01 Apr 2015

BY: Louise Hilliar

Note-making is a skill which is always necessary for students and often necessary for employees. It is, however, a skill which is often taken for granted.  In this article, I outline the value of making notes, discuss different forms of note-making, and provide some tips about effective note-making. 

Why make notes?
It is important to consider the reason that notes are being taken as this will influence the way that this task is approached. Notes may be taken to:

  • Provide a record
  • Enhance understanding
  • Prepare for writing
  • Help memory


General tips on note-making

  • Be actively involved in the process as this will lead to useful, high quality notes and effective learning.
  • Be clear about which questions you want to answer through your note-making and which predictions you want to test.
  • Make sure that your notes will make sense when you return to them. If they are too brief, this may be difficult.
  • Use symbols and abbreviations to save time. Keep a key and introduce a few at a time so that your notes make sense. Useful suggestions can be found here.
  • Leave spaces so that you can add further detail later on.


Pen-and-paper or computer
The main advantage of making notes on paper is that it is easier to incorporate symbols and drawings. For particular subjects, it is probably the only option. You may also find that the physical act of writing helps you to concentrate and to remember what you have recorded.

The alternative is to use a computer to take notes. This may be advantageous if you can type more quickly that you can write. It may also be easier to edit and adapt your notes and in some cases, it may be possible to add to on-line course notes or to agendas. As with hand-written notes, care needs to be taken to organise these notes. The use of digital notebooks such as Microsoft OneNote or Evernote can be useful in this respect. Electronic notes need to be backed up on USB sticks or using on-line file storage.

Linear note-making
Linear notes are produced when you record information in the order that you read or hear it. Since your notes reflect the structure of their source this may help you to understand information and to locate details later on. Some tips for making effective linear notes:

  • Include headings.
  • Number points.
  • Make the page visually memorable for example by colour-coding particular types of information and including diagrams.
  • If writing on paper, spread your notes out on the page so that details can be added later.


Non-linear note-making
Non-linear note-making involves the production of mind-maps or spider diagrams. These begin with a record of the topic area in the middle of the page, with ideas branching out from this which may be repeatedly sub-divided. Mind-mapping software is available and includes MindGenius and iMindMap.

Making notes from text
Tips for note-making from text:

  • Put your pen to one side until you have gained a sound understanding of the text.
  • Read introductions and summaries first and take careful note of headings in order to identify the structure of the text and key issues.
  • Read the text through once in order to gain an overview of the subject matter.
  • Based on this initial reading, formulate questions to be answered. These may include issues that you have not fully understood and clarification about the writer’s views, for example.
  • At this stage, it is often useful to highlight text or annotate it. For this reason, you may prefer to print documents, buy copies of particular books, or photocopy sections of books.
  • Text in electronic format may also be highlighted and annotated. Sections of text, and comments, can then be transferred into a new document for editing and this way of working can be undertaken using Microsoft Word, Read&Write or ClaroRead.
  • Referring to your highlighted sections of text and annotations, produce summary notes in your chosen format.
  • Ensure that you make a record of the source of your notes. Include page numbers so that you can go back to the original text at a later date.


Making notes from lectures, presentations and meetings
Ask yourself the following questions when deciding how to approach note-making in these situations:

  • Is this my only source of information or will I have hand-outs, books or minutes to refer to later?
  • How much detail do I need?
  • What do I need the notes for?


If, for example, you are attending a presentation which provides an introduction to a new topic and you know that you will be given a hand-out at the end of the session, you may decide to take very few notes but to focus on gaining an overview of the subject.

Some tips for note-making in these situations:

  • Prepare for the session by reviewing material produced during previous sessions and reading any available background material such as agendas, reports, and hand-outs.
  • Arrive prepared with pens and file paper or a note-book, or a computer.
  • Identify your notes clearly including the date, course title, subject and speaker, where relevant.
  • If you are provided with a hand-out or agenda at the beginning of a session then you could record your notes directly onto these.
  • If hand-outs are provided at the end of a session then you may like to add key points from your notes to these. This will allow you to make use of the speaker’s structure and will provide the opportunity to enhance your understanding of material.
  • Be selective about what you record.
  • Distinguish between key points which need to be recorded and further explanation which you may not need.
  • Key points may be highlighted at the beginning and end of a lecture and may be displayed on a screen or white-boards. Speakers may indicate key points by using particular phrases such as ‘the main issues here _ _ _’.
  • Including examples often provides useful clarification.
  • Record the speaker’s opinions and evaluation of ideas as this information is less unlikely to be available in other sources.
  • Using the speaker’s words can help to save time and may enable you to learn the language associated with particular topics.
  • If you have time after a presentation, then it can be useful to go through notes soon afterwards while your memory is still fresh. This will allow you to fill in any gaps and clarify any illegible words so that your notes are clear when you return to them later on.  It also helps to consolidate learning.


Support for those who find note-making challenging
Those with neurodiverse conditions often find note-making difficult. They may have problems with simultaneously listening and recording or may have problems with handwriting. If this is the case, reasonable adjustments may be put into place if you disclose your difficulty. For example students may be provided with a note-taker and employees may be exempt from taking minutes at meetings.