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The Best Student Note-Taking Formats

by Elaine J. Dispo, studioD

Taking sensible notes in class helps students refer back to their teachers’ lectures and remember their lessons. Since each student is different, no single note-taking method is suitable for everybody. The best note-taking format is a structured one and depends on how you organize information. Whether you type or write longhand, you can make any note-taking strategy work for you.


Classifying your information by color-coding, highlighting, underlining, bolding or italicizing certain words will make them stand out so you can recall them for future reference. For example, you can draw stars around words that your teacher says are important for an upcoming test. If you place colored sticky tabs by chapter or topic at the edges your note paper or cards, you can easily find sections or pages from your notes when you study.


A standard chart distinctively separates main points from their descriptions and other columns as necessary, such as vocabulary words from their definitions and examples. The Cornell Method, which supports the note-taking Rs of record, reduce, recite, reflect and review, has two sections, recall and main notes. After you take your main notes during class, you write only cue words in the recall column. You can quiz yourself with the recall words and check your main notes to verify whether you are right.


Maps are laid out with central ideas that branch out into subsequent points in a visually stimulating way that makes sense to you when you review your notes. You can circle the main idea in the middle of the paper with lines connecting it to sub-points. You can use different colors, shapes and symbols to distinguish information. Concept maps, spider webs, flow charts and family trees are all forms of mapped notes.


Outlines follow a visual framework of indention and symbols to show relationships among ideas. Your main points go at the top left of each section. Sub-points go underneath the main points, giving more specific information about your topic, like examples, quotes or types. Sub-points are indented and symbols, such as Roman numerals, Arabic letters or bullet points identify different levels of sub-points. The outline should contain mostly key words, including names, dates and important vocabulary, but if you prefer to write in complete sentences, you can highlight or underline key words to simplify your studying process.

About the Author

Elaine J. Dispo, a journalist since 1996, specializes in education. She wrote for “Fil-Am Press.” Dispo earned the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association Frank W. Buckley Scholarship and the Students In Free Enterprise Sam M. Walton Fellowship. She holds her B.A. and M.A. in Communication and is a Ph.D. candidate.

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