My last blog post explained the value of note taking and summed up 13 common mistakes successful students don’t make.

Note taking is necessary to deepen your understanding, improve your recall, write better essays and speed up your revision.

But there are so many note taking methods to choose from that you can become stuck and not take any notes at all.

This blog post explains and evaluates four of the most effective note taking methods:

  • Mindmaps
  • The Cornell method
  • The Outline method
  • The Structured Analysis method

I also show you my first (optional) step of annotating my notes.

This in-depth post summarises each method with a step-by-step guide for how to take notes in this way along with an image of what they could look like.

Then I take it one step further and take notes from the same piece of text in the four different methods (and one sub-method). This way you can see these note taking methods in action.

After this post you’ll understand the different note taking methods and try out a few for yourselves until you find what works for you.


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Mindmaps note taking method

A mindmap is a visual way to represent ideas and concepts. It’s a diagram displaying information and theories around a central idea.

Mindmap uses

  • Plan an essay
  • Breakdown a confusing topic
  • Map out topics for revision
  • Work out the links between ideas
  • Illustrate key themes of a module
  • Organise your thoughts
  • Brainstorm ideas.

How to create a mindmap

1). Choose your central idea > draw a picture or write a keyword/phrase in the centre of a blank piece of paper

2). Add branches for key themes > decide on the most important words or short phrases relating to your central idea. Add these and connect them to the central idea with thick lines – ‘branches’

3). Add keywords/phrases using sub branches > expand on the key themes by adding sub ideas and information. These could be important dates, examples, authors, models, theories, strengths, limitations, diagrams…etc.

4). Look for gaps and connections > see where you can add more sub branches and info. Look for where you can add lines to show connections between ideas.

mindmap note taking diagram

I like drawing my mindmaps as I feel I can be more creative by hand than using computer software. However, there are some great free programmes you can use if you prefer typing notes.

Coggle is an intuitive and well-designed software where you work inside the website itself – so nothing to download. Sign in is with any Google account. Their free account allow for 1 private mindmap and unlimited public mindmaps. You can also collaborate with others in real time. If you want all private mindmaps (I’m not fussed) then you can upgrade for around $5 a month.

XMind is a downloadable software for Windows, Mac and Linux. It’s flexible and powerful and its free version allows for different styles and colours and you can add images and links. For more export and design options you can upgrade for $79 a year.

Mindmap top tips

  • Use blank paper if you can as lined paper can look messy
  • Use different coloured pens to distinguish between your main branches. You could draw each main branch and its sub branches in a different colour. Or you could use a different colour for each level of information
  • Include images, sketches and diagrams to save words and add understanding
  • Distinguish between branch level using size or design e.g. main branches could be thicker than sub branches
  • Add dotted lines to show connections between ideas.

Mindmap advantages

  • Visually interesting form of notes. May look more appealing than linear note taking
  • Can condense a lot of information into a 1 page mindmap
  • Creative form removes boundaries and can help you come up with more ideas
  • Adaptable to suit your needs > personalise them however you want
  • Shows relationships between ideas
  • Allows for a deeper understanding of a concept through links and levels
  • Can improve recall in an exam as you may recall a concept purely from remembering its position in your mindmap
  • Words and short phrases can trigger recall of longer strands of information.

Mindmap disadvantages

  • Mindmaps may not be as useful for large amounts of text or very wordy concepts
  • Can get messy quickly
  • Can take more time than linear note taking (but the time is worth if if mindmaps are drawn correctly)
  • It may be difficult to get used to taking notes in this way
  • Mindmaps are very personal so you may not understand the mindmap of a fellow student or vice versa
  • You may run out of space as you need to know at the start roughly how much space to give each element
  • There may not be time to create a mindmap during a lecture.

Mindmap conclusions

Mindmaps can be the perfect solution in some situations. I have remembered a concept in an exam purely because I could picture my mindmap in my head. For modules that have key themes or lots of interrelated concepts they are very useful.

