Discover The Story Behind Your Note-Taking Style (Part 2 Of 2)

Open up a stranger’s notebook and you’ll find it will likely have a different style to yours. Even if people use the same or similar styles of note-taking, their personal touch differentiates them to be their own unique version. Your upbringing, the schools you went to, and the teachers you had played a part. Every tiny thing in your life has come together to create the note-taking style you’ve mastered today. But now university is like a dystopian reality where almost anything can be digitised online. Everything changes in the adult world and sometimes we want to become a child again through pen and paper contact. If I’m not wrong, and if you’ve always been a stickler for paper note-taking, you most likely have already found your ideal note-taking style. Let’s find out what they are.

A person writing on a spiral notebook with a mechanical pencil.
Writing in a notebook reminds me of all the note-taking styles I’ve gone through my whole life. It has made me re-evaluate if they really work because I want the effort to matter.
Photo by John Diez from Pexels

Did You Know That Note-Taking Began In The 15th Century?

As I researched the topic of note-taking, I was curious about when it all began in the first place. What was the style people used when note-taking was only a novice action? What could they come up with as their first method of taking notes and what would they write down? Printing came into the market in the 15th century. Paper then became the popular commodity over parchment for writing as paper was more affordable and accessible.

A person writing in cursive with a feathered pen on an ancient looking book reminding us of past note-taking styles.
Old writing like the one shown here fascinates people today due to the intricacy and effort put into them. They are like a piece of art by itself.
Photo by furkanfdemir from Pexels

They took notes for quite a few reasons. From an existing written material for summaries for understanding, to recording what they saw during travels or events. In the olden days, written loose-leaf papers were compiled together with a piece of string. The main reason note-taking became an important practice was the purpose of passing down their knowledge to future generations. But why don’t people today think like this? One thing I know is that we don’t take notes to pass knowledge for the future. The intention has become more casual as there are many more valid reasons to make note-taking useful. Nowadays, people take notes for themselves rather than for other people.

Historic Styles Of Note-Taking

Looking at history in general, our only communication with the world in the past is through the notes our ancestors left us. Everything recorded down was considered before anything else. Only important information was worth writing down. Kept and preserved to be remembered by future generations. Through ancient language transcriptions like hieroglyphics, transcribed scrolls, statues, and illustrations depicted different meanings. There were many methods for note-taking with varying reasons. But this is not always a good thing. As the list increases, some note-taking styles become less effective in teaching our minds to process information. Once it gets easier, the less effort we use hence the less we really learn.

Symbols of ancient Egypt hieroglyphics as their note-taking style.
Ancient note-taking like hieroglyphics has helped us understand how people lived during their time.
Photo by Lady Escabia from Pexels

Types Of Modern Note-Taking Styles

Now with many innovations emerging every year, the styles have also evolved to adapt to the tech-driven society. The method of conveying messages has evolved from written materials to oral information. Now, we can find almost anything on the internet that would be useful for many people. But written notes based on individualised knowledge, for example, class lectures or seminars are difficult to find online. They entail spontaneity from the speaker. Recording down verbal information can lead to a broader range of topics. Like a conversation rather than a textbook only on the topic at hand. Therefore, we have to catch up with the times of the constant evolution of note-taking functions. Finding the right style that works for you is essential to facilitate your learning through notes.

Someone presenting in a classroom with students sitting down listening.
Taking notes in a classroom like this is quite difficult to catch up with. Some might prefer going at a slower or faster pace without the distraction of extra chatter.
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels

1) The Most Common Note-Taking Style: Basic Outline

I am mainly talking about student’s style of note-taking in an institutional setting. The basic outline is popular amongst students but also for anyone that wants an organised set of notes. For the purpose of retaining and processing knowledge given to them. But most of us don’t even realise we’re writing in outline style. We think it’s normal to put the most important keyword first at the top. The second important idea is next, and the third thereafter.

Why don’t we just write everything we want, one after another without all these 1, 2, 3’s? Well, this is one of the best ways to organise your notes. For a large amount of information, by catergorising them under specific key topics and listing relevant information under each. Pretty simple. One disadvantage is that editing may be difficult if you wanted to add on notes under these categories. There may not be enough space and writing them down somewhere else might cause you to overlook it.

An open notebook full of highlighted notes on a desk using the outline note-taking style.
This is an example of an outline note-taking style from the notebook I made for university.
Image by Dina Ghazali

If you’re taking notes on a large amount of information like textbook chapters and PowerPoint slides going from one topic to another, then the outline style will be the most efficient and effective. Using bullet points, indentation, numbering, and letters separating each point. This way we can easily go back to a note through these levels and sub-levels. Where it acts similarly to a table of contents for your notes. On the other hand, if you want to expand into different topics and ideas, there is another style that is popular amongst students.

2) A Standardised Note-Taking Style: The Cornell Method

Separate your paper into two sections in the middle. Write out keywords and topics on the left and all relevant information on the right. This is the Cornell style. You are strict when taking notes and want to get the most out of your time learning. Usually, it’s most effective for exam preparation and memorisation. Summarising the information in your own words allows you to better understand and retain it. Ideally going over it once more to gauge your understanding. Walter Pauk, the creator of the Cornell method, came up with the technique in the 1950s. So his students had a standardised but effective method of learning for maximum input. Naming it after the institution he worked in, Cornell University.

