Note-taking for Students & Professionals: What’s the Best Method?
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
When taking notes in an academic or professional setting, do you feel like you're wasting your time? Do you transcribe the words you hear, then return to your notes later and have no idea what half of them mean? You're not alone. Whether for class or work, note-taking is a practice that can make many areas of life easier once you master the techniques.
Numerous methods exist to make capturing important details and absorbing information easier. These methods help you frame data, clarify meaning, and further integrate or apply your knowledge.
We'll dive into the best methods for two common settings and share how you start implementing them. But first, let's cover a few basics of note-taking.
What Is a Note-taking Method?
A note-taking method is a way of organizing and recording information. There is no "one" way to take notes, but understanding what you are using your notes for and the end goal can help you determine which method may work best.
Do you need your notes to learn a new subject? Or do you need them to capture and communicate key details like progress in a project, decisions, or next steps?
Generally, we take notes as a way to outsource the work of remembering important items because our minds can only hold so much. If we continue to push beyond our brain's memory storage capacity, eventually, we'll lose some of the details.
The types of things we need to remember have different purposes, and understanding what these are is key to finding a method that works for you. Whether you're taking notes for a meeting or your next exam, you'll find that some note-taking systems are more effective than others.
Why Are Note-taking Methods Useful?
Note-taking methods are useful because they help you organize and record information systematically so you can understand, remember, and revisit it when needed.
Have you ever struggled to find a note even though you're positive you wrote it down somewhere? Adopting a framework or system for taking notes can make getting back to important details easier.
Often, our success is defined by how quickly we can digest and retain information. When too much data overloads our brains, we struggle to absorb, process, and make sense of it. Known as infoxication, information overload hampers our ability to make smart decisions and perform at our best.
Before your next meeting begins or you start a new assignment, sit down and think about the purpose of your notes and the goal they're meant to help you achieve. If you're writing a paper about a topic you discussed in class, you might try the Cornell method, while the Outlining method might work best if you need to relay information to a group of people after a meeting. Once you’re clear on what you need your notes to do, consider the note-taking method best suited for the context that helps you use the information to the fullest extent.
The Different Types of Note-taking Methods
Taking notes is typically done in two settings: academic and professional. While the intent may be similar in both worlds, the approach can differ.
Note-taking Methods for Academic Settings
When taking notes in an academic setting, you strive to understand and remember concepts, theorems, laws, and complex topics taught in class. The more you invest in comprehending and committing the material to memory, the better you can recall it for exams and practical applications.
Your notes should signal the things you want to retain in order to accomplish the assignment. In general, note-taking in the academic context is more contemplative and generative. For these reasons, finding a note-taking method that works for your learning style and needs is important. Check out some of the popular note-taking methods for academic settings.
If you're deep in research, the Zettelkasten Method might be one to consider. Social scientist Niklas Luhman is credited for the method's development and popularization. Luhman's productivity and prolific body of work resulted from his success with this method.
Enthusiasts love Zettelkasten because it's such an effective tool for thinking and writing. Like a second brain, this note-taking system helps you store and organize information into a personal web of knowledge that is hyper-textual. This method stands out because of the ability to expand upon your notes and make meaningful connections. Students find using Zettelkasten improves their memory and accelerates their grasp of concepts.
For a deep dive on the Zettelkasten method, its history, and how to get started, check out this resource.
Dr. Walter Pauk of Cornell University developed the Cornell note-taking method. This method is helpful because it requires very little preparation, making it simple and efficient for taking notes in class.
To get started, leave a section at the top for the title of your notes and the date. Then divide the rest of the page into three sections: notes, cues, and summary.
One way to do this is to split the page into two columns. Keep the left column more narrow for cues. The right column is where you'll add your notes. Then below your cues and notes, dedicate a row for your summary.
As you take notes, abbreviate as much as possible and use symbols for shorthand. This will save you time and help you fit more information on the page. When finished taking your notes, go back and add cues. These keywords, phrases, or questions will help jog your memory later on. Finally, write a summary of the material in the bottom section to help you remember the information's main points. This method is excellent if you want to pull out the main ideas and concepts quickly and easily.
