A beginner's guide to note-taking

The outline method is one of the most commonly used note-taking methods for university students. In fact, it’s possible you’re already using it! 

The outline method is easy to use and adjust for different purposes — taking lectures notes, reading notes and studying.

How to use it 

The outline method helps you organize ideas in a hierarchical approach. Here are the steps:  

  • Start with writing the main topic at the top  

  • Then, move to the sub-topics — these are branches from the main topic  

  • Finally, add details for each idea

You might use numbers and letters to label headings and subheadings — it can help you show relationships and can look like this:

1. Main topic 1, a. sub-topic 1, i. details about sub-topic, b. sub-topic 2, i. details about sub-topic

An example of the outline note-taking method: Notes are organized by headings using numbers and letters on each subheading. "Main Topic 1" is a heading with 2 subheadings: "a. Sub-Topic 1" and "b. Sub-Topic 2." Each sub-topic heading has a bullet point underneath labelled by the roman numeral "i" for details about the sub-topic. "Main Topic 2" is a separate heading that also has 2 sub-headings for sub-topics organized in the same structure.

When to use it 

Taking quick lecture notes. 

Choose the outline method when you’re recording notes in the order of how information is presented during the lecture. This is a fast note-taking method — so you might have to go through your notes after lecture and rewrite or reorganize some parts 

Summarizing content for tests/exams. 

Each book chapter or learning resource can be listed as a main topic. Keywords, concepts and other major ideas can be listed as sub-topics. You can use the details section to remind yourself of page numbers and where to find important information. 

Structuring a paper.  

Start by listing all your subheadings of the paper as “main topics”. Then, add arguments as “sub-topics” and supporting evidence as details.

Take your notes to the next level 

If you’re ready for something more advanced, try combining the outline method with other note-taking methods.

Outline method + Cornell method  

You can integrate the outline method into the Cornell method. You’ll use an outline method in the notes section of the Cornell note, then add extra information to clues and summary”.

Outline method + concept mapping

These two methods of note-taking use similar headings — main topic or topic, then subtopic and details. If you take notes in lecture using the outline method, you can easily transfer them to a concept map after to help you visualize connections.

Try it out in your next lecture using the outline method worksheet in quick tip and tools!