Notes are the unsung hero of education. They are the workhorses, the record-keepers. They are the all-important glue connecting the vast volumes of information contained in textbooks and professor’s lessons with the (admittedly) limited computing power each and every one of us possesses. And they are surprisingly easy to make!
On this blog, we at OES aim to equip our students with the resources they need to succeed in their online studies, whether that’s reinforcing the importance of time management or recommending effective study habits. In this article, we continue that short tradition by exploring note taking, a fundamental and perennially valuable element of high school education.
Below, we’ll begin by making a case for taking notes – why do it when you can just open your ears and eyes and absorb the lesson in real-time? Next, we’ll tackle the modes of note taking: digital apps and old-fashioned physical recording. And finally, we’ll review a few popular methods for taking notes, including the classic “Outline Method” and the more strategical “Cornell Method.”
There will not be a pop quiz at the end of this article, but – in the spirit of our subject matter – feel free to select the salient points below and jot them down as notes!
Why Take Notes?
As university-level researchers will tell you, every published study contains a statement known as the “Significance of the study,” usually in the paper’s introduction. The purpose of this statement is to contextualize the findings and draw attention to the relevance of the study’s undertaking.
This section is our “Significance of study” statement. Before we tell you how best to take notes, we first have to explore why note taking is significant. Here are a few compelling reasons to break out that notepad or app.
It’s only human to want to drift off occasionally. Our brains are enormously complex engines, capable of imaginative flights, worrying, speculation and – too often – replaying an argument we had with someone.
Note taking forces you to pay attention, even when you are tempted to drift off in thought. The simple act of engaging with the material through summarization and selection ensures that you stay on track in class. Pair effective note taking with our other top tips for online learning to remain sharp and productive.
Beyond helping you focus on the material in your class, summarizing encourages active engagement. Without note taking, it’s possible to hear information without actually listening. There’s a big difference.
When you engage with course material, you make it your own. You select what information to record and what not to record. You put things in your own words. Put another way, you internalize the information and contextualize it according to your unique frames of reference. That works much better for your memory.
Confidence and Stress Relief
On a human level, note taking is great because it’s an added level of assurance. Studying for a test without notes is like trying to travel to a foreign country without a map. Not having a guide can be stressful.
Chances are, you will feel more confident and less stressed heading into tests and exams if you have a robust set of notes from which to review. Therefore, consider note taking a worthwhile investment in your future mental wellbeing.
Creating Shorthand References
The primary function of class notes is record-taking. When it comes time to study for a quiz, test or exam, or prepare a presentation or project, you have a helpful shorthand to the salient points covered in the course. It’s a significant time-saver, sparing you from rummaging through dense textbooks and lengthy PowerPoint presentations.
In this way, note taking economizes the study process. If you want to move through your online courses at a quick pace, effective physical or online note taking is an essential skill.
The Science Behind Note Taking
Let’s talk science briefly. If the reasons above aren’t encouragement enough to double down on your note taking efforts, take it from neuroscientists.
Effectively, note taking connects the dots among your complicated neural network, establishing a set of cues and shortcuts that allow you to access information more readily. Further, studies show that the “unique, complex, spatial and tactile information” associated with types of note taking allows us to retain information better and focus on real-time information more clearly.
Physical or Digital: The Choice Is Yours
Now that you know why you should take notes, let’s tackle how to take notes. Like many things in education, note-taking methods are the subject of spirited discussion. Some wholeheartedly embrace digital or online note taking, while others trumpet the merits of physical note taking.
We will let you decide. Here are some important points for each method, alongside recommendations for note taking tools and online note taking apps.
Physical Note Taking
Recently, NPR published the results of a study in Psychological Science. In it, Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA compared the efficacy of taking notes by hand versus by computer, finding that the former method was slightly better for students.
The reason, they speculated, has to do with selectivity and attention; because students can’t handwrite as quickly as they can type, they are forced to be more selective and process the material in a more meaningful way.
Of course, broad studies like this one aren’t causative – they merely reflect a majority trend among the students surveyed. Some students, especially those who thrive in online schools, might feel more comfortable taking notes via their computer, thereby removing the extra hurdle physical note taking poses. The choice is ultimately yours.
If you do plan to go the physical note taking route, you need to cover the basics:
- A notebook: preferably a sectioned notebook to keep your various classes compartmentalized
- Some pens: preferably an array of colours so that you can colour-code your notes according to subject, importance, headings and subheadings, and illustrations.
- And a clear plan: Review the section below titled “Types of Note Taking” to choose which approach works best for your learning style. Committing to a type of note taking helps give your notes consistent structure.
