (process) diagram is a pictorial representation of a process,. The drawing below is a pictorial representation of the water cycle, which every student in elementary school learns about.
And finally, a concept map is a pictorial representation of a set of several ideas, concepts, events, people, theories. It is more complex than a process diagram (such as the one above). Here is an example of a concept map for all of the characters in Hamlet. You can make a concept map for any topic, in any course, or in any program of study.
How to make a drawings, diagrams and concept maps
There is single right way to make these charts. The most important part of making these charts is to ensure that you have everything that you need to know in your diagram and then label the elements of the drawing, diagram or concept with one or two words that accurately capture what the element is about. However, the single biggest mistake that students make is forgetting some element, some step in the process or some concept that should be in the drawing, diagram or concept map.
When making process diagrams and concept maps there is one additional step, namely to draw links (i.e., lines) between related concepts. The lines in a process diagram indicate the sequence from one step to the next. The lines in a concept map indicate the relationship between two concepts. Add one or two words that describe what happens in the sequence (e.g., condensation) or how two things are related (e.g., who marries whom) will foster deep learning and help you both understand and remember the information you are trying to learn.
Once you have made the drawing, diagram and concept map, the next step is to memorize what is in your diagram. Try to redraw your drawing, the diagram, concept map for memory. Every time you redraw it, you are beating the forgetting curve.
When should you use a diagram or concept map?
You can use a diagram, not just for objects but also to represent the structure of a theory (e.g., in psychology, sociology), a culture (in anthropology), an organization (e.g., in public policy), or the structure of a play (e.g., English or ancient Greek literature. Always ask yourself how you can represent the information in what you are studying in a diagram). If you can, and it is helpful, then the strategy can assist you in mastering the information.
Is it worth the effort?
The use of concept maps and diagrams as a learning strategy was initiated and developed by Joseph Novak, also a professor of education from Cornell University, who has developed and studied the immediate and long-term benefits of the effectiveness of diagrams and concept notes for decades, in different age groups, cultures. The representation of information through the use of drawings, diagrams and concept maps are among the most effective learning strategies3.
#3. Organizational and comparison charts
Orgnaizational and comparison charts are designed to help you develop an understanding of two complex ideas, events, theories, activities, organizations, teams or even entire countries are both similar and different. Comparison charts can help you prepare for an exam question in which you will be asked to compare and contrast two (or more) things or to complete the research for a paper in which you will be asked to compare and contrast two (or more) things. Again, it is a lot of work but remains the the single most efficient and effective strategy for preparing for exam questions or research papers in which you will be required to compare two different ideas, events, theories, organizations, etc.
Here is an example of a comparison chart, in which internal combustion cars and electric vehicles could be contrasted and compared.
How to make organizational and comparison charts
There are three key elements in a comparison chart.
When should you use an organizational chart?
When should you use a comparison chart?
Comparison ou can use a diagram, not just for objects but also to represent the structure of a theory (e.g., in psychology, sociology), a culture (in anthropology), an organization (e.g., in public policy), or the structure of a play (e.g., English or ancient Greek literature. Always ask yourself how you can represent the information in what you are studying in a diagram). If you can, and it is helpful, then the strategy can assist you in mastering the information.
Sources & Notes:
1Witherby, A.E., & Tauber, S.K. (2019). The Current Status of Students’ Note-Taking: Why and How Do Students Take Notes? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 139–153.
2 Believe it or not, that’s a direct quote from a university student who only discovered how to take Cornell Notes in the third year of their program. Although it is never too late to learn how to take effective notes, you are best served as early as possible. We are also teaching note-taking is also taught in elementary school.
3 Novak, J. D., & Musonda, D. (1991). A twelve-year longitudinal study of science concept learning. American Educational Research Journal, 28(1), 117-153.
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