Chapter 6: Learning & Studying



Reflect on how you have taken notes in the past.

  • What note-taking methods have worked well for you?
  • How have you measured the success of a particular note-taking strategy?
  • If you haven’t been in the practice of taking notes, what have you done to retain course content?
  • Overall, what’s your plan for staying engaged in college as content is presented from your professor, textbook, or some other source?
Illustration of layers of mathematical equations written on a chalkboard. The topmost layer is glowing white and only barely legible
We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. —Lloyd Alexander, author

Note-Taking Systems (this is from Lumen Effective Learning Strategies at Austin Community College)

The following is a chart with a brief explanation of the main note-taking systems that are described in more depth later in this chapter.

Method Description When to Use
Lists A sequential listing of ideas as they are presented. Lists may be short phrases or complete paragraphs describing ideas in more detail. This method is what most students use as a fallback if they haven’t learned other methods. This method typically requires a lot of writing, and you may find that you are not keeping up with the professor. It is not easy for students to prioritize ideas in this method.
Outlines The outline method places most important ideas along the left margin, which are numbered with roman numerals. Supporting ideas to these main concepts are indented and are noted with capital letters. Under each of these ideas, further detail can be added, designated with an Arabic number, a lowercase letter, and so forth. A good method to use when material presented by the instructor is well organized. Easy to use when taking notes on your computer.
Concept Maps When designing a concept map, place a central idea in the center of the page and then add lines and new circles in the page for new ideas. Use arrows and lines to connect the various ideas. A great method to show relationships among ideas. Also good if the instructor tends to hop from one idea to another and back.
Cornell Method The Cornell method uses a two-column approach. The left column takes up no more than a third of the page and is often referred to as the “cue” or “recall” column. The right column (about two-thirds of the page) is used for taking notes using any of the methods described above or a combination of them. After class or completing the reading, review your notes and write the key ideas and concepts or questions in the left column. You may also include a summary box at the bottom of the page. The Cornell method can include any of the methods above and provides a useful format for calling out key concepts, prioritizing ideas, and organizing review work. Most colleges recommend using some form of the Cornell method.

The List Method

The list method is usually not the best choice because it is focused exclusively on capturing as much of what the instructor says as possible, not on processing the information. Most students who have not learned effective study skills use this method. Even if you are skilled in some form of shorthand, you should probably also learn one of the other methods described here because they are all better at helping you process and remember the material. You may want to take notes in class using the list method, and then transcribe your notes to an outline or concept map after class as a part of your review process. It is always important to review your notes as soon as possible after class and write a summary of the class in your own words.

The Outline Method

The advantage of the outline method is that it allows you to prioritize the material. Key ideas are written to the left of the page, subordinate ideas are then indented, and details of the subordinate ideas can be indented further. To further organize your ideas, you can use the typical outlining numbering scheme (starting with roman numerals for key ideas, moving to capital letters on the first subordinate level, Arabic numbers for the next level, and lowercase letters following.) At first, you may have trouble identifying when the instructor moves from one idea to another. This takes practice and experience with each instructor, so don’t give up! In the early stages, you should use your syllabus to determine what key ideas the instructor plans to present. Your reading assignments before class can also give you guidance in identifying the key ideas.

If you’re using your laptop computer for taking notes, a basic word processing application (like Microsoft Word or Works) is very effective. Format your document by selecting the outline format from the format bullets menu. Use the increase or decrease indent buttons to navigate the level of importance you want to give each item. The software will take care of the numbering for you!

After class, be sure to review your notes and then summarize the class in one or two short paragraphs using your own words. This summary will significantly affect your recall and will help you prepare for the next class.

The Concept Map Method

Concept mapping is a very graphic method of note-taking that is especially good at capturing the relationships among ideas. Concept maps harness your visual sense to understand complex material “at a glance.” They also give you the flexibility to move from one idea to another and back easily (so they are helpful if your instructor moves freely through the material).

To develop a concept map, start by using your syllabus to rank the ideas you will listen to by level of detail (from high-level or abstract ideas to detailed facts). Select an overriding idea (high level or abstract) from the instructor’s lecture and place it in a circle in the middle of the page. Then create branches off that circle to record the more detailed information, creating additional limbs as you need them. Arrange the branches with others that interrelate closely. When a new high-level idea is presented, create a new circle with its own branches. Link together related circles or concepts by using arrows and symbols to capture the relationship between ideas. For example, an arrow may be used to illustrate cause or effect, a double-pointed arrow to illustrate dependence, or a dotted arrow to illustrate impact or effect.

As with all note-taking methods, you should summarize the chart in one or two paragraphs of your own words after class.

The Cornell Method

The Cornell method was developed in the 1950s by Professor Walter Pauk at Cornell University. It is recommended by most colleges because of its usefulness and flexibility. This method is simple to use for capturing notes, is helpful for defining priorities, and is a great study tool.

The Cornell method follows a very specific format that consists of four boxes: a header, two columns, and a footer.

