Effective Note-Taking: Increasing the Value of Your Notes

The Cued Forward Team on

This is our fourth and final post in our series Cued Forward’s Back to School, Back to Learning Something New focus. 8 minute read. We hope you have learned insights that have grown your personal or professional development.  But don’t stop here.  Continue your learning journey.

Ever attend a presentation and leave with good takeaways and ideas, motivated to make change only to look back at your notes later and realize that what you wrote can’t help you remember what you heard or capture the emotional quality of the presentation?  Now, you are unmotivated.  Since nearly 80% of all of what we learn during training programs, presentations, and learning events is lost within 30 days (or shorter) of the event, it is up to us to take good notes so we can apply new ideas and techniques to the their fullest.

Note-taking is an art that some folks are simply good at it.  You know the ones; they are able to capture what the speaker is saying using words that convey the essence of the presentation.  For those folks, we would like it to invite you would share your best practices below.  For the rest of us, let’s look at some myths and truths of note taking.

As a digital note-taking company said in their blog, no matter how you take notes, “note taking is an incredibly person, profound, and individual skill.”  A skill that can be improved with each individual carving out a style or combination of styles that works best.  No matter if you take notes by hand or if you use technology, understanding the fundamentals of note-taking will not only make conferences and presentations (your time) a more valuable tool, but whoever paid for that investment will be happier with their ROI.

Shattering the Myths about Note-Taking

Myth: Using technology is the best way to take notes.

According to research, using technology is not the best way to take notes for most people.  While technology may allow you to take faster notes, it does not improve the quality of the notes taken since most people using technology are trying to take notes verbatim.  Additionally, the technology itself can be distracting.  With Wi-Fi everywhere, clicking on social media during a boring presentation is easy.

While not the most glamorous, pen-and-paper note-taking is more effective because you are more selective in the notes you take and are interacting with the material as you take notes which adds an extra layer of thought-processing to the material.

Myth: There is only one method to take notes.

There are multiple methods for taking notes.  Some methods work better based on the situation or the individual.  Some people find that using a combination of note-taking styles works best.  Exploring note-taking methods (see below) will help you maximize your note-taking abilities.

Myth: Other than remembering “to-do’s,” note-taking does not add much other value to my personal or professional skillset.

The value of note-taking is huge. Not only can you learn new ideas and concepts, but notes are the building blocks of great ideas.  They can also be the catapult to creating train the trainer opportunities in organizations and help prepare future meeting agendas.  And as Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group commented, note-taking is key to improving listening skills.  By taking notes, you don’t interrupt the speaker and are able to jot down comments and questions for later.

There is a saying “garbage in, garbage out” which holds 100% true for the notes you take.  If notes are taken poorly, unorganized, or without purpose then reviewing those notes will add little to no value in the future.

Improving Pen and Paper Note-taking Skills

Have you ever really thought about how you take notes on paper?  If not, then understanding the some of the strategies of note-taking is a great starting point.

Cornell Strategy

With this style, the note-taker divides the page vertically with about 40% of the page to the left of the line and 60% of the page to the right of the line.  The right side is used to take the actual notes.  The left side of the page is the “cue” column.  These words, phrases, or questions separate topic sections and highlight key information presented.  This strategy if often considered the most effective because the note-taker learns more by repeating the information a second time through writing key words and phrases from the content.  By writing the cue, you are giving your brain a mental workout which will help you remember more.

A variation to this strategy includes writing a few lines at the bottom of each page or at the end of section of similar content to summarize what was said.  By adding the summary, you are adding another layer to increase the capacity of what you remember.

Outline/List Strategy

This strategy can be used by itself or in conjunction with the Cornell strategy.  The note-taker uses an outline format to list main subject categories and then lists information on that subject as subcategories.  This method is best used for recording definitions, facts or sequences for slide-based presentations or when you are reading and want to recall information.

Sentence Strategy

Like the outline/list, this strategy can be used in combination with the Cornell method.  The note-taker in this case jots down thoughts as quickly as possible.  The important word here is “thoughts.”  It is not about typing every word, but doing a quick mental analysis with what you hear before you write down the information.  Since this is fast-paced, formatting should be kept to a minimum

Some instances where this might be a good strategy are when you are in meetings that lacks structure or when information is presented quickly.

Mapping Strategy

Visual learners will like the mapping strategy for note-taking.  This strategy uses a tree as its metaphor.  The main topic is listed at the center of a page.  Headers and subtopics are listed around the main topic.  Lines or “branches” are used to show relatedness and levels.

While complicated and possibly time consuming, this strategy maximizes the note-taker’s active participation as well as emphasizes critical thinking since the information has to be processed to find its place on the map.

This strategy works best for planning or brainstorming sessions.  However, becoming skilled at this strategy will allow you to apply it to other note-taking opportunities.

Insights for Technology-Based Note-Taking

Despite not being the best fit for many, technology-based note-taking gives note-takers many options as well as the ability to easily store and access information if curated correctly.

As with the pen and paper strategies, the use of technology has its own strategies and methods to review with the first focused on the type of device to be used.  Pick a device that suits your needs best.  Being a proficient typist on a laptop is different than being a proficient typist on your smartphone.  Use the device that is your strongest tool.

Developing your own shorthand will help cut out unnecessary words.  Short-cut features on devices, like auto-fill, will also save time and increase focus on note-taking.

There are numerous apps available for digital note-taking.  Two of the most popular are Evernote and One Note.  Both allow access across any device and easy ways to store and find notes.

No matter if you are a pen and paper person or like your Ipad to take notes, note-taking is an experience that you should customize for yourself.  While the strategies, tips, and apps are needed for understanding, you ultimately determine what is going to add the most value.  Even if you have taken notes the same way for years, it is still worthwhile to look at the other note-taking options.

We would enjoy hearing about your own note-taking approaches. Share your own note-taking preferences and hacks below.

Image Credit: Pexels

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