How to Learn Anything
Shortcuts to Knowledge and Understanding

1. Taking Notes

Content Guide

Note-Taking Techniques:

Your Own Note-Taking Style

Sequential Method

Memory Map Method

Suggested Abbreviations

Increasing Comprehension and Retention


taking notes

Memory Map

Note-Taking Preparation

There are several ways to prepare yourself before you begin to write notes for research or for oral presentations. Taking effective notes requires you to be actively involved in the process. It is not enough to write down someone's exact words. To be actively involved requires you to ask questions of yourself about a presentation or book and to actively search for answers. It requires you to question what someone has said and to question how others react to those words.

Active participation means spending more time listening and reading than taking notes. Various note-taking methods can help you shorten the time it takes to make notes.

The following steps are recommended to help you become more active:

1. Preview the presentation:

· read the outline (agenda, reading list) to understand key points of presentation,

· preview the literature and oral presentations to note key points.

2. Ask yourself questions based upon your preview so that you will actively search out the answers.

3. Listen or read for the answers to your questions.

4. Record information with one of the suggested note-taking techniques.

1. Preview the Presentation

Read any reports, outlines, summaries, and introductions available about the presentation. If possible talk with the professor or instructor before a presentation or before reading their work.

2. Ask Questions

When previewing oral or written presentations, ask yourself the key questions WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW. If you are already familiar with the topic, then ask more specific questions e.g."What are the benefits of implementing this theory?"

3. Listen or Read For Answers

When you are looking or listening for specific answers to questions then you become actively involved in your work. The alternative is to take verbatim notes on everything you read or hear which usually results in little comprehension but serious writer's cramps!

4. Record Information

I will show you two techniques for taking notes but first some preliminaries. Although these preliminary notes sound a little strange they are proven techniques to help your memory when you return to your notes for review.

Begin each set of notes with:

a. title of presentation and speaker/author name,

b. the date you took notes,

c. location where you were when you took notes even if it was in your room,

d. a few words about the weather that day,

e. any special events that fell on the same day member birthday, went to movie, or you wrote an exam,

f. staple each set of notes separately and place in a file folder rather than in a binder.

When you return to review your notes take out one set of notes at a time. In this way we are reviewing a manageable set of notes rather than a large ominous pile.

g. write neatly I could never do this which meant I had to reread information over again or borrow someone's notes to figure out what I wrote. Slow down and print/ write as neatly as you can.

Note-Taking Techniques

Your Own Note-Taking Style

Although this chapter shows you two methods for taking notes you may choose just to take some of the individual tips to improve your own note-taking style. Some of the tips which can easily be added to your present skills include:

  1. leaving lots of white space on the page,

  2. writing on only one side of the page,

  3. keeping notes in stapled groupings,

  4. writing notes only once (versus rewriting later with fancy colored pens to highlight points wastes a lot of your valuable time).

The key to improving your note-taking style is to make your notes more effective and to help improve your comprehension and retention. The best method is the one YOU CHOOSE.

The Sequential Note-Taking Method

Basically, taking sequential notes involves dividing a page into two columns with the left column reserved for "key words" which summarize the details in the second column. Several of the chapters in this book use this form of note-taking. The following page is also an example.

This method allows you to record details on the right side and return later to write in the key words to summarize what you have written. With practice however you can often begin with the key word and write in the details as you go along. A good presenter follows a sequential format of information and often gives you the key words you need in the form of headings, e.g. "I'm now going to present an overview of cultural issues in modern urban living." The key words might be "cultural issues in modern urban living".

The purpose of this method is to cut down on the amount of notes you take. You may want to use abbreviated words and pointform notes rather than using long sentences. Recording written or verbal presentations verbatim takes a great deal of time and you rarely end up with notes that give you both the overview of the presentation and the content.

You must remember that no lecture, book, or three-hour speech can ever be completely recorded and retained for later use. It's better to begin by taking notes on the main important points that can help jog your memory about the rest of the details. The most any presenter can expect is that we understand the main points of a presentation and incorporate them into our memories for future use.

It is advisable not to write on both sides of a sheet of paper. If you need to add a lot of extra information later on you can simply put it between two pages. When I use this method I also leave a lot of space between sections to allow for added notes that I might make after reading another book or going to another lecture/class.

Some people also leave a few inches free at the bottom of the page for later additions, e.g. new ideas, reflections, conclusions, or items you want to follow-up.

If you need to add a graph or photocopy of some information then insert them in your notes on a separate page.

[The following page shows an example of sequential notes.]


August 27, 1993

Harry van Bommel my office, hot & humid day, nephew's birthday

Sequential short phrases with abrevr.

Note-Taking uses "key words" to summarize

Preview work 1) before notes, preview book/presentation


* 3) hear/read actively

Key Words if presentation logical, use headings/titles for keys

if not logical add key words later

When Used Use sequential method to take notes of:

(7 points) 1. lectures, classes,

2. reports,

3. interviews,

4. books, texts, manuals,

5. newspapers, journals,

6. speeches,

7. films, audio cassettes and videos.

Added Tricks: leave room for adding notes

revise notes if too long or not neat

use *, !, , and other signs to highlight important points

use margins to add questions & comments

- use abbreviations.

[add new ideas, reflections, conclusions, or items you want to follow-up.]

Memory Map Method

The second method of taking notes is called memory maps.

Memory maps are based on the belief that our memory system does not work in a linear way. Most note-taking techniques follow a "logical" order bybeginning on one line and continuing across each line on a sheet of paper the way books are written.

Memory maps are elementary attempts to imitate our brain patterns. Our minds take information and try to join and integrate new information with information we have already learned. When we are learning new things that appear not to be connected with other information we begin new patterns. The purpose of memory maps is to help form new patterns and to look for ways to join this information with other memory maps and, therefore, with brain patterns we have already established.