But they can be time consuming and it’s not always possible to create one during a fast paced lecture. I would use them as a supplement to other note taking – as one form that you use regularly. Sum up each block/section of a module with a mindmap, use during revision, use to plan your essays or use when you’re stuck on a concept.

Cornell note taking method

The Cornell note taking method was devised in the 1950s by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University. This method condenses and organises your notes and encourages you to summarise and review your material for deeper understanding and to help with revision.

How to use the Cornell note taking method

1). First you need to segment your page into 3 sections. The SUMMARY section should take up the bottom 1/5 or 1/4 of the page. Then draw a vertical line separating the rest of the page into two sections, the left taking up 1/3 of the page. The smaller, left-hand column will be your CUE column and the larger, right-hand column will be your NOTES column.

2). Next start writing in the NOTES column. This will either be during class or at home taking notes from your textbook or a video. Here the aim is to record as many key points as possible. Here you should record:

  • Key words and ideas
  • Important dates/peoples/places
  • Diagrams/charts
  • Formulas
  • Case studies/examples
  • Critique - strengths and limitations

3). Once you’ve finished a topic, or at the end of the class, review your NOTES column and pick out the key words/phrases/dates/authors. Then formulate some questions based on your NOTES e.g. what are Pascale’s four principles of complexity theory? Then add these CUES in the left-hand column so they line up with their corresponding NOTES. The aim here is to reduce your NOTES to their essential ideas so you can improve recall.

4). Next you should briefly summarise your NOTES column in the SUMMARY section. Write a few sentences that sum up the main ideas. Think about the following questions:

  • Why is this information important?
  • What conclusions can you draw?

This section is really useful for finding information later on and during revision where you want to remember the key ideas from a lecture or section of text.

Cornell note taking method diagram

Cornell note taking top tips

  • Use bullet points or phrases/key words instead of full sentences
  • Use symbols and abbreviations
  • Leave a line between main ideas
  • Draw quick diagrams if they sum an idea in less space than words
  • Don't mindlessly copy from the textbook or slides. Try to write in your own words where possible as this helps to improve recall
  • Use a method that works for you. Take notes in a format you understand so you can make sense of them later.

Cornell note taking uses

  • Cover up the NOTES and SUMMARY sections and try to recall most of the information just by looking at the CUE column and answering the questions
  • Cover up the NOTES and CUE sections and try to fill in the gaps and details just using the SUMMARY section.

Cornell note taking advantages

  • Flexible so can write in any format and add diagrams/charts...etc.
  • A neat way of organising notes
  • Other methods (e.g. Outlining) can be incorporated into the method
  • The CUE column allows for effective revision when trying to RECALL notes
  • Creates effective study and revision sheets
  • Relatively easy to create a template for typed note taking
  • Gain a deeper understanding of the material by summarising and condensing it in various ways.

Cornell note taking disadvantages

  • Method limits your space - might be hard to fit everything on one page
  • If you don't spend time reviewing the sheets the extra work becomes pointless
  • It's a more time consuming form of note taking but its proper use is valuable
  • May be difficult knowing what to write in the NOTES and CUES column
  • Could get messy quickly
  • Without a template this method is difficult on a computer.

Cornell method conclusions

The Cornell note taking method is a very valuable way of taking notes IF you spend the time reviewing the material. This method creates your revision notes for you so you don’t have to rewrite your notes.

But it may be too time consuming for some students. If you find you have too much to write then you could adapt the template and move the SUMMARY section to the natural end of your notes instead - perhaps more than one page.

Outlining note taking method

The outlining method of note taking organises notes into hierarchies of points. This method uses text indentation to distinguish between main points, sub points and details. Points to the left of the page are broad with more detailed points to the right.

How to use the outlining method

1). A general outlining method could be:

“main topic > sub topic or key concept > supporting detail”

Feel free to add more levels to suit your course.

