10 Ways to Be a Better Learner: No. 4 – Be An Active Note Taker

by Jeff Cobb

Up close image of person taking notes in a notebook


Note: This post has been incorporated into 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner – an essential read for the serious lifelong learner.

In this post, I briefly take up a topic I have touched on a number of times before: taking notes.

While most of us are accustomed to taking notes during formal classroom learning experiences, we often don’t do it well (or at all), particularly if (as is the case in most adult learning) we don’t expect to be tested. Moreover, it is a rare person who applies the note-taking discipline of the classroom to the less formal, yet often more vital, learning experiences he encounters informally as part of day-to-day life.

Establishing a consistent habit of writing things down can be very powerful.  A significant body of research supports the idea that simply writing something down contributes greatly to the process of moving it into long-term memory. As Françoise Boch and Annie Piolat note in their helpful overview of research on note-taking,

. . .the result of taking notes is much more than the production of a passive “external” information store, as the note taking action itself is part of the memorization process and results in the creation of a form of “internal” storage. (Kiewra, 1987)

But the initial act of writing things down is only part of the equation, if you want to leverage the full power of note-taking. For full effectiveness, notes need to be:

  1. organized so that they can easily be accessed and reviewed
  2. reviewed multiple times over time
  3. re-worked and re-stated in your own language
  4. reflected upon
  5. connected to your existing knowledge

As you can see, effective note-taking brings into play many concepts that we’ve already covered. Notes are not something simply to jot down and file away; they are to be returned to and actively mined over time.

There are a number of approaches to taking notes effectively, but one that has been broadly adopted is the Cornell method. The basic approach is to divide a page into three sections:

  • a column on the right of the page for taking detailed (though concise) notes;
  • a narrower column to the left for recording key words and phrases as you review the more in-depth notes you have recorded in the right column;
  • a column across the bottom for writing a brief summary – usually a sentence or two – of the major ideas captured on the page.
Cornel Method - Graphic of Page Layout

The Cornell Method

The Cornell method is designed to support the five-step process above: organize, review, re-state, reflect, and connect. While originally developed as a method for taking notes during college lectures, it works well for most situations in which you need to capture and process information effectively.

Notes are not something to simply jot down and file away; they are to be returned to and actively mined over time.

What have you found effective (or not) when it comes to note-taking as a part of your lifelong learning habits? Please comment and share. And if you haven’t already, I’d be grateful if you would subscribe to Mission to Learn by RSS or e-mail.

posted on June 20, 2011

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Celisa Steele June 20, 2011 at 11:31 am

Note-taking is also key for many creative tasks (and arguably creative tasks are a kind of learning–think of Frost’s “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” and what is surprise but a discovery, learning something new?). I’m thinking of writing, especially poetry. I honestly think that 100 percent of the poets I know writing today keep a notebook with little phrases and observations. They go back to that notebook over time, and often images and words from years ago finally find a place in a poem. All the more reason to do the kind of review of notes that you’re suggesting, Jeff.

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