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Study Skills: Notetaking

This guide offers learning strategies, study skills, and resources to support student academic success.

Why Notetaking Is Important


Our ability to receive and retain information is limited.  The human brain can only store about seven items of information in our short-term memory for about 20 seconds.  As outlined in the Memory, Retention and Recall page, it is critical to store information in our long-term memory to be able to access the information when we need it, such as during a test. Taking notes is an essential part of learning as it serves the function of recording what we see, read, and hear.  The learner can review notes and apply methods (such as summarizing and scheduled reviews) to help store the information in their long-term memory. 

Without good notes a student would be hard pressed to remember much after a one-hour video, three-hour lecture, or 50-page chapter.  Notes act as an external storage device, similar to the role of the 'cloud.' Notes, however, do more than serve as a written record of the information we receive. The act of typing or writing notes aids in remaining focused and engaged when watching, reading or listening.  Taking notes is a form of active learning which forces you to pay attention and write down ideas and thoughts that you deem important to revisit.  Remember, you may sit in class for as many as 25 hours each week and read 20 or more hours of material, so you may as well make the most of your valuable time by taking good notes. 

Notetaking tips and format options, such as the Outline Method, Cornell Method, and making notes on PowerPoint slides, are detailed in this LibGuide. 

Effective Notetaking

Effective notetaking is important because it:

  • supports your listening and reading efforts,
  • helps you recall material more effectively when it is written down,
  • reminds you of what the instructor or author believes are the important points and
  • can serve as a fantastic study resource.   

How can you take EFFECTIVE notes?

Trying to keep up with your instructor's lecture pace and writing down as much as you can is not a good option, nor is it even possible (most students can successfully record only one to two out of every 10 words!).  This approach can lead to illegible notes that are difficult to decipher.  In addition, copying lectures verbatim is tiring and can be frustrating if you feel like you are missing much of what is being said.  Attempting to copy down what your instructor says is a passive learning approach that does not support understanding, retention or recall. 

This video (by Wellcast) demonstrates how important it is to take effective notes. 

Factors Influencing Notetaking Format Selection

There are several notetaking options available and selecting the one that works best for you will depend on a few factors:

  • Course format and delivery:
    • Are course materials, such as the PowerPoint slides, available in advance?
      • Allows you to preview the materials and prepare for the lecture by creating a framework of notes.
    • Is the course in-person, online synchronous or online asynchronous? 
      • It is important to prepare for in-person and online synchronous lectures, especially if there is a lot of content.
    • How quickly does the instructor lecture and how clear is their articulation?
      • Fast-paced delivery and unclear pronunciation requires greater attention and focus, so good preparation is important.
  • Your personal preferences and abilities:
    • How familiar/unfamiliar are you with the topic? 
      • Unfamiliarity requires more attention and thus more preparation. 
    • How interested are you in the topic? 
      • Topics of less interest require more focus so advanced preparation is beneficial. 
    • Do you take digital notes, handwritten notes, notes on PowerPoint slides? 
      • Your preferred recording format will influence how much preparation is required and how you organize your notes.  For tips on writing on slides, see this link
    • How quickly do you write/type? 
      • You will need to prepare more for lectures if you are a slower typer/writer.  
    • Is the lecture recorded? 
      • Students with disabilities may be able to record lectures and some instructors record lectures for everyone.  Students can listen to the recording and edit/add to their original notes at their own pace.  

Preparing for Lectures: Creating a Framework of Notes

Previewing. When possible, it is best to preview class materials before a lecture (whether delivered online synchronously or in-person). Previewing materials helps increase retention and comprehension as it prepares the learner to more actively engage when they are in class (and take better notes). Spending some time previewing materials in advance and taking notes/summarizing is an effective method of improving your notetaking process during lectures and labs. 

