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How to Take Notes

In my article, “How to Study for Mastery“, I provide a set of steps that will allow students to work through any lessons–and master them. One of the steps requires study and note-taking and parents and students frequently ask me, “How should we take notes?” In this article, I’ll answer that.

Some Background

Before I start this, I want to say that I figured this out on my own as a college student. I had to pay my way through college and that meant winning scholarships. To win scholarships, I needed perfect scores. I couldn’t get C’s or B’s. I had to aim for 100% and that meant I had to learn how to study. Unlike you, I had no help, and I had to figure out what worked–the hard way.

To do this, I knew I could not do what my classmates did. They weren’t concerned with perfect scores, but just needed to pass and get credits for their degrees. They attended classes, took notes and then relied on study sheets provided by professors before exams to try and pass. Outside of class, however, our professors assigned hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading assignments and I knew that I had to read and learn everything if I was going to get the highest scores–and I did so.

What I did to master my studies was read through all assigned readings as soon as I could in the semester. I would take notes as I went, trying to summarize my reading making notes to myself and jotting questions as I went along. If I read that “Tiglath-Pileser was king at Nineveh.”, I jotted that down, and added the question (for myself), “Where is Nineveh?” in the margin. By the end of the term, I had a few notebooks full of messy notes.

Two weeks before I exams, I re-wrote ALL of my notes. Since I had finished the readings I could understand a lot more of what I had read in the beginning and could clean things up as I re-wrote the notes, condensing them and making them briefer. My objective was to have all of my notes ready to study one week before each final exam. Once they were finished, I would begin memorizing everything I had written and answer the questions I had jotted down along the way. I would pretend that I was going to be asked to present the semester’s content in a lecture in front of the professors–and prepare to do so. If I was studying a history class, I would tape paper all over my apartment wall and write out the history from beginning to end from memory. If I got stuck at any point, I knew I didn’t understand it yet, and would clean those spots up by review. The night before the exam, I would pull an all-nighter, studying constantly until my exam started the next day. I couldn’t always study in this way, but did so for my most important courses, and when I did, I regularly earned perfect scores on difficult exams.

Now, sitting on the teacher side of the desk, I see students doing it all wrong. Most study like my classmates did, and I’d like to help you study the way I did. Fortunately, you can learn much more easily than I did.

A Note-Taking Method

The way I studied can be learned using a simple form for taking notes (click here). I wouldn’t advising using these forms to actually take notes, just to learn how to take notes on a regular sheet of notebook paper.

As the article on studying says, you should begin with a simple first reading of the assigned text–because you need to figure out what you have to study before you can start studying it. When you’ve finished that, you’re ready to begin studying–and taking notes to help you study more efficiently.

Today, the method seen on this document is known as the “Cornell Method” of note-taking. For me, it’s just how I earned high scores–I didn’t know anything about any “method” when I was studying. Whether you use the document I share or follow the method in a notebook doesn’t matter. The key is that you take notes on the left side of the page, making SHORT summaries of key points of the lesson. These notes should be like signs that help you remember what you read, not a re-writing of the text. For example, if I was taking notes on this paragraph, I might write: NOTES SIGNS OF KEY POINTS. That’s it.

On the right side of the page, make brief questions–either questions you think may be on an exam, or questions of your own. Your notes are, after all, YOUR notes.

After you have worked through the text a second (or third) time, you should have a good sense of the content of the lesson, but may not be able to “put it all together”. That is the point of the last step of your note-taking: putting together a summary of the lesson at the bottom of the page.

Comprehension Questions

Students will notice that my comprehension questions serve these three parts of note-taking because that’s the way I study a text. The questions I write are like the questions a student might write on the right side of the paper. The answers should be like the notes a student might write on the left side. Usually, at the end of a section, I will ask the student to write a summary of what that section covered. Comprehension questions represent what I might look for in a student’s notes, which is why I recommend that students use their notes to try and answer the comprehension questions. This will allow them to get a good idea of how well they’re doing with note-taking.

Having discussed note-taking in brief here, I recommend you go back to the original article, “How to Study for Mastery” and review those steps. One piece of good news is that as I put together a new lesson system for students beginning in 2018, I’ll be building these steps into the lesson tasks to help you.

Please let me know if you have any questions–this is important stuff.

God bless,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy