3.3 Success During Class: Effective Note-Taking

Leslie Jennings, RN

Learning Objectives

At the end of this section, the learner will:

  • Recognize effective note-taking strategies.
  • Select a method of note-taking from various examples.
  • Formulate a plan to improve listening skills.

Effective Note Taking

The first step in being able to review is to take notes when you are originally learning the information. Students who do not take notes in class in the first place will not be able to recall all of the information covered in order to best review. Different systems work best for different people. Experiment in different ways to find the most success.

Taking notes during lectures is a skill, just like riding a bike. It is challenging to listen to someone speak and then make a note about what they said, while at the same time continuing to listen to their next thought.

Attending class and taking the notes is important primarily because the professor may be presenting information that is not presented in the text. It should also be seen as a structured opportunity to engage with the material that will further aid recall when needed. By attending class, students can also get clues as to what professor perceives as important material that will aid in test preparation.

Tips for Taking Notes During Lecture

  • Arrive early and find a good seat- front and center are best for being able to see and hear information.
  • Accept responsibility as a listener with a positive attitude; listening is a choice.
  • Don’t try and write everything down the instructor talks about; distinguish the most important topics and ideas only.
  • Use abbreviations and don’t worry about writing in complete sentences, correct spelling, or punctuation.
  • Leave space to add information later.
  • Monitor your concentration throughout the class period and continually refocus.

Key Information in Lectures


As the lecturer, live or video, presents the material, there are two types of key information cues to be aware of. A speaker will often have unique facial and body nonverbal cues that alert you to several things, as you learn to “read” your professor:

Notes for Nursing Success! Remember that content you learn in many of your courses build upon themselves, so organized notes that you can review will help you prepare for the required exams at each level, as well as for your NCLEX.

  • Stances or movements that alert you to when he/she will shift to a different topic or subtopic.
  • Other cues that alert you to when the information is of special significance (including verbal cues, below).


  • Pay attention to when the speaker uses any of the transition cues used in reading comprehension.
    • Some instructors will give you cues to let you know something is important. If you hear or see one of these cues, it’s something you should write down. This might include an instructor saying, “this is important,” or “this will be covered on the exam.” If you notice an instructor giving multiple examples, repeating information or spending a lot of time with one idea, these may be cues. Writing on the board or presenting a handout or visual information may also be a cue.
  • Many speakers also announce when they are adding information or changing topics in various other ways.


The most important aspect of reviewing your lecture notes is when your review takes place in relation to when your notes were taken. For maximum efficiency and retention of memory, it’s best to review within 20 minutes of when the lecture ends. Ideally, if you can avoid taking back-to-back classes without 30 minutes in between, you could have adequate review time and give your brain a break. Reviewing shortly after the lecture will allow you to best highlight or underline main points as well as fill in any missing portions of your notes. Students who take lecture notes on a Monday and then review them for the first time a week later often have challenges recalling information that help make the notes coherent.

If you wish to go “above and beyond,” you may consider discussing your notes in a study group with your classmates, which can give you a different perspective on main points and deepen your understanding of the material. You may also want to make flashcards for yourself with vocabulary terms, formulas, important dates, people, places, etc. Online flash cards are another option. Students can make them for free and test themselves online or on their phone.

The Big Picture

Keep in mind that students who know what their instructor is going to lecture on before the lecture are at an advantage. Why? Because the more they understand about what the instructor will be talking about, the easier it is to take notes. How? Take a look at the syllabus before the lecture. It won’t take much time but it can make a world of difference. You will also be more prepared and be able to see important connections if you read your assigned reading before the lecture. It’s not easy to do, but students that do it will be rewarded. Refer back to Chapter 3.2.

Note-Taking Methods: What Is Right for You?

Types of Note-Taking Methods

Outline Method

The Outline Method provides a running list of statements that capture the main ideas and supporting ideas for the main points. The highest level of main idea is justified on the left, followed by the next level of supporting ideas that are right indented, followed by the next level of supporting ideas that are further indented, etc. The statements you write down at each level could be key phrases or could utilize the Sentence Method of note taking (see below). It is key for students who utilize the Outline Method to avoid getting so immersed in the “proper” number method for outlining that they lose sight of the information; use a simple numbering or bulleted method. This method is ideal for note taking while reading or listening to a lecturer with a highly structured presentation style.

