1. Why note-taking is important?
  2. Types of note taking methods
  3. Types of note takers
  4. Rules of note taking
  5. Benefits of note-taking
  6. Disadvantages of note-taking


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Everyone would have taken notes on all sorts of occasions long before taking up life as a student. At school or at work you would have made notes of several kinds. Day-to-day living includes taking messages, making shopping lists, or reminding ourselves to do something, in fact, to help us store and use information in the world around us all the time. It is also something you would have done at school or at work, but the heavy demands on your note-taking skills that life as a student creates are probably more than what most of us are used to.

Why bother?

It might be tempting, with so much to do and so many sources of information available to you, to feel that note taking is just one extra burden to add to an already lengthy list of tasks. Learning to take good, useful notes is, however, an essential skill simply because there is so much information you have to process. This information comes from seminars, lectures, written texts, journals, and the Internet, and without finding some way of reducing all this information to a manageable and memorable quantity, you will come unstuck. The sooner you can apply good note-taking skills, the smoother your academic life will be.

The five benefits of note taking

There are five major purposes for taking notes; their initials do not form into a neat little acronym, so you’ll just have to note them down to remember them. They are:

  • concentration
  • understanding
  • remembering
  • referral
  • revision

Concentration and understanding

Sometimes in a dull lecture, or when you are reading a lengthy complicated text, your mind may wander, especially if you are tired, or pre-occupied. Taking notes definitely helps you to focus as it makes you active rather than passive and keeps you involved in learning. It also looks better in the eyes of a lecturer than does a snoring student. If you are concentrating, you are more likely to understand what you are reading or what is being spoken about. If you take notes you can pay special attention to points that are important or difficult to understand.

Now I remember

How often have you written something down and found that simply writing it makes it easier to remember? You write a shopping list and find that you barely need to refer to it once you are in the shop. You write a date in your diary and it is firmly fixed in your mind even before you check your appointments. Taking notes acts as reinforcement. It means you immediately receive and store the information twice rather than once, so you have already started the process of committing something to your long-term memory. Think of how many times an actor goes over the same lines to ensure a perfect delivery.

Refer and revise

If you have made good notes, they act as an excellent reference for future work to refer back for reports, essays, projects, presentations, or any other course assignments. Above all, they make it far easier to revise when examinations are lurking just around the corner. No waiting to get key texts from the library, hours spent photocopying journal articles, or frustrations as your PC crashes. Just you, a folder, or electronic organiser of easily understood, clear, thorough notes, a cup of tea, and a calm mind, and there you are.

The best way to take notes

There is no best way to take notes. It depends on what works for you and what kind of material you are working with. If you have never thought about different ways of taking notes, though, you could find it useful to have a go at some different techniques. The three main ways of taking notes are:

  • linear or sequential note taking
  • summary note taking
  • outline note taking and mind mapping

You will also find that using different techniques makes note taking more interesting. You can find what really suits you only by trying things out.

Sequential note taking

Sequential or linear note taking is no more than a fancy name, for what we tend to do naturally, i.e., to take down notes in our own words, on what we have been reading or listening to. It is the most common way of taking notes. The advantage of this sort of note taking is that it is relatively easy to do and you do get an accurate record of what you have been attending to. The disadvantage is that you can end up with copious notes to deal with, especially when it comes to revising for exams or working on a major project.

Summary notes

Making summary notes probably demands that you think a good deal more about the notes you are taking, possibly spend time reorganising them, and writing summaries in your own words. The advantage of this technique is that you really have to think about the ideas and concepts that you are dealing with so that your summaries are clear and accurate. This, in turn, can help you store the information you have summarised in your long-term memory. The main disadvantage is that it can be rather time consuming to put in all this extra work on your notes.

Outline notes

This is quite a popular way of taking notes. You only note the key words and phrases from lectures or reading material. There are different ways of writing your outline notes, but using numbered headings, lots of sub headings, and indentations are all characteristics of this style of note taking. The advantage is that they are quick to take and they are easy to read through and memorise. The disadvantage is that you may sometimes find it difficult to fill in the detail of what seemed very obvious at the time that you took your brief outline notes.

