Notetaking Strategies

Since nobody has started a topic about notetaking in this new section I figured I'd do it.

I'm curious what kinds of notetaking strategies people use (systems, shorthand, etc) and what kinds of situations they use them in. I ask because I'm a college student and lately I've come to realize that my notetaking skills aren't as good as I'd like them to be (or they probably should be) so I'm interested in what has worked for other people. When I search on google I find a lot of sites about the Cornell method and I've tried that before but I'm not very good about following the system and eventually just end up back with my usual crummy notes.

Any ideas anyone can offer would be much appreciated.

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Google is your friend

and the various Wiki's are good, too

Cornell Note taking is just one way of "doing it". Like DIY-Planning, you have to find a method that works for you.

Good luck
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

another lot of links

Here are some additional resources...
my artwork

Well, my High School lets me

Well, my High School lets me use an Alpha Smart 2000. But that's just because my hand writing is bad, even I can't read it sometimes.

But it's getting better.

Notetaking Strategies

David, I'd like to break down your question in two: structured note taking at lectures, seminars, conferences and school on the one hand and serendipitous note taking when you are not at a desk.

In this setting you have a table and space at your disposal. Are you familiar with mind mapping? If not, check out the concise explanation at and the website of the intellectual father of mind mapping Tony Buzan. The basic premise is that you make a graphic representation of the notes you'd normally take in a linear way. It helps you to see much quicker the complete picture and the details. It helps you to see both the forest the trees, even with their branches. Short explanations are shown in the videos on this page.

How to do it? Simply, take a large sheet of paper – anything from a letter-size, A4 and all the way up to a flip-over sheet will do – with colour markers – the Staedtler TriPlus fineliners (Art. no. 334 SB10) are worth a recommendation – and optionally images from e.g. a magazine and with that you are set to go. Hold the paper in landscape mode, put the central issue (e.g. the theme of the lecture) in the middle of the sheet. Put the sub-themes in a branch – each in a different colour – and work out the branches in detail if necessary.
The tremendous advantage of this way is that it lets you see where the issue is overdeveloped and where it is underdeveloped. In other words, you could give feedback to the teacher by showing where he went into detail and where he left off.
If necessary, a paper mindmap can easily be captured in software too. There is a wide choice of programs and prices. Here are just a few: iMindMap the program developed by Tony Buzan himself – mindmaps are his brainchild – MindManager from Mindjet, NovaMind to free, open source versions such as FreeMind. Most have versions for Mac or Windows.

Now do you sit at your desk or at your computer all the time? Probably not. So what do you do when an idea occurs, you have a bright insight or you remember you need to call your tutor? I for a change get my best ideas just before going to sleep, when walking or when travelling. Remember: the best mind is a mind in motion. Those are typically moments I do not have / am not allowed to use a computer or PDA. At such moments I use a small notebook that fits in any pocket. After all, you get the best out of your brain onto paper when the note-taking solution is ubiquitous, quick, cheap, easy to use, archiveable, autonomous and practical. Paper still scores on all fronts as opposed to a computer or PDA. My personal solution is the Memo Writing Pad from Montblanc with loose sheets. It literally fits in any pocket and additionally lets you take your ID card and credit cards with you. Together with my fountain pen and a Lamy Scribble with multiple colour leads and I can take notes anywhere at any time. I even make mindmaps on as small a sheet as 7.5x10.5cm (approx. 3x4”), which I later work out on my computer with the software mentioned before. The notes are archived with a date stamp for later reference.
Other solutions include the famous Moleskine notebooks but you can buy a small notebook for as little as $1. It's all up to you how you'd like to customize your system.

You could use colours, but what helps me most is using some standard icons: a book icon for ideas derived from a book with the page where I found it; a light-bulb for ideas and insights; a triangle for actions/to-dos; a $ for money matters; a dart with board icon for goals; a sun icon for happy moments, etc. Quite handy and easy to make your own. I always put a date stamp perpendicularly to the note in the left margin. The combination of icons and dates makes tracing a little easier with a paper system.
The other day I was flying to a seminar – I am a speaker, trainer and consultant – to a destination I had not ever been to before. So I was looking out of the window and jotting down frenetically at the same time. The lady next to me asked whether I was a journalist and describing what we saw 30,000' below us. I said: “Thank you for your curiosity, I actually designed a complete program tailored to the needs of a client of mine.” The small sheets fit the job wonderfully and are so much more convenient than the PDA I used before. Sometimes I use the note to leave a positive, handwritten message with a client, a fellow traveller or just someone I meet during travels. Helps keeping the human factor in this digital day and age.

David, hope the ideas have been of help to you. Use your bright brain and have heaps of fun when studying.


thanks david and chris for making me think about this! i've just started a scary job and will need to both keep good notes and be able to find them and use them well. As an M.A graduate, i can take linear notes fine, and have used mind maps for revision since my GCSEs, but i never though of doing them for note taking or project planning - doh! thankyou.


Dear Cate

Good luck in your new job, learn a lot and have heaps of fun, however much the job seems scary to you.

Please, make a mindmap with these branches:
1.What I like in this job (Optional single word approach: Attractions)?
2.What do I bring to the table in this job (Optional single word approach: Capacities)?
3.What I am scared of in this job (optional single word approach: Fears)?*
4.What do I have in my 'magic toolbox' to handle my fears (optional single word approach: Help)?
5.Who would be truly supportive and/or willing to listen non-judgementally to you (Optional single word approach: Angels)?

*Remember what FEAR stands for? F.E.A.R. = False Evidence Appearing Real.

Preferably make a mindmap since it allows you to see the whole picture: from attractions, fears, helps and angels. Just by seeing the whole picture helps you become aware how relatively small the fears are in the bigger picture.

You may even realise there are some key words or persons in your map. Put those on a small note that fits in your wallets, easily can be copied to places such as your mirror, closet or cubicle as a reminder you can see at all times.

Use your bright brain and grow in leaps and bounds.

My systems

I use two different systems for notetaking.
The one I use most often is similar to a mind-map. I have read about Tony Buzan's method, and I decided that while his mind maps are very structured and artistic, there were too many "rules" and the method just wasn't fast enough.

So I just make simple diagrams with the central idea, or chapter in a book (or a subtopic if the chapters are too broad) in the center enclosed in a box. Like the Buzan maps, I make branches with ideas pertaining to the central idea, and branches off those, and branches off those, and so on. This does get to be crowded. So if I want to make another branch off the central idea, but there's too much clutter around to make another branch, I simply go to a blank spot on the paper and draw a squiggly line (similar to a long cursive 'e') that points to the additional information. This lets me know although this new information is on a different part of the paper, it still branches off the central idea.

I also use an outline method. I could never remember the order of the Roman numerals, numbers, and letters that my elementary school teachers taught me (I.,A.,1...) and I didn't want to think about it while I take notes, since note-taking must be fast, so I developed my own structure.
Topics and subtopics are arranged with dashes and dots because they are fast to make and easy to remember. I organize them hierarchally like this:

- Main Idea/Chapter (if short)/Topic
* That's supposed to be a dot. Subtopics go here
+ Further subtopics
o That's and open dot.
++ and so on...

This is essentially organizes information the same way as the map method in that it relates ideas and they're subtopics. I use this outline when sequence of ideas is important. The disadvantage of the outline is that it is not as easy to additional information in the future.

I have used these note-taking systems with lots of success. They are fast, simple, and easy to remember. I also use Easyscript loosely in my notes.