A paper explaining the Cornell method and a basic template of what to put in.
This is a basic template for the Cornell method I’ve written out.
Image by Dina Ghazali

This style is effective for elaboration or definition of keywords, questions, or a broad topic. However, this style takes up a lot of space. As it naturally calls for writing mostly on one side of the paper. Unlike the outline style, large amounts of information are not compatible with it. The Cornell method is open not only to classroom settings to record notes but also works as a self-teaching tool. Functioning as a study guide with the two separate sides. By folding the right side with the answers, you can test yourself with the questions, topics, or keywords on the left. It is stricter than a basic outline style. But reputable institutions like Cornell and Harvard highly recommend this technique.

3) A Visual Note-Taking Style For Visual Learners

Do the above two methods sound boring to you and make you wanna fall asleep rather than learn? Then a more interactive and attractive method might suit you best. If you’re like me, you tend to draw diagrams and fill every word with different colours using highlighters and pens. You’re a visual learner. A visual note-taking style includes non-linguistic notes in the form of diagrams such as mind maps or different structures. As images come up first before the complex information gets stored in our minds, we can easily associate these images with specific information. As such, we can navigate large amounts of information more effectively. A simple drawing can illustrate just as much information as a notebook full of written notes. As the saying goes: a picture paints a thousand words.

A boy and girl drawing of a Paramecium and labeling each parts which is a visual note-taking style.
A biology diagram is a great example of a visual note-taking style. An illustration makes it easier to understand.
Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

People who enjoy drawing, and are moderately skilled at it are more likely to prefer this style of note-taking. Working with information that explains effectively through physical drawings. For example, anatomy or biology. Complex ideas like theoretical concepts are difficult to comprehend. With that said, factual information works well with the visual style.

Images of labeled anatomy body parts on a tablet which is an effective method of retaining information.
Anatomy diagrams are also a great example of visual note-taking whereby you can memorise easier when you can visually remember it.
Photo by from Pexels

Keep Your Notes Consistent And Together

Some may not follow a set of rules or guidelines when taking notes for class or a meeting. Especially, in the heat of the moment, jotting down essential information is all we can do. In the end, we look back and it looks messy and we don’t even know what we wrote. Some might even go back home and re-write everything. I can’t even read my messy handwriting sometimes. But this is all a waste of our good time. Within 24 hours, we’re able to retain 100% of the information so we got to use our time wisely.

A person writing down in a notebook while studying.
Using one notebook is a great habit to start as it helps with clutter. It is light and easy to navigate.
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

Even when taking notes in a rush, a compatible style can make all the difference in your learning experience. To optimise your experience, make sure to categorise your notes in one folder or notebook. One thing I’ve learnt since I entered university is that one good notebook is all we need to make it through the year. It doesn’t matter if you have different classes of notes mixed together, it is still effective. And I have to say it is very easy to navigate.

A small green notebook on a desk.
A small and compact notebook like this should be enough for at least half a year’s worth of notes.
Image by Dina Ghazali

Why Should This Matter To You?

Keep in mind that these are only three styles of note-taking and you might not find interest here. But why find interest in note-taking and its different styles in the first place? It does seem like a small thing to worry about. But this skill can actually bring you a lot of benefits which I talked about in the first part of the series, Start Note-Taking As A Habit. Such as capturing lost ideas and bringing more depth to your writing. Think of it this way… What if the action of note-taking doesn’t exist? Then the only form of learning or memorisation would be through our own capability of reading and retaining information. We’ll rely on our own competence but miss out on the benefits the process of note-taking gives.

Four students sitting next to each other studying and taking notes utilising different note-taking styles.
Some people might struggle with their notes, some people would not care. But one thing’s for sure is a greater effort in taking notes will yield better learning.
Photo by Roxanne Minnish from Pexels

Note-taking requires effort to make our brains work more efficiently. Hence it’s important to remember that our brains do not work for us, we work for them. And the amount of effort you’re willing to put in, be it note-taking or other learning tools, will be the difference in your successful outcome.

Go Paperless, Go Evernote!

In this 21st century, the hype of using tablet computers as a mode of note-taking is evident. It may be due to its resemblance to a notebook or its cool aesthetic. But many students are looking for an application with all the functions of a real notebook and then some. I have looked through the digital note-taking apps in the market today and found that Evernote is at the top of the list. Its functions make regular notebooks look inferior. It can scan documents, record audio, text notes, images, and edit however you desire. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

A woman with a smile writing on her tablet while using her laptop.
A woman writing on a tablet is the modern way of note-taking. If you’ve found your new note-taking style, writing on a new mode like a tablet will give you a unique experience.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Digitising Your Handwritten Notes!

Other than academics, Evernote has a plethora of uses. When typing a new note, you can easily separate them into specific notebooks you have created with tag words linked to each page. This then makes searching for information way easier. A very useful function is being able to scan from the tablet itself any document from menus to business cards. Evernote will make it readable and free to edit. Any notes of writing you have, either on paper or digital, can be transferred directly to Evernote. This will help people who wish to keep their notes in one place whilst also utilising handwritten notes based on their personal choice of note-taking style.

A person holding a phone while typing out a note on Evernote.
This is how it looks when writing a new note on Evernote. It can be used on phones, tablets, and laptops.
Image by Dina Ghazali

As Evernote has a multitude of useful tools, the app isn’t completely free. It is downloadable in all stores with no purchases needed. However, it is limited for use only on two devices when offline mode is enabled. Everything sounds so exciting but it still keeps the spirit of a traditional notebook. Right now, you have all your handwritten notes lying around taking up space. Use Evernote to organise them into one single device. This way you won’t lose out on trying out your favourite note-taking styles and still gain advantages Evernote can give you.

Which note-taking styles have you tried already?
2 votes

About Dina GHAZALI

Raised abroad almost her entire life, Dina is well exposed to the multi-cultural world around her. Penned her innermost thoughts on paper as a child, and eventually fell in love with writing. Aims to be a successful writer one day.

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