Mind maps

Mind maps are an entirely different way of taking notes – they are diagrammatic representations of the subject material you are learning about, where key concepts occupy a central position and ideas, issues, facts, and figures, whatever it happens to be, that are more peripheral are drawn further away from the centre. Have a look at the diagram below. Many people really like this way of taking notes, once they get used to it. It can seem daunting at first. But it is a very active way of noting and learning. Many people claim that it improves your ability to understand and to retain information.

A few hints on mind mapping

  • Use A4 paper and turn it to a landscape orientation.
  • Write down the title of the topic you are covering in the centre of the page and draw a circle round it.
  • Draw a line out from the circle, in any direction and write the first main heading for the topic on this line.
  • For each sub-heading, draw lines coming from the main line with the main topic heading on it so that it is obvious where the connections lie.
  • Use single words, short phrases, or images to capture ideas.
  • Try using different colours for different ideas.

In your own words

Here are a few general hints that should be helpful, whatever methods you are using to take notes. In certain situations, particularly in lectures, one of the biggest temptations is to write too much. This means all your concentration goes into writing fast and hearing what is said, but at a superficial level, rather than listening, taking it in, and cutting it down. Try to write brief phrases that summarise long sentences. Try paraphrasing the opening paragraphs of a few of your favourite novels, articles, or sports reports to help develop this technique.

Use your own shorthand

While there are standard abbreviations for many words, it makes sense to invent your own shorthand so long as you can understand it yourself. Note those words, concepts, technical phrases, and names that are central to your subject and find quick ways of writing these. It makes sense to write a list of these so that you become familiar with them. We are all used to seeing ICT for information and communications technology; invent a few of your own that work for you. Look at the list of symbols and abbreviations in Chapter (should chapter references be included as they aren’t used to organise content in the CWS? Consider rewording)

Writing on writing

A fundamental rule, if you are taking notes from written texts, is to write on and annotate those texts only if they belong to you. You may incur library fines as well as serious unpopularity if you are found out. Finding texts that are scribbled all over also illustrates the point that while there are general guidelines for making notes we tend to have individual shorthand and codes that we understand better than anybody else. Have a look at Chapter 5 (should chapter references be included as they aren’t used to organise content in the CWS? Consider rewording) on reading for some detailed ideas on how to work with written text, but here are some reminders.

Note with care

  1. Cut down your essential reading and note taking by making intelligent use of your reading material. Look at introductions and summaries to help you take notes on key points.
  2. Make notes on margins, or highlight/underline important words, phrases, formulae, or ideas.
  3. Don’t just put a vague mark or tick in the margin, thinking you will remember what it refers to when you look at that page again; you probably won’t.
  4. Make brief notes of your notes and list important chapters, sections, pages, etc., so that you can refer back to them quickly.

Now where did I…?

Your notes are of any use to you only if they are well organised and you can find them and use them easily. Try to file them as soon as possible after you have made them. How you store them is purely a matter of personal preference. If you keep everything electronically, do not forget to make back-up copies. If you keep your notes on paper you may like to try using small cards, ring binders, or ordinary note pads. Whichever it is, make sure that items are numbered, properly headed, and stored in order. This will save you so much time in the future.

Taking notes at work

Elephants may never forget, but employees do. The chapter (should chapter references be included as they aren’t used to organise content in the CWS? Consider rewording) opener reminded you about how much note taking is part of so many, many jobs. It is easy to think you will remember the content of a telephone call or the main points from a meeting and then find that even an hour or two later, other enquiries, problems, or tasks have driven important information out of your head. Getting into the habit of taking good brief notes is likely to improve your relationships with colleagues, clients, and customers and to make your own working life more organised and enjoyable.

Quick reminders for striking the right note

Try to stick to the suggestions below:

  • Try to use both words and diagrams as it makes your notes easier and more interesting to refer back to.
  • Read over your notes as soon as you can after you have made them; this is another way of committing them to memory.
  • Look at them again within 24 hours; it may seem a pain at the time, but it will really contribute to effective and successful revision.
  • File them and organise them well. There is nothing worse than taking excellent notes and then losing them.
  • Remember, good note taking is a great life skill to possess.

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