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Why Most Students Don’t Understand the Real Goal of Note-Taking

College students know that note taking is important. Walk into any classroom and you are going see every student typing or jotting down something. But what are they capturing? And why?

If you ask an average undergraduate to describe the goal of note taking, he would answer: to capture the important information. Sounds reasonable…

If you ask a straight-A undergraduate, however, (which, in my infinite oddness, I have done many times), he would instead answer: to reduce my study time.

If you adopt this mindset, you can shave serious time from your studying efforts. My informal estimate is that for each hour of class in which you take notes with the reduced study time mindset, you will shave 20-30 minutes from the time required to prepare for an “A” performance on a test.

How does this mindset work? Here is some advice to help you adopt this way of thinking.

The Three Laws of Reduced Study Time Note Taking

  1. Never Record Raw Information
    The most time-consuming piece of studying is processing the information into the ideas and frameworks which will help you compose intelligent answers on an exam. Raw facts are useless for college-level essay questions. To reduce the time required to study, you must try to do as much thinking and processing of the information as possible while still in the classroom. You’re there anyways, you might as well make the most of it! Don’t record what the professor says, record the importance of what he says. The only thing that should go into your notebook is processed information. When it comes time to study, your task becomes one of review, not thinking, and this saves significant time.
  2. Question Connections
    Ask questions in class. But not just any stupid question. Don’t ask for trivial clarification, or mention a point you just thought up. Instead, probe the connections between the information. Ask how an idea fits a theory mentioned earlier. Test your understanding of why a certain scholar thought a certain way, or what factor might explain a certain event. The less sure you are of your answer the more important it is for you ask. These connections are fuel for deep understanding.
  3. Adopt an Idea-Centric Note-Taking Format
    To aid your attempt to process and capture information in the fast-paced environment of a lecture, you need an efficient, fill-in-the-blanks format that you can rely on to simplify the decision of how to record the results of this process. As you know, I’m fond of the Question/Evidence/Conclusion format described in Straight-A. But this is not the only game in town. Use whatever works for you. I once met a student, for example, who, at the start of class, ripped out a sheet of paper to put next to his notebook. On the ripped out sheet of paper he would jot down and number titles for the big theories or ideas mentioned in class. In his notebook, he took notes on the processed information, using the numbers as a shorthand for referencing the ideas his notes referred to. (For example, he might jot down: “the increased number of plague cases helped support 7, but seems to contradict 2 and 5”).

33 thoughts on “Why Most Students Don’t Understand the Real Goal of Note-Taking”

  1. I don’t agree with point 2 (well, I don’t really agree with most of the text, in fact). Asking question is probably the best way to learn new informations, and to integrate them. Plus, it is a good way to clarify some points. Trivial clarification often leads the speaker to rephrase what he just said, then brings a new light on the topic.

    ASking a question about a point you just thought up is quite good too, especially if this point is an hypothesis or a deduction closely related to the subject. In science, asking about an hypothesis you just made is particularly appreciated.

    Moreover, I think than in this text, your only aim is “note-taking for college students”. Studies (and life!) don’t stop after college! Raw informations are important, and how could you evaluate the value of an information without having ALL the informations given?

    Having all the informations on paper will reduce your study time, and give you a basis for future writing in case you need it. Considering that you won’t need to try to remember the informations while preparing an essay/test, it will by principle help you reducing your studying time.

  2. I like your idea of note-taking being valuable beyond college. Let’s keep that in mind to consider this example. Assume I give you an interesting non-fiction book. You decide to take notes while you read it so you can later remember its key insights.

    You can’t record the raw information — that’s the entire book! Instead, you have to think about what you read, and record the big ideas that you find compelling. What affected you? What will you bring up at your next dinner party?

    Think about a college lecture in the same way. To record the raw information so you can evaluate it later is a herculean task (like transcribing an entire book). Capture the insights. Not only is this easier, but it saves you the analysis step when you later study. Efficiency is king! Always be streamlining…and so on, and so forth.

    • I’m an undergraduate student, and the trouble I have accepting what you said is that many tests include raw information. My oceanography class for example feels like a ton of facts I have to memorize. I can’t just know how currents work I have know all their names, I can’t just know about how we measure wind I have to know the names of the tools and who invented them…I would fail if I didn’t know all those little facts. Could you explain how your method would help here?

      • I totally agree with this. While I see the benefit of writing down notes using your own explanation of the material (processed), I don’t think this addresses taking notes where raw information is essential. I’m in IT Security and many, if not all of my certification exams, deal with and test you on raw facts. There are so many facts to know and understand that I don’t know how to approach notetaking effectively in this arena. When it all appears significant and you know you can and will be tested on raw material, what approach do you take then?

  3. I have found that mindmapping works well as a mechanism for taking notes. It helps keep you from recording the raw information and helps you focus on how your brain will remember the information.

    However, it can be a pretty scary thing the first time you try it because you’ll feel you should be writing down facts instead of “doodling” about them.

  4. Mark, is there a resource out there (blog post, article) that gives some hints about how to mindmap?

    I tried this once, during the second quarter of my freshman year, a Greek and Roman Studies course on the fall of the Roman Republic. I had no idea actually how to mindmap, so I ended up just taking less notes, but drawing circles around them. Clearly this did not work out too well.

    I vowed to get specific instructions before trying such a technique again.

  5. I think taking down processed information is sometimes too hard to do. Because first of all you have to listen and get it all, connect it to already known stuff, filter the essential part, and process it even further.
    So you have to do all these steps within the lecture, which means you have to do them while the prof probably already discusses a new topic or a new slide.
    Too often it’s even too hard to scribble down the raw information only, because the prof was already headding to the next slide.