2). Record information as you hear it during a lecture or as you’re reading your textbook. You may be given an outline by your lecturer or use your judgement to decide where information should be included.

3). After the session check your notes for understanding. If necessary, quickly rewrite.

Diagram showing how to use the outlining method of note taking

Outlining top tips

  • Create your own key for your levels so you can quickly decide where to put models, theories, dates, examples, strengths, limitations, authors...etc
  • Distinguish between the levels using different coloured text or symbols
  • Leave space between each topic so you can go back later and add additional information.

Outlining uses

  • Useful for revision. Cover up the points below each main topic point and try to recall the supporting details
  • Create an essay plan. List the main points you want to cover then use indentations to record the supporting points, examples and details you plan to include.

Outlining advantages

  • More effective than note taking in a paragraph style
  • A quick and relatively simple note taking method
  • Useful for subjects where it's important to pick out the main points as well as remember the details
  • Easy to skim - distinguishes between key ideas and supporting details
  • Creates neat study sheets for effective revision

Outlining disadvantages

  • May make mistakes and record things at the wrong level. This doesn't matter but mistakes can stress some people
  • Outlining may look messy if you need to add lots of information in after
  • Could waste time if you choose to rewrite them
  • May take awhile to get used to this method
  • May be hard to record legible notes quickly.

Outlining conclusions

This is a great basic method of note taking to try and step away from just writing in paragraphs. It can be hard to skim read paragraphs and pick out the important points. Moving towards outlining allows for this.

It can take a little while to get used to and can sometimes get a bit messy but once you’ve worked out which bits of information you want at each level it becomes quick and intuitive. It’s also a great method as you can combine it with others, such as the Cornell method and my Structured Analysis method.

Structured Analysis note taking method

Structured Analysis is the name I’ve given to note taking where deeper analysis and critique is included alongside the recording of information. This method gives you more than surface level understanding of your notes by prompting you to go deeper and investigate the material further.

How to use the Structured Analysis note taking method

1). Divide your page into two columns. The left-hand column is for NOTES and should be twice as big as the right-hand column for REMARKS.

2). Take your notes as normal in the left-hand column. This column is where you should include:

  • Key points, theories, concepts
  • Authors and dates
  • Models, diagrams, formulas
  • Examples and case studies

3). Add remarks and analysis to the right-hand column to enrich your notes and deepen your understanding. Things to include here:

  • Strengths and limitations of the theories
  • Reflections and what the material has taught you
  • Links to other material - inside and outside the course
  • Links to your previous knowledge or experience e.g. does this apply to a part of your job?
  • Comparisons with other theories - which is most useful?
  • Limitations or caveats - is this theory only useful in a certain context or situation?
Structured Analysis note taking diagram

Structured analysis top tips

  • Use different colours to distinguish between different types of information e.g. red for limitations, green for strengths...etc.
  • Line up your NOTES and REMARKS
  • Leave space to add more points later
  • Separate each main point/theory with a line to stop confusion
  • Vary the column width if you find yourself regularly running out of room in one column.

Structured Analysis uses

  • Plan a better essay quicker with more detailed notes
  • Revise more effectively from structured and clear notes
  • Determine the value of a concept/theory by evaluating the evidence you've found.

Structured Analysis advantages

  • Valuable for subjects that require you to analyse the strengths and limitations of theories, reflect on your learning and make connections between concepts
  • Gives you a deeper understanding of the material which can lead to higher essay and exam scores
  • Can be adapted to suit your needs. Be flexible about the elements to include in the REMARKS column
  • Gives you space to add further analysis as you go through the module
  • Flexibility on note taking method. Outlining could be incorporated and used in the left-hand column
  • A great method for both handwritten and typed notes.

Structured Analysis disadvantages

  • May not be necessary for subjects that don't require critical thinking or reflection
  • Is more time consuming than other methods e.g. outlining
  • Could be messy if you have to add lots more points (though not a problem if typing your notes).