While not as popular nowadays – especially with students in online courses – physical note taking is still an effective method for documenting and recalling information. Even if it is retro.
Note Taking Apps
Apps were a game-changer for note taking, offering students unprecedented structure, guidance, usability and consolidation. The best online note taking tools are simple to use, steering you toward effective habits and intuitive methods. Best of all, they are neatly consolidated in one, easy-to-access place, complete with structured folders and subfolders.
At OES, we’re fans of online note taking tools because they pair easily with online learning. We’ve mentioned them before on this blog as part of our series on online learning tools. We like them, in part, because you can easily pull them up on your computer during a lesson and revisit them as you study from your computer.
You can find several online note taking tools and online note taking apps that get the job done, but here are a few of our favourites:
- Evernote: Perhaps the most popular productivity tool, Evernote is a note taking app, task management app, document management app, and illustrator all rolled into one. Write and draw notes, then save them to annotated folders and subfolders for easy access later – it’s that easy.
- OneNote: Another popular note taking app, Microsoft’s OneNote is specifically geared to students. We like it because it lets you write, capture or draw notes and then access them via an intuitive search function. The app also has assistive features, including a speech-to-text dictation feature that’s great for auditory learners.
- AudioNote: True to its name, AudioNote synchronizes written and voice recorded notes, indexing them according to timestamps. Want to hear what the teacher said as you took a specific note? You can click on the note and hear the accompanying audio.
- Notion: Admittedly, we weren’t familiar with Notion until we started researching this article. But after reading this glowing review from a noted learning mentor, we were intrigued. Notion is a free database-driven note taking app complete with great media embedding and previewing tools.
- Notability: This app is perhaps the most fun of the bunch. It’s great for visual, auditory and reading-writing learners, as it allows you to move back and forth between note taking styles effortlessly. Just from a design standpoint, it’s also the most visually accessible.
As always, we are open to new apps and tools. These choices represent our exposure thus far to note taking apps, but we are confident there are great ones out there we have missed. Let us know what note taking app you find helpful!
Types of Note Taking
Whether you decide to take the old school route or embrace technology with the best online note taking apps, you’ll need some methodology to back it up.
Think of note-taking as a kind of architecture; there are several ways to create a freestanding structure. Some involve scaffolding and then filling everything in with material, while others require stacking logs from the ground up. Some buildings take the form of a clean, utilitarian cube, while other modern buildings resemble a mind map of sorts (hint, hint).
Here are three popular types of note taking you can try. We encourage you to attempt each one at least once to determine which type works best for you.
Probably the most common form of note taking, the Outline Method depends on a classic structuring style in academia: indentation.
As you listen to a lesson or read through a textbook, listen for main points, supporting points and tertiary points (third in importance). Secondary often come in the form of concept explanation, and tertiary points are often made via tangents or re-explanations of secondary points. Sound confusing? It really isn’t.
Here’s an example of outline notes you might encounter in a unit on Shakespeare:
- From Stratford-upon-Avon in England
- Part of the English Renaissance in the 1500s-1600s
- Wrote famous tragedies
As you can see, we begin with the general, relevant point “Shakespeare was a playwright,” then structure our indentations according to a) where he was from, b) the broader movement he was part of, and c) his plays, including tertiary points on what plays he wrote.
Mind Map Method
If you’ve attended an online high school in Ontario, chances are you’ve come across a mind map before. They are a branching, networking, often visually intriguing way of taking notes.
Basically, the same general principles of the outline method apply here, only with more creative liberty. You start with your main subject in a bubble in the middle of the document. Using arrows of varying length, colour and style, you link that main subject to secondary and tertiary points. It’s a visually engaging, fun way of structuring your notes.
Several note taking apps have mind map functionality, so we encourage you to play around.
The Cornell Method was devised in the 1950s by a professor at – you guessed it – Cornell University. Recently, it has become popular as a productivity hack, both with students and corporate figures.
It involves a “two-column note style,” with the column on the right taking up the lion’s share of space. In the right column, you take your notes in class, listing all important points. As you populate the right column, you attempt to create “keywords” and questions in the left column, which can cue you later as you review your notes.
Below the two columns, at the bottom of the page, you write a brief summary. Between the three sections – the right “notes” column, the left “keywords” column, and the summary below – you should have a clean page of notes that are easy to scan and review. If you’re having trouble visualizing the system, Cornell itself has a helpful breakdown of the method.
Next time you take notes, remember that you have options. Are you a digital device kind of studier or a pen-and-paper pupil? Are you fond of the straightforward Outline Method, the creative Mind Map approach or the rigorous Cornell technique? Find out for yourself by testing the different note-taking styles, and bring your newfound note taking prowess to your next OES course.