How to choose an effective note taking strategy to learn faster

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We learn every day. And unfortunately, we forget most of what we learn.

That's why most of us rely on notes to help us recall information and key learnings.

But note-taking isn't only valuable for recalling information.

An effective note-taking strategy can actually help you better understand information in the moment.

The way you choose to take notes influences how you think about the information you're learning from. That active thinking influences how much, or how little, you make sense of the content in front of you.

That's why different note-taking strategies work for different types of learning.

In this article, we'll break down two main types of note-taking strategies:

Linear Note-Taking Strategies

  • Outlining Method
  • Sentence Method
  • Cornell Notes Method

Non-Linear Note-Taking Strategies

  • Grouping Method
  • Mental Mapping Method
  • Charting Method

Let's get started!

What is the Outlining Method?

The Outlining Method is a strategy most people are familiar with, even if they don’t realize it. It’s simply writing down topic headers and thoughts in the order that they are presented. This strategy works extremely well when you are consuming content that follows a clear structure and you simply want to rewrite the content in your own words. Doing so is much more productive than just reading or watching content; your brain engages more when you are actively taking notes, even if just in an outline format. 

How to use the Outlining Method to take notes within Personal Learning


When might the Outlining Method be an effective note-taking strategy?

Outlining is effective in helping you stay focused on the content you are consuming. We often get distracted when consuming information online, or simply overwhelmed due to information overload. A good way to beat information overload is by simply re-writing the ideas being presented. This helps you break down large chunks of information into something more digestible and simple.

Pros:

  • Allows you to break down ideas into a digestible form
  • Allows you to focus on the content rather than the structure of your notes
  • Allows you to easily review the information you consumed

Cons: 

  • The linear format doesn’t allow for easy connections between ideas that fall under different headers
  • Doesn’t inspire creativity

What is the Sentence Method?

The Sentence Method is Outlining in its most simplified form. Instead of separating topics into headers and bullet points, you only write down every relevant piece of information that the resource provides. The Sentence Method is great for taking notes in your Notes app, for example. This is because you can easily search for a term and find the context, rather than having to create the context yourself via headers or bullet points. The Sentence Method is useful in settings where you need a bulk of information for reference, rather than a synthesis of thoughts.

How to use the Sentence Method to take notes within Personal Learning


When might the Sentence Method be an effective note-taking strategy?

The Sentence Method is useful when you want to capture as much content as possible.

Pros:

  • Allows you to write down every concept that may come in handy later
  • Allows you to better recall information later because you have written most of it down

Cons: 

  • Is not organized in any specific way so can be hard to sift through
  • Does not only focus on the main takeaways so can feel overwhelming

What is the Cornell Notes strategy?

You may have first learned about the Cornell Notes structure in school. Basically, the idea is to divide your notebook or screen into two columns with a thirty percent split on the left side and a seventy percent split on the right side. The left column is for questions, keywords, and the analysis you create while you’re taking notes, and the right column is for ideas the source presents you with. At the end of each learning section, is a space for summarization. This space is filled in after you’ve finished using the resource for the day and should be filled up by your thoughts on the material. Go wild! This is the time and place to be raw about what you think. 

The Cornell Notes structure is effective because it separates your thoughts from the actual resource in a very clinical way, unlike some of the other linear note taking methods. This means that when you go back and review your notes later, you’re not confused about whether a point is verbatim, or something that may have come from your own flawed understanding of the material. Cornell Notes do, however, take longer to prepare and may not be helpful for people who like to focus on content above all else. 

How to use the Cornell Notes method to take notes within Personal Learning


When might the Cornell Notes strategy be an effective note-taking strategy?

Cornell notes are useful when you want to separate your analysis from the source material. 

Pros:

  • Encourages you to review while you learn
  • Keeps the resource’s perspective and your perspective separate 
  • Allows you to focus on main ideas

Cons

  • Takes time beforehand to set up the pages
  • Takes time afterwards to summarize

What is the Grouping Method?

The Grouping Method is similar to outlining, but instead of going straight down the page, you separate each topic into its own bubble. This method helps with some of the issues created by the outlining method such as allowing you to insert ideas as they come up. The Grouping Method also allows you to turn your notes into a mental map later by connecting and referencing ideas. Grouping is perfect for situations where relationships between ideas aren’t linear, but are still related. 

How to use the Grouping Method

When might the Grouping Method be an effective note-taking strategy?

The Grouping Method is useful for managing subjects that are similar, but where no topic is important to learn before another. 

Pros:

  • Allows you to insert ideas as they come up
  • Helps you focus on one topic at a time

Cons

  • Not as easy to use when writing notes by hand 
  • Requires that ideas are related enough to be grouped

What is Mental Mapping?

The Mental Mapping Method is similar to the Grouping Method in how it accounts for similar topics. One of the issues with Outlining was that it doesn’t address situations where there are multiple possible outcomes or where an outcome relies on another event happening first. Mental Mapping can account for these situations, and more so than the Grouping Method. It does this by using arrows and labels on arrows to explain why something occurs. Using these branches and subtopics can connect all of the topics in a subject more effectively by explaining why they’re connected. 

How to use the Mapping Method to take notes. Don’t worry if it’s messy as long as you can connect big ideas!


When might Mental Mapping be an effective note-taking strategy?

The Mapping Method is useful for subjects that have multiple possible outcomes or connected ideas.

Pros:

  • Flexible for subjects where you're unsure of the structure 
  • Helps you see how topics are connected

Cons

  • If you run out of space on a paper and are mapping by hand, flipping back to reference information can be distracting 
  • Can be confusing to look back on later 

What is the Charting Method?

Charting is a strategy that can be used into any of the methods above, provided that your subject compares multiple different qualities. This method is especially useful for review, because in order to build the chart, you have to consider what each item’s importance is. Once you do that, you draw a table, list the items that you’re comparing down the far left column of the table, and then write down the qualities you’re evaluating left to right along the top row. You can then fill in each box and compare each item’s strengths and weaknesses. 

How to use Charting method to take notes on this article!


When might Charting be an effective note-taking strategy?
Charting is useful for comparing multiple items in a topic. 

Pros:

  • Most efficient way to evaluate items 
  • Easy to memorize

Cons

  • Takes a long time to set up the chart
  • Only works for material with similar qualities

Which note taking method is right for you?

Now that you've learned about different note taking methods, ask yourself what your end goal is for your notes. Do you want to just pull out the main points, or do you want to spark creative thought? Once you know your intention, you can map your goal to the most effective note taking method outlined above and start learning!