You can also set up this system digitally if you prefer to take notes on your laptop or another device. Use a simple table as a template, so you're set up and ready to go next time.
The Sentence Method
The sentence method is a note-taking system that involves writing down information in complete sentences. This method is helpful because it allows you to capture the main ideas of the material in a familiar way. It also helps improve your understanding of the information as you write it down.
To get started, identify the main points of the material you're learning. Write out these points in complete sentences and add supporting details.
This method is great if your brain absorbs information as statements. For some people, sentences are often more straightforward to decipher when reviewed later. It is also a good choice if abbreviations or symbols are challenging.
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Note-taking Methods for Professional Settings
Taking notes in a professional setting is more about capturing information that can be communicated and shared with others. These methods are suitable for facilitating conversations, tracking decisions, capturing next steps, and sharing your notes with others.
Getting good at taking notes in a professional setting helps you do your job better. Your manager isn't going to give you a final exam, but she is evaluating your performance. When it's time for your review, you can assume she noticed how you engaged in meetings, captured important details, followed up, completed tasks, and supported other team members. Your ability to take notes effectively impacts each of these areas.
Constant context switching and back-to-back meetings create challenges in remembering everything, so solid notes are vital to ensuring everyone is informed and on the same page.
For these reasons, it is important to find a note-taking method that works for the way you absorb information at work and apply the information later.
Let's look at some of the most effective note-taking methods for professional settings.
Chances are, you attend many meetings. Ensuring you have the information you need before transitioning to the next meeting or task is key. Well-structured notes that mirror the meeting's agenda make the Outline method one to consider.
This method involves identifying the main topics and key points, then breaking the information down into supporting details as necessary.
This method is great if you have information ahead of time and want to form relationships between topics and subtopics.
Bullet Journaling Method
This method is related to the popular daily journaling practice but can be applied in a professional setting because it's incredibly adaptable.
If you're an hourly employee, and your scheduled hours fluctuate weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, you know how frustrating it can be to check the office calendar constantly. With bullet journaling, you can write down all the hours you have to work, then transfer those hours over to a weekly log as you plan for the week.
If you're a project manager, you can brainstorm the project's different tasks and organize them into the days and weeks before your deadline.
As a team leader, you can use your notes to run more effective stand-up meetings, display progress, speak about how the previous day went, and outline goals for the next day or the rest of the week.
To start, all you need is a blank note page or journal and a pen. The contents of notes are entirely customizable and up to you. The most common sections include:
An index that acts as a table of contents — containing a list of page titles with associated page numbers.
A future log to set goals, both short and long-term.
A monthly log or calendar to capture deadlines, events, and other reminders.
A daily log for tasks and reminders.
BuJo symbols to denote different types of information to help organize your notes.
The PARA method is an excellent way to organize information if you want to know exactly where to put specific notes so you can always find them later when you need them. Compared to other methods, PARA is less time-consuming because it doesn't require extensive categorization or tagging.
P.A.R.A. stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. These categories encompass every type of information you may encounter in your personal and professional life.
A project is a series of tasks linked to a goal with a clear deadline. Projects can be anything like a marketing campaign or a new product release. An area of responsibility is a sphere of activity that needs to be maintained over time. Resources are topics of ongoing interest like digital marketing, project management, or SEO efforts. Archives are inactive items from the three other categories.
You spend your days completing tasks, which are grouped into projects that fall under areas of responsibility. For example, if you're writing a product spec, it can be linked to a specific project. The spec falls under the product development area of responsibility, and the specific assignment may be one of your many responsibilities.
This method helps you keep track of each related item and understand the extent of your commitments while keeping track of the progress towards your goals.
Digital Note-taking vs. Paper Note-taking
The tool you use to take notes, like Sticky, can significantly affect productivity. Digital note-taking tools make it possible to access notes on any device. This approach ensures that your notes are safe if you lose your device. Plus, you can search for specific keywords or topics and share your notes easily when capturing them digitally.
Get the Most From Your Notes
Both academic and professional note-taking methods have their strengths and weaknesses. Experiment with different methods and see what best supports the way you learn and work. Whichever method you choose, practice it regularly, so it becomes second nature.
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