Better Note-Taking for a Successful School Year

By Tracey Dowdy

When my friend Mike said, “Two weeks left of summer vacation then back to school!” my first reaction was “Nope. Nope. Nope.” Actually, it was my second reaction as well, and my third and, well you see where this is going.

Shifting gears from unstructured summer days to focusing on fractions and the major battlefields of the Civil War can be daunting even for good students. Yet despite the increasing number of laptops and tablets in the classroom, only about 65.5% of students take notes, although studies show note-taking increases retention of lecture material from 10% to 80%.

Beyond simply writing down what the teacher is saying, having a note-taking system increases the amount of information the brain can decipher during the lecture. Being able to capture those core concepts, as well as more complex details connected to the material, augments what the student retains and will recall later.

But which system is most effective? Again, that depends on learning style. Here’s a basic breakdown of three of the most popular techniques.

The Cornell System:

Developed by Professor Walter Pouk at Cornell University, this system is based on outlines prepared by teachers to guide note-taking in class. Important points are provided and students expand on this information and fill in the blanks. The page is broken down into three specific areas:

A. Cue Column – Use this area to review and self-test notes you’ve taken in class

B. Summaries Area – Using their own words, students summarize facts to demonstrate understanding of material

C. Note Taking area – In-class notes are written here.

The Outline System:

Pages are outlined by Primary and Secondary Topics. The Primary Topic separates the information into broad categories and the Secondary Topic breaks the information down into bullet points and paragraphs. The framework is repeated throughout the lecture.

Flow Based System:

The Flow Based System is the least structured. Instead of listing bullet points and following a specific format, ideas are captured as well as facts. Flow Based is considered to be particularly effective for in-class learning as your brain is capturing context and connecting ideas while filtering the information which ultimately increases long-term retention.

Now that you have a system, should you be writing or typing those notes? Again, it depends on the individual. The average professor speaks 2-3 words per second, the average student types 1.5 words a second and writes .3-.4 words per second. However, the actual physical act of writing a word engages your brain in ways typing can’t. Forming and connecting letters follows different pathways in your brain, helping with retaining that information. However, since most people type faster than they write, typing allows a greater volume of notes that can be reviewed later.

Ideally, students will make the most of technology while utilizing good old fashioned note-taking. By determining the style that works best and combining the best of both worlds, students can ensure this is their most successful year yet.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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