The Ultimate Guide to effective note taking

How To Take Effective Notes: Everything You Need To Know To Take Notes That Skyrocket Your Learning

By James Granahan


Note-taking is one of the most fundamental, yet overlooked techniques in learning.

In fact, you might not really think of note-taking as a “skill” or “technique” at all.

But if you want to unlock the real, local experiences that learning about local life can give you when you travel, then being able to take great notes is a big deal.

It's one of the keys to quickly learning to understand the history, language and culture of the places you visit so you can get under the skin of the place when you land.

But let's start at the beginning...

From the time we’re in school, most of us take notes.

It’s just something you do when you’re studying or want to remember something.

But like most of the learning techniques you learned in school, if you’re still taking notes now the way you did all those years ago… you’re probably NOT taking notes very effectively.

Or worse,... you might not take notes at all.

And if you’re not taking notes…

Well, then my aim by the end of this guide is to convince you to change your ways and give effective note-taking a try!

In this article, I’ll explain:

  • How taking good notes can help you quickly learn about the things that enhance your travel experiences immeasurably
  • Why taking good notes is one of the fundamentals of effective learning
  • The common characteristics of both good and bad note-taking
  • 5 popular note taking systems + the pros and cons of each one

By the end of the article, you’ll be ready to apply everything you've learned and take much better notes when you sit down to discover more about the history and culture of your next destination.

Why You Need To Learn How To Take Effective Notes

man taking effective notes

Let’s start from the very beginning…

Why take notes in the first place?

Well, it’s simple…

Taking notes increases your engagement with the material you’re learning and helps you to remember more of it.

So when you arrive in Cairo, Florence or Rio you'll be able to understand and appreciate everything you see and experience... because you'll remember in vivid detail the stories and information you've learned about everything around you.

Research also suggests that note taking can help you focus with greater concentration on the material you’re learning.

But this doesn’t mean you should jot down every word of a lecture or copy pages from a book.

When it comes to note-taking strategy matters.

And that's what you're going to learn about in this article.

Learning to take better notes can have an immediate and striking impact on your learning.

And there’s plenty of research to back this up!

Studies have shown that you can significantly improve the amount of material you remember later by training yourself in specific note taking strategies.

When it comes to note-taking quantity is important, but quality matters too.

But what exactly does “quality” mean when it comes to note-taking?

To find out, let’s compare some common characteristics of bad note taking with those of good note taking...

Good Notes vs. Bad Notes - A Comparison

Good Notes

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Are visually appealing & include sketches or drawings
  • Only include key information required for understanding
  • Aid memory and are easy to review
  • Have good structure & are well organised

Bad Notes

  • Lack purpose
  • Use little or no visuals
  • Include too much unnecessary information
  • Don't encourage repetition or review
  • Lack structure and organisation

5 Common Characteristics Of Effective Note-Taking Strategies

It probably doesn’t surprise you to discover that most people are bad note takers.

I used to be one of those people.

james' bad notes

A set of bad, unhelpful notes a took while reading a book a few years ago.

The good news is that, like many other learning techniques, note taking is a skill that you can learn.

We’ll get to some specific note taking methods in a moment, but first let’s consider 5 common characteristics of great notes in more detail.

Include these 5 things your notes, and you’ll go along way to remembering more of the material you learn, no matter which note-taking method you choose to use.

#1 - Clarity Of Purpose

The first key difference between good notes and bad notes is that good notes have a clarity of purpose.

You’re clear on WHY you’re taking notes and what you’re trying to achieve.

If you don’t have this kind of purpose, your notes are almost certain to end up disorganised and quickly forgotten.

Here’s the thing…

Many people simply take notes for the sake of it.

When you’re in a meeting or doing some study, taking notes is just what you do, right?

Thing is when you take this kind of approach, you inevitably create bad notes.

(Same goes for pretty much anything in life. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, you’re not very likely to succeed.)

So the first thing you want to do when taking notes is to get clear on why you’re doing it.

You can do this in as little as 5 or 10 seconds.

Just take a moment to jot down a title the top of your page and the purpose of your notes below it.

This will help focus your mind on your end goals while you take your notes.

#2 - Only Write Down What Really Matters

The most common mistake people make when taking notes is writing down too much:

  • Scribbling down every word of a lecture
  • Copying everything from a great blog article
  • Noting down 3 or 4 points from every paragraph of a book

I was guilty of this mistake for years.

But think about it…

The point of note-taking is to identify and remember the essential key information from the material you're learning.

And writing down TOO much information makes it harder for you to focus on those key takeaways.