Structured Analysis conclusions

If you have to think for yourself, add reflections, think critically or link between material then this method can be very valuable. In my business modules marks were awarded in assignments and essays for critical thinking and reflection. With the Structured Analysis method you do this at the same time as note taking which can save time later.

The act of adding remarks and analysis to your notes can be incorporated into other note taking methods but this system reminds you to do it. If you’re studying a science or engineering type module this method may be less useful but it can always be adapted to include whatever’s necessary in the remarks column.

A note taking sub method - annotating to work out what's important

If you struggle to work out what’s important to take notes on then this sub-method may help as a first step.

1). Look at the essay question and guidance for the block. Can you tell which sections of the material are the most important? If this isn’t clear then ask your tutor. Note these down on a sticky note or mark the pages in the book. Now you know which sections you should spend the most time studying.

2). Start reading and highlight what’s important. Read a small section, a few paragraphs to a page or so. Highlight what you think sounds important. Some paragraphs may be full of key information such as lists or models. Others may be simply educated waffle or background information with no points that seem useful for an assignment or essay.

3). Add any extra notes to the margins. If relevant thoughts come to you while highlighting add them to the margin. These could be links to another theory or theorist, strengths or limitations, examples, reflections…etc.

4). Take these notes and move onto your chosen note taking method. Now you have started to work out what’s important you can move onto proper note taking. Choose one of the four methods above (or a combination of them) and use your highlighted/annotated notes as a starting point.

This sub-method forces you to write your notes in your own words. Copying out just the highlighted sections wouldn’t make sense so you must form your own sentences and bullet points from what YOU’VE decided has value.

Top tip

You’re looking for mindFUL highlighting not mindLESS. Take care to not highlight everything as writing word-for-word notes is a waste of time.

Now I’ve explained the various methods I want to show you them too.

I took some text from my last module and took notes on it using the four (and a half) different note taking methods.

Here’s the extract I’m using, already annotated using my sub method.

Low context discourse
High context discourse
Combination discourse

And here's the timelapse video of me taking the notes.

Below are the timelapse videos of me taking the notes with a few comments about how I got on.

Mindmap note taking

Mindmapping diagram low context

I’m happy with how this mindmap looks but I found it difficult. I struggled to work out where to put each point and I was worried I’d run out of space. It was also hard to make this on the spot so I wouldn’t recommend doing this in class or on the first time of reading through something. After trying out this method I would use it for some note taking, such as block summaries, revision and essay planning, but I would pick another method for day-to-day note taking.

Cornell note taking

Cornell low context note taking

This method took the most time as there were two additional sections to write after the notes. However, I found this method the most rewarding. Forcing your brain to rewrite your notes in different formats really helps with recall. Creating questions from your notes will give you a revision method. Then summarising them in a few sentences will help you condense the material further. By reviewing the cues and summary often your recall should improve which is great for exams. I did struggle with space a little and I forgot to add spare lines so I think I would adapt the format by adding the summary box only when I’ve finished note taking, which might be after 1 page or after 2 or 3 for a longer subject.

Outlining note taking

Outlining low context note taking

This was the simplest and shortest method I tried. I had a few wobbles where I couldn’t work out which level to put some information but I think, with practice, this could be a great day-to-day method. Also, you can take this format and use it for the note taking section of the Cornell method and the Structured Analysis method.

Structured Analysis note taking

Structural Analysis low context note taking

This method is similar to outlining and the notes section of the Cornell method but has the added bonus of deeper analysis. Having a specific section for further remarks and analysis prompts you to add value. However, for modules where you don’t need to dive deeper, think of examples or think critically it may be a waste of time.

After reading this blog post I hope you understand the different methods of note taking a little more.

I hope showing you examples will help you decide which method you want to use. Don’t be afraid to try a few out and be a little creative. It can take awhile to find the right method for you but once you’ve found it you’ll have a deeper understanding of the material and you’ll recall more information in your exams.

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