Building Your Note-Taking and Study Skills: A Guide for Students

Students studyingIn the transition to university, students often take a “stenographer” approach to note­taking. You might feel that you need to record everything you hear. As a result, you may miss vast chunks of information as you struggle to write quickly. You can organize your notes in several ways to highlight important concepts or information presented. Sequential notes are the most typical kind of notes we see from undergraduates. This involves starting at the top of the page, using the whole width of the page, and developing ideas as you move down the page. Though these are efficient for listing important factual information, they do not illustrate relationships very effectively. Here are a few alternatives to sequential note-taking. These strategies are also effective study skills.

Annotated note-taking (Cornell Method)

You can maximize the effectiveness of sequential notes by dividing the note pages and annotating them. It allows you to take notes during the lecture, but also reserves space to summarize information, edit notes, and insert your own questions and reflections.

Key terms and concepts Text of the notes recorded Students' reflections, ideas, and relevant questions

“Think outside the box” when using this method. For example, you can optimize page use by organizing your page lengthwise (“landscape”).

Listen for the lecturer’s prompts that indicate when topics change, or when a key concept is introduced. Check for a lecture “agenda” on the chalkboard that indicates which main topics will be covered. Some lecturers provide PowerPoint skeletal notes to students (or make them available on a course website) so you can follow along appropriately.

Concept mapping

Mapping is a particular style of note-taking where a "tree" is built around a central concept. It is very helpful in making relationships clear.

Study skills concept mapMaps start with a central topic (here: learning efficiently), then main branches are added, which should be the main subdivisions or the main factors affecting the topic. Here the main branches are motivation, students’ expectations, human implications, and instructor’s input. Next, the ramifications of or connections to each branch can be added; they describe the relationships between the topics in each branch. When describing each branch, you should ensure that you use short nouns and descriptive verbs in order to concisely and clearly describe the relationships or effects. Long words and sentences will make these maps cumbersome and hard to follow.

All maps will look different. You should be creative in adapting content to your map.


Matrices are an effective way to organize, categorize, and otherwise learn the relationships between related aspects of a topic. They are essentially tables where topics are listed for each column and common aspects are listed for each row.

Types of notes Sequential Annotated notes Mapping Matrix
  • Traditional method
  • Editing, summarizing, and students' reflections
  • Helps define key ideas and relationships
  • Helps define key ideas and relationships
  • Convenient for students
  • Helps with factual data
  • Room for reorganization
  • Encourages reflection
  • Students discover more relationships
  • Leads to higher-order thinking
  • Students discover more relationships
  • Leads to higher-order thinking
  • Verbatim notes
  • No indentation, full sentences
  • Left column: topics and summaries
  • Right column: student reflections
  • Key ideas within circles, surrounded by lines connecting to information
  • A table like this one