Instead, it’s best to identify 3-5 key “concepts” or buckets within the learning material and make those things the focus of your notes. 

how to take great notes

A clear and structured set of notes I created recently. Notice how I've identified 6 main ideas in the material and made them the focus of my notes.

Your “key concepts” are the foundation of your notes, but you can flesh them out with important details.

The result is a set of notes that are at the same time laser focused and full of depth.

This approach is extremely helpful when travelling because by putting your focus on key concepts you give yourself the framework you need to understand the history or culture of the places you visit.

Then when you get there, you can connect the things you learn on the ground and the experiences you have back to the key concepts you've learned about. 

#3 - Make Your Notes Visual

“Visual note-taking translates what we hear into pictures that give context, color, and meaning. By adding symbols, visual metaphors, likenesses of people, and room layouts, we add several dimensions.”

Tom Wujec (TED Speaker with 10 million+ views)

Most people associate taking notes with writing.

And writing is an essential part of good note taking.

But if all you do is write words on a page, your notes will have limited effect.

If you want to remember more of what you note down, the best thing you can do is make your notes visual.

As Dr. Lynell Burmark explains:

"Unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear.

Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information (plus or minus 2) […].

Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched."

If you want to take great notes that aid your memory, you have to use your visual memory to your advantage,

The best note-takers realise that they have more tools in their tool box than just plain old writing:

  • Symbols like arrows, stars, dollar signs, etc.
  • Shapes like squares, rectangles and triangles
  • Squiggly lines
  • Block letters and shading
  • Sketches and drawings
  • Different coloured pens
how to take effective notes? make your notes visual

You don't have to be a great artist to create visual notes. Use simple shapes and lines to give life to your note taking.

Now I know what you might be thinking...

"I'm just not an artistic person. I couldn't draw to save my life!"

Don't worry!

You don't have to be an amazing artist to create visual notes.

You just have to be prepared to experiment a little and use whatever tools you have at your disposal.

(And remember - stick people are perfectly good!)

#4 - Set Up Your Notes So They’re Easy To Review Later

The reason you take notes is to help you remember more of what you learn.

So you better make sure that the notes you take are set up in a way that aids your memory!

There are many ways to do this, such as focusing on key info and making your notes visual, as mentioned above.

Visual notes will not only be easier to remember but the process of making them will be more engaging and help you connect more deeply with the material - the foundation of remembering it.

In addition, you should try to structure your notes so that it’s easy to come back and use them to test yourself later.

"Recall exercises", where you test yourself to see how much you can remember from what you’ve learned, are far more effective than simply re-reading your notes.

So you want to make it easy to use your notes to test yourself when you review them.

The approach I like to use for this is writing key questions in the margins of my notes that I can use to test myself later.

Note taking questions in the margins

A couple of quick questions I scribbled in the margins of my notes so that I could easily use them to test myself later.

When it comes time to review, I’ll cover my notes and start by challenging myself to answer these questions.

Then, when I get stuck, I’ll refer to notes themselves for help.

This approach means that I’m using my notes in a strategic way to aid my memory.

It also makes them quick and easy to review later because I have a built in “repetition” system to follow.

#5 - Make Sure Your Notes Are Structured

Last but not least, make sure that your notes have a clear structure.

If you take chaotic, unordered notes, the information will appear that way in your brain - chaotic and unordered.

But take notes that have a clear flow, structure and hierarchy and you give your memory something extra to cling on to.

One way to do this is to apply the idea of “key concepts” - focusing your notes a 5-6 key points from the lesson.

If you’re able to number or label each key idea, even better!

In the next section, I'll evaluate 5 of the most popular note taking methods to help you decide which approach is best for you.

5 Effective Note Taking Methods To Help You Remember More Of What You Learn

The Outline Method

The outline method note taking

Pros

  • Extremely structured
  • Easy to use
  • Separates "key info" from details

Cons

  • Not fun to review
  • Lacks visuals
  • Encourages "transcription" instead of thoughtful note-taking

The Outline Method is one of the most common methods of note-taking, especially in business.

It’s favoured by many because of it’s clear, hierarchical structure and the volume of information it allows you to note down.

To create notes using the outline method, you’ll simply note down key points from the lesson or presentation in bullet point format.

Where a particular point has further details you want to make note of, you simply “embed” the details below the main bullet.

Here’s an example:

The outline method notes workflowy

As you can see, this note taking method allows you to create highly structured notes that are easy to follow.

But the big disadvantage of this method is that it’s not very visually appealing. Take a look at these notes I took using the outline method:

james outline method notes

A set of outline notes I made while reading a book.

Would you be motivated to go back and read those notes?

Me neither...

