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Note-taking 101

By Chelsea Hall, 3rd-year Life Sciences student

One of the major obstacles I ran into during first year was being completely unaware of how to effectively create study notes. As a first year student in general sciences the expectations ranged greatly among the courses in which I was enrolled. I had courses requiring significant memorization, such as Biology, and other courses, such as Calculus, that involved analytical thinking and problem solving.

One of my realizations from having diverse courses was that there is no single way to take effective notes; however, using a variety of different methods to document information can be incredibly beneficial. Paraphrasing lecture material and developing study notes is critical to being an active participant in one’s learning and may facilitate studying at exam time. Two of my personal favorite methods to create notes are identified below.

Cornell System

The Cornell System is incredibly versatile in terms of its applications and is a great reference for studying for exams; hence, it is probably one of my favourite note-taking methods.

The Cornell System helps students organize their notes in a coherent manner; it involves dividing one’s page into three sections: a Cue Column, a Note-taking Column and a Summary section (see pictures and visual instructions at The Learning Toolbox). The Note-taking Column consumes the greatest amount of space on the page and is where the bulk of the content will be found as it is used to list main ideas as well as details (like facts, formulas, etc..). Conversely, the Cue Column is short and abbreviated; this is where you would list key words, phrases, review questions and diagrams. Lastly, the Summary is where you can write a short summary of the main ideas in your own words, which improves your actual understanding of the content (as opposed to just memorization).

When studying for exams, you can cover up the Note-taking Column and see whether or not you can explain or recite the details for each of the key words or questions listed in the Cue Column without peeking.

This method helps me test myself, particularly for heavy memorization-based courses. Sometimes, depending on the course, I will modify the page layout to eliminate the summary portion at the bottom of the page to have more room for the other two columns. However, it is up to you to experiment with the Cornell System and find what works for you!

Mind Maps

Most students know what mind maps are, but hardly ever utilize this truly magnificent note-taking method! So why use mind maps? They allow students to visualize relationships between main ideas quickly.  Mind maps can help you remember those connections more easily, and they allow students to envision the big picture in relation to specific details which is frequently challenging to do.

Personally, I have found that mind maps are helpful for both memorization-based courses and as a brainstorming tool for essays or labs. In addition, I have found that mind maps are equally as helpful for organizing equations for courses such as for Physics. In first year, I found it useful to create mind maps and associate certain problem types with different equations.

Other note-taking methods include cue cards, quantitative problem solving sheets, tables and charts… We have many more ideas in our Note-making online resource. Try one or two or even a few but the important thing is that you find what works for you!

Photo courtesy of Steve  Jurvetson under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.