How to Take Good Notes

Notes in the margins of Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, from Oak Meadow High School’s course The Hero’s Journey: “Research: we go off in directions we think are sure but in fact are way off the mark. But we often have to go there first to find that out.”

Admit it, you’ve been there – a test or essay deadline approaches, and you scramble to gather notes using what you think is the “best” or “most efficient” note-taking method.

But what is that method? What is the best way to study and keep good notes?

Allow me to let you in on a very important secret: there is no “best” note-taking technique!

Note-taking is all about how your own unique brain processes information. A note-taking system that works for your friend won’t necessarily work for you, though it’s always worth a try. As a high schooler, you are frequently asked to take your learning into your own hands – identifying a note-taking strategy that works well for you and developing your own independent study skills is a great place to start.

Note-taking is a visual representation of your mind at work, and the mind is often messy – especially at the beginning of a learning experience, when you’re diving into something unfamiliar and new.

Some people like to fit new knowledge into a familiar box in order to comprehend it. Others need to muck around in the unknown more ambiguously first, before they discover a frame for their new knowledge.

Whether you are defining complex terms in biology using flashcards or analyzing a character’s actions in literature by writing a diary entry in their voice, writing out content in your own words is a crucial first step toward true understanding.

Whatever your approach to note-taking may be, remember that there is no single best method for how to study – but there can be a study skill that turns out to be the best method for you. It may take some time to discover what that method is, so don’t be afraid to try new skills and explore!

Trust the Mess and the Grace, from The True and the Questions by Sabrina Ward Harrison. In the gray area of your learning, ask yourself this question: how will you fill up that space?

Here are a few note-taking techniques my fellow Oak Meadow High School teachers and I recommend. Try them out, pass them on to a friend, or see what new techniques they help you think up on your own:

K-W-L Chart (Know – Want to Know – Learned)
A great tool for guiding you through a text, KWL Charts demonstrate your prior knowledge of the topic, set a purpose for your reading, and help you monitor your comprehension by brainstorming everything you already Know about the subject; generating a list of questions of what you Want to Know; and answering those questions about what you have Learned. Find a blank chart example here.

Statement-turned-Question
Check your own reading comprehension by turning a topic or title, i.e. “The XYZ Affair” into a question,
i.e. “What were the effects of the XYZ Affair?” then answer it fully in your own words.

Cornell Method
One of the most popular note-taking strategies out there is the Cornell Method – a structure for organizing different kinds of information on one subject clearly and efficiently. Find an example and guidelines here.

Two-Column Method
This note-taking method, pioneered by Landmark College, stimulates active reading and can help you parcel out main ideas in one column with specific details in the other. Read about it here and give it a try!

Graphic Organizers
Education Place has a treasure trove of printable graphic organizers for all subjects and approaches. Find one that works for you here!

Annotation Technique
When reading for a class, write margin notes that help you organize different strands of thought: use question marks for passages that confused you; exclamation points for important plot points; underlined text for passages you enjoyed; and highlighted text for passages relevant to your writing assignments. Write thoughts in your own words in the margins to jump-start ideas for your essays!

Talk to your Mirror
Whether you are practicing the same text over and over with the goal of memorization, or in need of a strategy for explaining concepts in your own words, find a bit of private space and talk it out with your reflection.

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