The header is a small box across the top of the page. In it you write identification information like the course name and the date of the class. Underneath the header are two columns: a narrow one on the left (no more than one-third of the page) and a wide one on the right. The wide column, called the “notes” column, takes up most of the page and is used to capture your notes using any of the methods outlined earlier. The left column, known as the “cue” or “recall” column, is used to jot down main ideas, keywords, questions, clarifications, and other notes. It should be used both during the class and when reviewing your notes after class. Finally, use the box in the footer to write a summary of the class in your own words to help you make sense of your notes in the future and serve as a valuable tool to aid with recall and studying.

Using index cards for the Cornell method

Some students like to use index cards to take notes. They actually lend themselves quite well to the Cornell method. Use the “back” or lined side of the card to write your notes in class. Use one card per key concept. The “front” unlined side of the card replaces the left-hand “cue” column. Use it after class to write keywords, comments, or questions. When you study, the cards become flashcards with questions on one side and answers on the other. Write a summary of the class on a separate card and place it on the top of the deck as an introduction to what was covered in the class.

You will have noticed that all methods end with the same step: reviewing your notes as soon as possible after class. Any review of your notes is helpful (reading them, copying them into your computer, or even recasting them using another note-taking method). But THINK! Make your review of notes a thoughtful activity, not a mindless process. When you review your notes, think about questions you still have and determine how you will get the answers. (From the next class? Studying with a friend? Looking up material in your text or on the net?) Examine how the material applies to the course; make connections with notes from other class sessions, with the material in your text, and with concepts covered in class discussions. Finally, it’s fun to think about how the material in your notes applies to real life. Consider this question both at the very strategic level (as in “What does this material mean to me in relation to what I want to do with my life?”) as well as at a very mundane level (as in “Is there anything cool here I can work into a conversation with my friends?”).

Taking Notes from a Lecture

Effective note-taking helps students retain what they learned in class and use the material to study and build their knowledge to tackle more complex concepts later on. In fact, research indicates that there’s a 34 percent chance that students will remember key information if it’s present in their notes but only a 5 percent chance if it’s not.[1] Based on the material presented, students may opt to create an outline, write a brief summary, or make visual guides and diagrams in their notes. The key is to try a variety of note-taking methods to find strategies that are best for the material and result in good grades.

The following are a few note-taking recommendations to try out:

  • Stay organized: Keep your notes and handouts separate for each class. For example, you might have a different notebook and folder for each class or a large notebook with a different tab for each class. This method will save you the time of trying to organize and locate your notes when studying for an exam.
  • Use visual cues: Try highlighting, underlining, or drawing arrows or exclamation points next to any main or difficult concepts. This strategy will call attention to these sections and remind you to spend more time reviewing them.
  • Group together similar concepts: Grouping or “chunking” material is a good way to make studying and memorization easier. You can try drawing the main concept and connecting it to smaller, related concepts or making an outline of the information. Either one can serve as an effective study guide.
  • Make notes legible: Writing as clearly as possible when you take notes will make it easier to review them later. Some students use their class notes as a rough draft as to create a neater final draft afterward. If a laptop is permitted during class, students may decide to type their notes although research does suggest a benefit to handwriting notes.

Note-taking method

Choose a course that you are taking this semester and commit to trying one of the note-taking methods below:

  • Cornell Method
  • Outlining Method
  • Mapping Method
  • List Method

Really think about which strategy would work best for the course and why. Be prepared to share what you learn about the note-taking methods, which one you’ll commit to using, and why you selected the method you did.

Many instructors conduct their classes mainly through lectures, so lecture remains the most common teaching format used in higher education. Lectures are an efficient way for the instructor to control the content, organization, and pace of a presentation, particularly in a large group. However, students may have a hard time paying attention from the start of the lecture to the finish. Also, current cognitive science research shows that adult learners need an opportunity to practice newfound skills and newly introduced content. Lectures can set the stage for that interaction or practice, but lectures alone don’t foster student mastery. While instructors typically speak 100–200 words per minute, students hear only 50–100 of them. Moreover, studies show that students retain 70 percent of what they hear during the first ten minutes of class and only 20 percent of what they hear during the last ten minutes of class.[2]

It is important for students in lecture-based courses to engage in active learning outside of the classroom, but it’s also true for other kinds of college courses, including the ones that have active learning opportunities in class. Why? Because college students spend more time working and learning independently outside of class than they do in the classroom with their instructor and peers. Also, much of one’s coursework consists of reading and writing assignments. How can these learning activities be active? The following section gives tips on actively engaging with course content.