  • Step 1. Preview the lecture slides. If it is available, start by skimming the lecture PowerPoint slide deck.  Then, read the slide deck again, but a bit more slowly and carefully. Look for the following items: learning objectives, main topics (typically slide headings), sub-topics, bolded/highlighted terms or concepts, and summaries/conclusions. The PowerPoint slide deck serves as the spine of information your instructor will present and represents the most important content to prepare for. 
  • Step 2. Summarize the lecture slides. Try to recall what you learned from the PowerPoint slides and create a written summary of: a) the main topics/themes of the presentation. b) what you understand or may already be familiar with c) what you are interested in and would like to learn more about and d) what ideas/concepts seem challenging or unfamiliar.  Summarizing the slides in your own words is a powerful way of engaging with the content and helps your brain to start to familiarize itself with the information. When you are done, take a few minutes to read your summary aloud to yourself (this really aids with retention). 
  • Step 3. Preview the readings. Reading course materials, such as chapters and articles, is a time-consuming process. However, if you can, it is certainly worthwhile to review the readings (as much as possible) in advance of class.  We recommend you preview the readings and then summarize.  If you do not have time to read everything, try to at least preview the materials. Please see Reading Textbooks to learn more about this process.
  • Step 4. Summarize your reading preview.  After you have previewed the reading, summarize what you have learned in your own words.  See Step 2 above.
  • Step 5. Actively read.  Material in your course textbooks and required articles assist in strengthening your understanding of course content and learning objectives. There could be concepts and ideas that support your ability to do course assignments, and there most likely will be assessments based on this material. We recommend you stop after each chapter section and summarize that section before moving on to the next section. See Reading Textbooks to learn more about this process.
  • Step 6. Summarize your preview. If time permits, try to combine your PowerPoint summary with the reading summaries.  Be organized so you can easily find information: we suggest you capitalize subject headings from the slides, underline subheadings, bold key words/ideas and highlight other important information.  You can add notes from your reading summaries directly under the correlating/supporting notes from your slide summary.  It can be helpful to include page numbers from your readings in your summaries so you can go back and find these sources later, if needed.
    • Hand-written notes: write your summaries on the left-page of the notebook and keep the adjacent (right) page blank.  You can then write notes from the lecture on the blank page across from the topics you have previewed.
    • Typed notes: it is easy to add notes from readings under your PowerPoint summaries by simply copying and pasting.
    • Notes on PowerPoint slides: quick and straightforward, and ideal if you don't want to spend a lot of time taking detailed notes. 

Tips for Taking Effective Notes

We suggest you first take notes from readings and other sources prior to attending a lecture (see box above: Preparing for Lectures).  Remember, be sure to write down the page number you are referencing from your readings so you can locate the information later, if needed. After you have completed your previewing notes, you can then add your lecture notes. Putting your notes together from both the pre-learning and lecture will help keep the information organized and accessible.

It is helpful to choose a different color for your lecture notes (maybe black for pre-learning notes and red for lecture notes) so you can distinguish (when studying) what was in the pre-learning material and what the instructor taught in class. If the instructor is touching on a topic not covered in pre-learning, then create a new heading, with supporting subheadings.  

Generally, what the instructor focuses on during lectures is the material they will test you on. Your notes will be a key resource for test preparation. 

When reviewing the assigned readings write down things you are challenged by (highlight them) and see if your instructor touches on these ideas/subjects during the lecture and then add to your notes from the readings.

Then, during class, focus on the main points which typically are ideas, terms, subjects, formulas, methods, and processes that were outlined in the assigned readings. Listen and think about what you are hearing: try to ‘understand’ the information and not simply regurgitate it into your notebook.  Thinking about what you are hearing will help you retain the information longer term.

Notetaking Format: The Outline Method

The Outline Method is a common and simple, yet effective notetaking system.  Many students prefer this system because it is structured, logical, and can be a strong tool for test preparation. This method works well for both hand-written and typed notes. 

Key Components

  1. Main headings (section titles): a new idea or topic.  Place each main heading on the left-hand margin of the page.
  2. Subheadings: these are ideas, thoughts, and information that support the main topics.  Each subheading is slightly right indented from the main heading.
  3. Supporting points: this is information that supports each subheading (the main content of your notes). Each supporting point is slightly right indented from the subheading and can be added as a bullet point.

If you are hand-writing your notes, be sure to leave space under each heading, subheading, and supporting point so you can add notes from other sources, such as PowerPoint slides, or lectures.  It is easy to add more information below each point if you are taking notes digitally.    

Outline Method Structure: Example from Previewing (notes from chapter)

The Handbook on Radiology, Ch 1, pp 10-19 (this is the subject source)

About Radiology (this is the heading or main subject)

Diagnostic Radiology (this is the subheading)

  • Diagnostics (p. 13)
    • Is a process of figuring out which disease explains a patient’s symptoms.
    • See the example on page 14 about criteria, signs and symptoms.
  • Therapeutic techniques (p. 14)
    • MRI and CT are the most common techniques.

Outline Method Structure: Pre-learning and Lecture Notes Synthesized

The content in black are notes from the pre-learning, and content in red is added from the lecture.

The Handbook on Radiology, Ch 1, pp 10-19

Date: add the date of the lecture

About Radiology 

Diagnostic Radiology

  • Diagnostics (p. 13)
    • Is a process of figuring out which disease explains a patient’s symptoms.
    • Diagnostics also reveal the signs of disease such as changes in bone density.
    • See the example on page 14 about criteria, signs and symptoms.
  • Therapeutic techniques (p. 14)
    • MRI and CT are the most common techniques.
      • MRI scans are more commonly used as they produce more detailed images of tissues and organs than CT scans.
    • Two other common techniques are X-rays and ultrasound.