    And so let’s assume we are hearing “first-time-information” and have small to none previous knowledge. So in this situation we have to encode the important facts first (if we can this at all).

    So this leads to the conclusion, that efficient and usefull note-taking needs a lecture-preperation (if possible)

  6. Julian,

    A good point. It is difficult. Taking advantages of little breaks during lecture (e.g., stupid questions), five minutes right after lecture, and, if necessary, a short “instant replay” session in a quiet nook that same day to clean things up, all help get this information processed the same day you receive it.

  7. I have a question. I’m in a pre-university college and we have the lecture and tutorial system, similar to universities. Lecture notes are always provided for every topic in the syllabus, they are basically the power point slides the lecturer uses to teach.

    What I want to know is, can note-taking be useful in science subjects? Example Chemistry, Physics and Biology.


  8. @Dahlia:

    It depends on the class. The general rule is to experiment with a system that best matches the type of class. You might want to read my article titled “How to Take Notes on Power Point Slides” for a discussion of the specific case you mention.

  9. Hi Cal,

    I’m a British first year medical student. I’ve only recently found your blog, but it’s already been a great help.

    If you’re interested in mind mapping you should read ‘Use Your Head‘ by Tony Buzan (the inventor of mind mapping). It’s a very short book, but outlines the theory behind the technique and how to use it very well.


  10. If you’re interested in mind mapping you should read ‘Use Your Head‘ by Tony Buzan (the inventor of mind mapping). It’s a very short book, but outlines the theory behind the technique and how to use it very well.

    Thanks for the reference. I have chatting recently with a law student who has been impressing me with her use of mind maps — i’m thinking of writing something about them. This might be a good source for me to consult.

  11. read ‘Use Your Head‘ by Tony Buzan (the inventor of mind mapping).

    Buzan did not invent the mind map, in fact it’s one way people stored information before the printing press; but, he certainly did commercialise it.

    That said, the introduction to ‘Use your Head’ has one of his success stories, and (IMO) the clearest part of perhaps the clearest book from a fuzzy author that happens to lay out a wonderful study strategy; but, there are numerous resources you can pick the principles up from besides Buzan.

    Two classics that come to mind, though not specifically about mind mapping, are the scholarly tome by Frances Yates here and the fun and practical starter on memorisation principles by H.Lorayne. But everything is summarised at the superb ‘mentat wiki’ here

  12. It seems ridiculous that I never used the Q/E/C method before! I’m obsessive about taking notes and keeping them well ordered but I just never thought of doing something this simple, and obviously ended up getting bogged-down in the little detail as a result, completely losing sight of the big ideas in the process.
    This site is really inspiring! I love that they’re not cheats – everything is aimed at serious students looking to make the most of their education. Just brilliant. sorry for gushing!

  13. Cal,
    I’m a high school student and am almost half way through your “How To Be A High School Superstar” book. I think the book is fantastic and I whole-heartedely feel that your ideas will help me get into my dream school (Wharton).

    I’m writing because I need some clarification on your QEC method. I’m honestly confused on how to properly use it during my school day and at home. I feel this way because this year I’m taking AP Economics, AP Gov, and AP Environmental Science. I truly love all of these topics and I could not be more excited for the school year! However, I”m not sure how to really use it because a lot of the material from each of these classes respectively requires many specific details in the notes. How do you approach each class and figure out what is the best way to take notes in each class? Also, how do you know if you can just take down the “Big Ideas” or you need to write all of the details?

    Thank you very much Cal, and your help to students like me is invaluable.


  14. Hi
    In one of your replies you talked about a law student using mindmaps for studying and I was interested in how the law student used mindmaps for their legal courses. Am currently a law student and was thinking about using mindmaps to study/take notes and was wondering if you had any ideas as to how they used it for law school.

    You have a great blog, and it been very helpful to me.

  15. How would you recommend taking notes for Science Courses that are not technical? I’m taking Genetics, and Human Anatomy. I read “The Art of Taking Science Notes” blog, but it focuses more on after taking your notes to clarify and expand on what you wrote. Can you use the Question/Evidence/Conclusion method for these courses?

    • I am reviewing the advice on this blog to get insight on helping my grandchildren as they approach high school and college. By which you can see that my own college experience is not recent. However, as a biologist, I would say that the Question/Evidence/Conclusion method is less suitable for science courses than humanities courses.

      Science professors are quite likely to give you information that is NOT in the textbook, but WILL be on the exam. You really do need to get down any information they present that isn’t in the text, which may mean writing at furious speed. And a great deal of the information presented, especially in lower division science courses, is presented as facts – the knowledge of which will provide the basis for upper division courses that may have a greater hypothetical component.

      So the science lectures are much less likely to consist of a series of subunits that conform to a structure of 1) Here’s the topic [question], 2) here’s the evidence, 3) here’s the conclusion.

      It would be great to see more discussion of approaches for these students. After my freshman year, I generally took 3 science courses (primarily biology, geology, and chemistry) a quarter. So I am well aware that the advice that focuses on good approaches for humanities courses, valuable though it is, is of limited use to science majors.

      • Thanks for this insight Margaret! If I understand correctly from my reading of this blog so far, the Focused Cluster Method is directly targeted at facts-heavy science courses, in which the goal is to capture as many facts as possible. During the lecture itself, rather than writing down all the raw information though, we can process it right away by noting facts down as questions. Cal’s blog post on how to take notes from powerpoint lectures is also helpful for science courses.

  16. Thank you so much for changing my mindset on taking notes! For years I’ve been losing note readability to info cramming. Only one day after changing my outlook on notes, my notes have changed how the look.
    Thank you!


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