Learning Strategy 9: Note Taking 

Robert Harris
Version Date: February 27, 2014


An interesting fact about note taking--during lectures, videos, or reading--is that it increases learning, even if the notes are never reviewed after being made. That's because taking notes is an active process that involves

Of course, learning is enhanced even more if you do review your notes, and further still if you summarize or abstract them.

Notetaking Guidelines

Notetaking is something of an art, whether you are listening to a lecture, watching a video, observing a llive demonstration, or playing an audio file. The golden key is to take enough notes to capture the important points, including enough detail so that you can remember and understand them. If the notes are too skimpy, they won't mean much when it comes time to review them. If all you do is copy the short bullets from a PowerPoint presentation or only the words and phrases the instructor writes on the board, you will likely be wracking your brain trying to decipher them later.

What do you make of these notes, for example:
Emergency prob solv
conceputalization delay
understand key
can't act otherwise--stunned--deer headlights

At the opposite end, if you try to write down everything, you'll be unable to understand what's going on, having become a robot scribe, and you won't get the gist or the details right. (There's the possibly apocryphal story of a student who took notes so furiously that, when the professor started to tell a joke, the student wrote that down, too.

So here are some guidelines:
Use symbols to annotate your notes. Symbols allow quick notation either at the time you take the notes or when you review them. Here a just a few ideas:

How to Take Notes Using the Active Notes Sheets

Available here is the Active Notes sheet (in PDF). This form has been designed to help you take better notes. Here is how to use it.

ActiveNotes Sheet
Infobar. Enter your name, the date, subject, and page number (if you have more than one page of notes for this subject).

Notes Area. Use this area to take your usual lecture notes or notes from a presentation or video. Use the guidelines above.

Nutshell. This box is for writing a summary, the very condensed ideas, significant implications, or the single, most important idea you want to remember when you return to these notes. In other words, six month or a year from now, when you are leafing through 100 pages of notes, glancing at the Nutshell of each one should tell you quickly what the notes are all about. Think of the Nutshell as a brief abstract of the session you made notes of. The Nutshell can also include an evaluation, as in "Excellent book, with several chapters on information overload."

Metadata. Use this area to record bibliographic source informaiton (the name of the book you are taking notes from, the presenter's name, the title of the video or PowerPoint presentation or speech, and so forth. You can also include the length of the presentation (was this a ten-minute chat or a three-hour lecture?).

Sandbox. The sandbox can be used for lecture or presentation related material, such as a graph, chart, diagram, mnemonic, contact information, and so forth. Second, it can be used for doodling and scribbling. Many people like to make little drawings or geometric shapes while they listen to a presentation or participate in a meeting. A third and most important use of the sandbox is to free up your working memory so that you can concentrate on the presentation, reading, or whatever. If, while you are listening to someone talk, you are constantly reminding yourself to pick up bread and milk afterwards, or to call Fred, or do something else, your working memory is so busy that you can't effectively process what you're supposed to be attending to. When you write down, "Pick up laundry," you can release it from your mind and focus on the information.

Questions, Reactions, See Also, So What? Action Items, Takeaways. This panel is used for actively responding to the notes taken and the presentation or reading as a whole. The panel can be used to include:
Students can also use this box to write a new summary or paraphrase of their notes when they study them. They leave the box blank when first taking their notes, and then down the road, such as studying for an exam, they fill it in, perhaps  listing an item or two or three that absolutely must be remembered, or some steps in sequence. Writing something about the subject again further strengthens memory. And reviewing notes after some time has passed often suggests new ideas or conclusions that can be added here. Re-engaging notes by writing abstracts or paraphrases is a poweful learning aid, because it stimulates recall, produces active thought, and increases memory.

High Performance Learning

The worksheet should be viewed as a flexible tool, not as a constraint. Therefore, you are free to


VirtualSalt Home
Learning Strategy 1: Mnemonics
Learning Strategy 2: Paraphrasing
Learning Strategy 3: Summarizing
Learning Strategy 4: Self Monitoring
Learning Strategy 5: Self Explanation
Learning Strategy 6: Mental Rehearsal
Learning Strategy 7: Self Assessment
Learning Strategy 8: The SQ3R Reading Method
Learning Strategy 9: Note Taking
Learning Strategy 10: The Leitner Flash Card System
Learning Strategy 11: Maintaining Interest
Learning Strategy 12: Conversation
Learning Strategy 13: Group Interaction
Learning Strategy 14: Idea Mapping
Learning Strategy 15: Drawing Pictures
Learning Strategy 16: Study Cycles
Learning Strategy 17: Sleep and Rest
Learning Strategy 18: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 19: Learning Strategy Checklist
Learning Strategy 20: Asking Questions
Learning Strategy 21: Idea Linking
Learning Strategy 22: How to Use a Book
Learning Strategy 23: Active Listening
Learning Strategy 24: Close Reading
Learning Strategy 25: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 26: Power Thinking
Learning Strategy 27: Planning for Learning
Learning Strategy 28: Outlining
Learning Strategy 29: Analogies
Copyright 2013 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com