Notetaking Format: The Cornell Method

A popular method for taking notes from readings and lectures is the Cornell Note-taking System. The Cornell method requires students to think critically which aids in retention. To use this method experts recommend taking notes by hand (which, according to research, also increases retention). 

If you preview course materials prior to a lecture, a useful way of organizing your notes is to write the preview notes on the left-hand page or your notebook and leave the adjacent page (right-side) blank.  Then, during the class, you can write associated information from the lecture across from the notes you took from sources such as chapter readings. 

Key Components

Divide each page in your notebook into three sections (draw lines to separate each-see example below). If you require more space, you may prefer to use two pages of your notebook and write the ‘cues’ on the left page and notes on the right page.  You can write your summary on a third page.

  1. Notes: in this section write down facts, ideas, formulas, processes, explanations, examples and more.  It is best to organize ‘notes’ by main idea (subject).  Try to be concise with your notes and determine the most important information shared in the readings and/or lecture. To aid in keeping up with lectures many students utilize abbreviations in the notes section, such as: approx. (approximately), est. (established), ex. (example), max. (maximum), temp. (temperature or temporary).
  2. Cues: this section is used to support the ‘notes’ and assists in thinking more deeply about the information.  Some students may add ‘cues’ as they are reading or during the lecture.  However, others find it best to add ‘cues’ after each section of a reading or immediately after the lecture. This section should include key words, questions (that you have created), your thoughts/comments/ideas, as well as what you may need to delve into more deeply (what you may not understand).  The cues section is a good place for reflection and making sense of the content.
  3. Summary: this section is located at the bottom or end of your notes and is used to recall what you have learned.  For readings, it is best to summarize each section of a chapter (which aids in keeping your notes organized).  For lectures, it is best to write a summary after the lecture. A summary is similar to a ‘brainstorm’ of what you have learned and is written in your own words. Summarizing is a powerful and effective method for retaining information. Cover up the ‘notes’ and ‘cues’ section and attempt to recall as much as you can. After you have done your summary, it is helpful to review your notes/cues and add to your summary as needed (see our summarizing tips in the Reading Textbooks section for more help).

Cornell Notetaking Structure: Example

Subject title                                                                  Date of lecture

Writing down the subject and date helps with organization.


Key words, facts, stats, formulas, processes, definitions: the info you need to remember.

Questions: create questions that help recall what is written in the notes section- this will help anticipate test questions.

Comments: write down your thoughts about what you have read/heard.

Ideas: try to connect information together (critical thinking).

Follow up: jot down what you need to explore further or better understand.  


It is important to listen carefully during lectures to try to discern the main points your instructor is sharing.  For readings, you will use a similar approach and look for the main ideas presented in each section.

Try to BOLD or highlight section headings or new subjects (this will aid in finding information later).

Write concisely and clearly: using abbreviations (such as ‘ex.’ for ‘example) and shorthand symbols (such as ‘&’ for ‘and’) aids in keeping pace with lectures.

Write down page numbers from readings to help locate information when you need to revisit the source.

Avoid copying everything down: this process does not engage your brain (you are not thinking) and will not help with retention. To critically think about information and reduce the need to write everything you hear verbatim we suggest you preview a reading or pre-learn before a lecture (see Reading Textbooks).


Try to recall what you have learned and write the information in your own words. Creating your own summary helps to think about the information and is proven to aid with retention and success on assessments.

For textbooks/articles: students find it most helpful to write a summary after each section.

For lectures: summarizing each section may be more difficult. We suggest you set aside some time after lectures to write a summary of the entire lecture. 

Notetaking Format: PowerPoint Slides

Making notes on PowerPoint slides is another simple, yet effective, method.  Of course, this approach can only be used in those classes where the instructor makes their lecture PowerPoint slide deck available in advance.  This method works whether you are taking notes by hand or digitally.  However, if you are taking notes by hand, you will need to download and print the slides in advance of the lecture. 

Taking notes onto slides offers some advantages and disadvantages.  A major disadvantage is the amount of space provided on the slides for notes, which makes adding both reading and class notes difficult.

Typing Onto Slides

  1. Download the PowerPoint slide deck: Click on the PowerPoint file, download it and save a copy to your computer.
  2. In the PowerPoint file, click on the Notes section: You can find the Notes section at the bottom of each PowerPoint slide.  Use this area to write your own thoughts, questions, or comments during the lecture. Be sure to save often as you go.

Printing Out Slides on Paper

  1. Download the PowerPoint slide deck: Click on the PowerPoint file, download it and save a copy to your computer.
  2. Print out your slides on paper: In your PowerPoint file, click on File > Print. Under Slides, select Notes Pages. You can pick how many slides you'd like to appear on a single page, and there will be additional space where you can write your own notes. Most people use the 3 Slide option; however, if you tend to write a lot of notes, the 2 Slide option would be ideal.

Notetaking Resources