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Effective Note-Taking

Why Notes Are Important

Notes are crucial to a lot of things we do. Whether that be taking down a phone number during a call, summarising reading or lectures, or making a note of something to be actioned or considered later. They are often utilised when we do not have the time to fully re-write something, but they also serve as a useful learning tool as they allow us to develop information into a form we understand and can be re-used at a later date. Therefore, it is important that you develop a technique which allows you to capture all of the important information, and translate it into a form you understand (and will understand weeks or months from now), without getting lost or caught behind.

Detail Vs. Brevity

This is a dilemma everyone is likely to face. Writing short notes or snippets might save time and effort, but will often leave you with vacuums of important information, or a lack of context with regards to what you have written down. This is damaging and unhelpful if you plan to return to these notes at a far later date for learning or actioning purposes.

For those who write extensive, detailed notes, they may find themselves having to ask individuals to repeat information, re-reading it multiple times, taking an excessive amount of time to develop notes - so much that notes are not a benefit at all - or left with large swathes of missing information as they fell behind in the conversation or presentation. On top of this, long pages of notes often do not motivate learners to read back through the information at a later date, and in that case, the point of the notes is lost.

How to Decide

There is a fine line to be drawn between detail and brevity when it comes to notes. It is crucial that everyone develops a technique and proportion of detail which suits them, their learning style, and the requirements of their notes. In addition, other factors also way in on each individual, including their own speed of writing, the importance and depth of the content to be noted down, and how practical and applicable any short-hand is.

Much of this comes with experience. The longer anyone has been taking notes (for example, during presentations, phone calls, or lectures) the more proficient they become, and the more familiar they are with their style, speed and any abbreviations, short-hand, or different techniques. Whilst receptionists may have universal short-hand notes, it is important that everyone develops a style which suits them and their notes. All that matters is that you can understand it later.

Structure and Techniques

Structure of a set of notes can be invaluable to their effectiveness. Consider how you structure your notes yourself - do you introduce headings? Various tiers of importance? Flow? This is important for you to find important information within the notes, and to provide context to each piece of information.

There are many different forms of note-taking style. These include Cornell , Flow-Charts, Mind-Maps and Bullet Journaling. Cornell is a simple form of note-taking, with cues, short bullet-points and a final summary which aims to express all of the necessary information in a simple, easy-to-read and condensed form. Flow Charts and Mind Maps both express flow and interconnectivity between concepts, objects and events, and Mind Maps also share a lot with Bullet Journaling as they both suit visual learners.

Learning Styles

Your learning style is important - some may favour illustrations and diagrams, others may prefer to simply read, and one form of note-taking which is not often appreciated is audio-recordings - if it suits you to hear something back, and this is possible (recording presentations, seminars, or yourself), then do so.


Alike audio-recordings, technology can be used for various note-taking techniques. Though you may prefer to write notes - some studies have also shown this to be more effective in retaining information, and avoids the distraction of different applications - for speed, access and storage purposes, it may favour many to use a computer for note-taking. Most operating systems come with some form of note-taking software, such as Microsoft OneNote, or Apple's own Notes, but other applications are available which can be chosen and tailored to suit your needs or preferences.

Reading Back

Notes are useless if you cannot, or do not, read them back.

Possibly the most understated part of note-taking is reading them back. This is when your ability to write comprehensible, detailed and accurate notes is put to the test. If your notes are for learning purposes, it may suit you to read them back the evening after you made them, or in that week, to consolidate the learning in your mind, and to allow you to make any necessary alterations to maximise their use in the future. If they're purely for practical purposes, it may be beneficial to write them up into a more detailed document now that you have time, or to action any notes you have made.