How To Use This Method
1.

For each of the main topics in the material, write a single main bullet point

2.

As you work through the material, add more detail to each topic by adding indented bullets below them.

3.

You can have as many “layers” of indented bullets as you like, but it’s normally best to stick to 3 or 4 ,so as to avoid overwhelm

The Flow Method

The flow method note taking

Pros

  • Free flowing and creative
  • Encourages you to engage with the material & make mental connections

Cons

  • Lacks a clear structure
  • Difficult to review later on

The flow method is a clear contrast to the linear, bullet-point style of notes of the outline method. As a result it’s often far more creative and engaging but lacks the structure and hierarchy of the outline method.

In the flow method, you take notes intuitively over the course of a lesson by focusing  on the key points and the connections between them, instead of trying to note down as much information as possible. 

Scott Young described the goal of the flow method as follows:

“...it should provide a surface for connecting and linking ideas as they are reaching you.

You should be listening and processing the information as your professor or instructor is saying it – not just transcribing it on a piece of paper to learn later.”

How To Use This Method
1.

Start with a blank page. As you work through what you’re learning, jot down anything you feel is a “key idea” from the material

2.

Use lines or arrows to connect these key ideas and begin to understand the relationships between them.

The Sketchnoting Method

The sketchnote method note taking

Pros

  • Striking and visually appealing
  • Fun to create and to review
  • Encourages you to engage with the material & make mental connections

Cons

  • Can lack clear structure
  • Difficult to review later on
  • Can be intimidating if you consider yourself "unartistic"

Sketchnoting is probably the most “in vogue” of these note taking methods right now and it’s not hard to understand why!

But just what is sketchnoting?

Here’s how Mike Rohde, author of The Sketchnote Handbook describes it:

“Sketchnotes are rich visual notes created from a mix of handwriting, drawings, hand-drawn typography, shapes, and visual elements like arrows, boxes, and lines” 

Now if you’ve an artistic person, you’re probably in love with this note taking method already.

But what if you can’t draw?

Well, trust me, I can’t draw either.

But it turns out, that doesn’t really matter.

As long as you can draw stick people and simple shapes, you can sketchnote surprisingly well.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of these sketchnotes I made recently when learning about Ancient Egyptian history ahead of a trip…

how to take effective notes - the sketchnote method

Some sketchnotes I made while learning about the history of Ancient Egypt before my trip.

Are my drawings terrible?

Yes.

But do they get the job done?

Yep!

And these visuals (bad as they are) are still far easier to remember later than plain old words on a page!

In fact, studies at the University of Waterloo have suggested that drawing enhances memory in adults more than other known study techniques.

The main downside of sketchnotes is that they can lack structure and this sometimes makes them a little difficult to review later on.

How To Use This Method
1.

Start with a blank page. As you work through what you’re learning, jot down anything you feel is a “key point” from the material. 

2.

Where possible, use drawings and sketches instead of writing to represent key ideas

3.

Use lines or arrows to connect these key points and begin to understand the relationships between them

4.

Use different styles of handwriting and lettering (e.g. bold vs. normal, block capitals vs. sentence case) to give your notes more visual variety

The Mindmap Method

The mindmap method note taking

Pros

  • Well organised
  • Separates "key info" from the details
  • More visual than traditional note-taking methods
  • Encourages you to engage with the material & make mental connections

Cons

  • Can be difficult to review
  • "Fixed" structure can be limiting
  • Lacks the "all out" visual impact of sketchnotes

Mindmapping is another visual form of note-taking. However, unlike the flow method or sketchnoting, mindmaps tend to have a built in structure and hierarchy.

The Mindmap method first came to prominence in the 1970’s through the work of British memory expert Tony Buzan. They've been widely used in both business and academic environments ever since.

One of the biggest benefits of the mind map method is that it forces you to process and begin to categorise what you’re learning.

This is because in order to decide which “buckets” each piece of information you note down will fall into, you have to start organising it.

how to take effective notes - the mindmap method

A mindmap I created to help me remember the key information from a French YouTube video I watched.

How To Use This Method
1.

Start by drawing a circle or square in the centre of your page and write your title in it

2.

Create “buckets” for each of the key ideas in the learning material and link them to the title

3.

Within each bucket, you can create further links with additional details. By doing this you “map” your notes in a way that helps you understand how everything is related.

The Cornell Method

The cornell method note taking

Pros

  • Highly structured
  • Encourages thoughtful engagement with the material
  • Encourages review and recall
  • Can be combined with other methods

Cons

  • Traditional format lacks visual stimulus

This note taking method was developed by Walter Paul, a lecturer at Cornell University in the 1940’s.