Taking Notes from Textbooks and Other Learning Materials

Here are effective strategies to help students be more engaged with, and get more out of, the learning they do outside the classroom:

  • Write in your books: You can underline and circle key terms, or write questions and comments in the margins of your books. The writing serves as a visual aid for studying and makes it easier for you to remember what you’ve read or what you’d like to discuss in class. If you are borrowing a book or want to keep it unmarked so you can resell it later, try writing keywords and notes on Post-its and sticking them on the relevant pages.
  • Annotate a text: Read with a pen or highlighter in hand, and underline or highlight significant ideas as you read. Interact with the ideas in the margins (summarize ideas; ask questions; paraphrase difficult sentences; make personal connections; answer questions asked earlier; challenge the author). This is a great way to “digest” and evaluate the sources you’re collecting for a research paper, but it’s also invaluable for shorter assignments and texts since it requires you to actively think and write about what you read. It’s important to practice annotating texts.
  • Create mind maps: Mind maps are effective visual tools for students, as they highlight the main points of readings or lessons. Think of a mind map as an outline with more graphics than words. For example, if a student were reading an article about America’s First Ladies, she might write, “First Ladies” in a large circle in the center of a piece of paper. Connected to the middle circle would be lines or arrows leading to smaller circles with visual representations of the women discussed in the article. Then, these circles might branch out to even smaller circles containing the attributes of each of these women.

The following video discusses the process of creating mind maps further and shows how they can be a helpful strategy for active engagement:

Annotating texts

  • Watch the following video on annotating texts.
  • Practice annotation strategies shown in the video as you read one of your homework assignments.

The Reading Process

Effective reading requires more engagement than just reading the words on the page. In order to learn and retain what you read, it’s a good idea to do things like circling keywords, writing notes, and reflecting. Actively reading academic texts can be challenging for students, but practicing the following steps can help make time spent reading more efficient and productive:

  • Preview: You can gain insight from an academic text before you even begin the reading assignment. For example, if you are assigned a nonfiction book, read the title, the back of the book, and the table of contents. Scanning this information can give you an initial idea of what you’ll be reading and some useful context for thinking about it. You can also start to make connections between the new reading and knowledge you already have, which is another strategy for retaining information.
  • Read: While you read an academic text, you should have a pen or pencil in hand. Circle or highlight key concepts. Write questions or comments in the margins or in a notebook to help you remember what you are reading and also to build a personal connection with the subject matter.
  • Summarize: After you read an academic text, it’s worth taking the time to write a short summary, even if your instructor doesn’t require it. The exercise of jotting down a few sentences or a short paragraph capturing the main ideas helps you understand and absorb what you read and gives you ready study and review materials for exams and writing assignments.
  • Review: It always helps to revisit what you’ve read for a quick refresher. It may not be practical to thoroughly reread assignments from start to finish, but before class discussions or tests, it’s a good idea to skim through them to identify the main points, reread any notes at the ends of chapters, and review any summaries you’ve written.

Active reading strategies that readers can use before, during, and after reading are provided in the following video:

Additional ways to engage in active reading and learning:

  • Work when you are fully awake, and give yourself enough time to read a text more than once.
  • Foster an attitude of intellectual curiosity. You might not love all of the writing you’re asked to read and analyze, but you should have something interesting to say about it, even if that “something” is critical.  
  • As you read, keep the following in mind :
    • What is the CONTEXT in which this text was written? This writing contributes to what topic, discussion, or controversy?  Context is bigger than this one written text.
    • Who is the intended AUDIENCE? There’s often more than one intended audience.
    • What is the author’s PURPOSE? To entertain? To explain? To persuade? There’s usually more than one purpose, and essays almost always have an element of persuasion.
    • How is this writing ORGANIZED? Compare and contrast? Classification? Chronological?  Cause and effect? There’s often more than one organizational form.
    • What is the author’s TONE? What are the emotions behind the words? Are there places where the tone changes or shifts?
    • What TOOLS does the author use to accomplish her/his purpose?  Facts and figures? Direct quotations? Fallacies in logic? Personal experience? Repetition? Sarcasm? Humor? Brevity?
    • What is the author’s THESIS, the main argument or idea, condensed into one or two sentences?

Creating notes and study guides

  • Review note-taking strategies from this section.
  • Take notes during one of your classes.
  • Using the notes you took from class, create a study guide. “Creating Study Guides” from Utah State University’s Academic Success Center has examples of study-guide formats that might be useful. Or, you can develop your own.
  • Write a one-paragraph summary describing your note-taking strategy and explaining why you created the study guide the way you did.

Reading is thinking

One way to go deeper into texts and utilize your critical thinking skills is to use the text coding strategy. Text coding is a way of tracking your thinking while reading. It entails marking the text and recording what you are thinking either in the margins or perhaps on Post-it notes. In essence, text coding is engaging in a conversation with the author. As you make connections and ask questions in response to what you read, you monitor your comprehension, enhance your long-term understanding of the material, and elevate your thinking to a higher level.

With text coding, mark important arguments and key facts. Indicate where you agree and disagree or have further questions. Eventually, you’ll develop your own shorthand style when reading or taking notes. The following are a few options to consider using while coding text.

Shorthand Meaning
! Important
L Learned something new
! Big idea surfaced
* Interesting or important fact
? Dig deeper

Apply text coding to one of your assigned readings and strive to go deeper to engage in a critical conversation with the author.


  1. "Effective Note Taking Strategies." Utah State University Academic Success Center. 1999. Web. 10 Feb 2016.
  2. Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center. "Active Learning." n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2016.


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