Cornell Method (sometimes called Split Page Method)

The Cornell Method is a well-known note-taking method that not only encourages documentation of information but also builds in critical thinking and self-testing methods for future review of the material.

Visual representation of the Cornell method with Cues on the left hand margin, notes on the right and summary at the bottom
Figure 3.3.1 Cornell Method 


The Cornell Method requires that students set aside a “cue column” on the left side of the paper that is about 2 1⁄2 inches of the left side of the paper. Notes are taken on the right side of the paper using whatever methods students choose to utilize. After class, a summary of the lecture is written to ensure a review of the material and main points to be considered and expressed. In the cue column, students are encouraged to develop questions regarding the adjacent notes. Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy as you develop questions to ensure that you are not only developing knowledge and comprehension questions, but also including higher-level questions that you might anticipate on an exam. Later, this format can be used for self-testing. Cover up the answer on the right side of the page, and then ask yourself to answer the question on the left side. Check your answer and determine where you have holes in your knowledge to help focus further review. If you search Google for Cornell Note Taking, you can find Web sites that will generate the Cornell paper format for you to print, though drawing a line on notebook paper works perfectly fine.

Text-Class Integration Method (sometimes also called Split Page Method)

For this method, students split their notebook paper in half with a line in the middle. On the left side, students take notes from their course reading, and on the right side, they take notes in class for the corresponding text material. This method allows for easy integration of material from both sources.

Mapping Method

The Mapping Method represents the lecture in a visual or graphic format. It helps to utilize 11 ̋ 17 ̋ inch paper or 8 1⁄2 ̋ 11 ̋ inch paper in landscape profile. Students should start with documenting the main idea and placing that in the center of the paper. Then additional ideas feed off of that center point in a hierarchical manner. It allows students to see quickly the main point and relationships to follow. Typically, it is better if students stick with brief statements—one or two words—that capture the ideas. Mapping Methods are also useful to summarize notes taken in another method.

Visual representation of Note-taking methods : (1) Outlining, (2) Cornell, (3) Text-Class, (4) Mapping and (5) Combined
Figure 3.3.2 Note Taking Methods

Sentence Method (sometimes also called the Paragraph Method)

This is a simple method in which students write down a main point, fact, or topic, each on separate lines, numbering as they go. It is a useful technique when a lecture is somewhat organized and material is presented at a fast pace. However, relationships may be lost without reorganization of notes at a later time.

Combined Method

You may start with a particular method described above. However, as you become more skilled in your note taking abilities, you may begin combining methodologies to suit the type of information that is being presented. For instance, you may start off the session using the Sentence Method but then use the Mapping Method as you see a pattern emerge in a new concept that is conducive to mapping. You may opt to use the Outline Method in your Political Science course, because the faculty member presents a very organized lecture and use the Text-Class Integration Method in your Math class so that you can see parallel steps between examples from the textbook and the class. The key is to try out some of the different methods and use what works for you.

*Should I use my laptop for note-taking?

Many students use laptop computers for taking notes. It is noteworthy that many students report missing information. You may find that you try to type everything you hear because you can type faster than you can write. In addition, you may be distracted with formatting issues or even other activities that you can opt to do with your laptop. Whichever method you choose to do, remember that the most important part of note-taking may very well be the act of reviewing your notes after.

Activity 3.3 – Improving Your Listening Skills

Improving Your Listening Skills

Watch the TED talk below:


Video: 5 Ways to Listen Better, Julian Treasure at TED Global 2011

Write a one-page (250-300 words) reflection summary covering these questions:

  1. What are the three types of listening the speaker discusses?
  2. How and why have we been “losing our ability to listen,” as the speaker suggests?
  3. What are some of the tools we can use to listen better?
  4. How you can use the information on non-verbal and listening skills to enhance both your ability to pay attention to lectures and to take better notes on them?




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