The main advantage of this system over other note taking methods is that it is set up to encourage recall and review.

Notes that use the Cornell method have 3 main sections:

  • The main “notes” section
  • The left hand “recall” column
  • The bottom “summary” section
Cornell Notes Page layout

The main notes section takes up most of the page and can incorporate any of the other note taking methods mentioned above. (More on that in a moment!)

The left hand recall section is used to write down essential ideas or ask test questions so you can easily review your notes and test your knowledge later.

Finally, the summary section encourages you to try and summarise what you’ve learned at the end of every learning session.

The result is a robust and organised note taking system that’s easy to use and that works with your memory rather than against it.

How To Use This Method
1.

Divide your page in 3, following the image above

2.

Write a title and the date at the top of your page

3.

Use the main notes section of the page to take notes in whatever style you prefer as you consume the learning material

4.

As you go, write down questions in the left hand column about key ideas. You’ll use these questions later to review and test your knowledge of what you have been learning.

5.

When you finish your learning session, take a few moments to write a summary of your “key takeaways” in the summary section at the bottom of the page.

How I Take My Notes

Personally, I favour a combination of the Cornell method & the Sketchnote method.

I normally divide up my pages based on the Cornell Method, as shown in the photo below.

Cornell Notes layout

The layout use to take notes following the Cornell Method. Notice how the page is divided into 3 sections.

Then I use the main box on the right of the page for my main “live” notes.

But unlike the traditional Cornell Method, instead of simply taking text notes, I use this space to sketchnote.

I’ll be the first to admit that my drawing skills leave a A LOT to be desired… but my notes serve their purpose nonetheless.

I also use the margin on the left of the page to write down questions about what I’ve learned so I can use my notes to test myself later on.

Research into how we learn shows that trying to recall what you’ve learned (by explaining it or answering questions) is a more effective approach than simply re-reading your notes. So I intentionally set up this left hand column to aid recall as much as possible.

When I go back to review my notes, I can simply cover the rest of the page and challenge myself to answer the questions I’ve written down in the left-hand column.

I use the space at the bottom of the page to write down 2 or 3 key takeaways at the end of my note taking session.

Doing this is a great way to challenge myself to stop and process exactly what I’ve learned and what’s important about it before I move on to something new.

Here’s a timelapse video I recorded of the process to give you an idea of what my note taking actually looks like in reality:

Your Note Taking Challenge

So there you have it...

In this guide, you've learned everything you need to know to get started taking better and more helpful notes today.

So what are you waiting for?

Here's my challenge to you right now:

  • Grab a pen & paper
  • Open up a book, video or course you want to learn from
  • Choose the note taking method that most excites you from the list above
  • And give it a try!

You'll be glad you did when you're in the middle of your trip and start to realise just how much more of what you've learned sticks in your mind when you take notes.


Resources Related To This Article

The Anti-Tourist Club

Smart Effective Learning

The Anti-Tourist Club is a training and support centre for curious adventurers who want to do travel differently.


It is where anti-tourists like you and I come together with a common mission:

To put learning at the heart of our adventures and unlock the kinds of meaningful travel experiences most tourists never have.

The Sketchnote Handbook

The Sketchnote Handbook

Mike Rohde

Want to take fun and visually appealing notes but don't know where to start? Mike Rohde's Sketchnote Handbook is a great introduction to visual note taking, especially for the non-artistic who struggle to draw more than stick men!

Everlast Resuable notebook Rocketbook

Rocketbook Reusable Notebook

Everlast

The Rocketbook is an amazing little notebook. It contains only 32-pages, but can be cleaned and reused endlessly. Once you fill up the notebook, simply scan your notes using the Rocketbook app on your phone and send them to your favourite cloud storage platform. Then, use a drop of water and the cloth that comes with the notebook to wipe your pages blank and start over. My Rocketbook is one of the best learning investments I've made in recent years. If you travel a lot, it will also save you the hassle of carrying around lots of bulky paper notebooks with you.

paperblanks notebook

Paperblanks Lined Notebooks

Paperblanks

These beautiful but sturdy notebooks from Paperblanks are ideal for note-taking. The paper quality is excellent and the large notebook is big enough for note taking but small enough to carry anywhere in your bag.

coggle mindmap software

Coggle Online Mindmap Software

Coggle

If you enjoy using the mindmap method and want to do it digitally, look no further than Coggle. This free online mindmapping software is well built and easy to use. You can even save your mindmaps as PDF or image files to share or print out. More advanced premium features are also available with a low-cost subscription.


Which of the note-taking methods from this guide are you most excited to try out? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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