I use this method at the beginning of each chapter to preview the contents. When you have finished this chapter you can use the memory map as a summary. This method is also excellent for brainstorming ideas, defining thesis topics, and developing a plan for a public speech. Simply write a key word in the center of a page and write additional points around it. Only edit the points after your brainstorming is complete. This is how the general design of this chapter was done. I wrote "Note-taking" in the middle of the page and added what I thought were the main points I wanted to write about.

Not only can you use the design at the beginning of this chapter to preview what you will read but this type of diagram is also excellent for reviewing or summarizing what someone else has written! (See the chapters on "Speed Reading" and "Study Skills".)

This method takes much more practice because it involves a new system of thinking and processing information for most of you. By using your imagination, different colored pens and relaxing as you begin to use this method you will find this is an extremely effective method.

Each design should be somewhat different. For computer notes you might use flow chart symbols. For a review of taking notes you might begin with a design of a text book as I have done at the beginning of this chapter. For historical notes on the Fall and Rise of the Third Reich you might use a diagram of a mountain with notes on the rise of the Reich on one side, the events during the peak of the Reich at the top of the mountain and the fall on the right of the mountain. Use your imagination!


Use the sequential note-taking method or a memory map whenever you take notes for the next week. Try various approaches to discover which is most comfortable and compatible with your present method of taking notes.

Suggested Abbreviations

We spend a great deal of time writing notes and often feel compelled to write each word in full.

A quick method to reduce the length of words is to omit the vowels in long words. Also omit prepositions like a, an, or the. Use numbers like 1, 2, 3 rather than one, two, three.

Some specific examples of abbreviations follow:

lk = like wrt = write

ex = example rt = right

p. = page i.e. = that is

# = number > = means

b/c = because ~ = about, circa

b/4 = before à = therefore

u = you á = however

wd = word etc. = and so on

ref = reference vs = versus, as opposed to

dif = different ch = chapter

w/ = with Q = question

w/o = without lrn = learn

2 = to, two, too 4 = for, four

17 = 17th century c = see, sea

r = or, our, hour h = have, had, has

wz = was wc = which

z = as, is f = if

@ = at & = and

$ = dollars % = percent

+ = plus = minus

= = equals

Increasing Comprehension and Retention

We forget approximately 80% of all we have learned within 24 hours of learning it! Knowing this fact alone can improve your memory and recall ability substantially because it will warn us to review what we have learned. When information is important to remember and to use, there are various things you can do to move it from your short term memory into your long term memory.

The graph below indicates that our recall ability actually rises a bit 10 minutes after learning something but then dramatically falls within 24 hours. The graph also indicates that with immediate review your short term memory recalls approximately 80% of what you have learned which is about as high as one can hope for or in fact ever need.

The above graph further indicates that a second review within that first 24 hour period will heighten your short term memory of the information.

A third review of your notes in 57 days moves the information from short term memory to long term memory. A fourth review at one month and a fifth review at 6 months keeps this information in long term memory. For very important information subsequent reviews are required.

This means that if you take notes of information today and you want to remember it four months from now (eg. for a report, presentation) you should:

· review right after taking the notes,

· review again within 24 hours,

· review after one week,

· review after one month and every month or so until you feel comfortable with the long term retention of the information.

Each review should not require a great deal of time and each subsequent review will take less and less time. Following this procedure for all your notes will mean that you will not be spending hours or days before a presentation or exam cramming information into your short term memory. You will probably be the only person who is relaxed and confident in your understanding of the information. You will need to schedule review time into your calendar, or else it probably won't happen!

This type of studying requires effective time management so that you put aside a halfhour per week to review notes based on the above schedule. This halfhour per week not only puts information in long term memory but also keeps you uptodate with further information. Often we take notes, forget the information and go back to a class the next week missing the important links from previous classes. Most students can not describe what they learned in last week's class or what the whole semester is really about because they do not have a clear overview of what they are learning (except maybe the name of the course).

In essence you are improving your memory by building a "tree" of knowledge upon which to add information from one week to the next. This is what most people lack. This is what most people try to cram in before a presentation or exam.

If you use the sequential method of taking notes your reviews will initially concentrate on joining your detailed information to the key words in the left column. Once that is accomplished subsequent reviews will concentrate only on the key words with little attention to viewing the detailed notes which are already in your memory. You can actually cover up the detailed right-hand side of the page and RECITE the details just by seeing the key words on the left-hand column.

With the sequential method your review before a presentation or exam can be less than an hour and you will be confident in your knowledge and presentation of the necessary information.

With the Memory Map method of taking notes your first review is used to tidy up your diagram and understand its flow. The second review within 24 hours can be to redraw it using various colored pens so that it doesn't appeared as clustered. Once you have become good at this system you can skip this step. You can appreciate that different designs for different subject matter will make it easier to remember your information at exam time or when you really need it.

The Memory Map method reviews revolve around the structure of your diagram and once that is understood you simply draw a miniature of that diagram (eg.for an important test) or a modified one bringing together information from various diagrams. Not only will you remember the information but you will also force yourself to write or speak in an organized fashion because of organized way in which you have stored the information.


Taking notes can involve combining various steps and methods. It is important to preview whatever you want to take notes of: a book, a lecture, a meeting, an interview, a video and any other form of written, verbal or visual information.

The actual notes can be a modified version of what you do now, adding those techniques that feel most comfortable to you.

If you review your notes you can remember the information that is most important to you. If you do not review your notes you will probably have to relearn whatever information you need in the future.

Taking notes can be a way to participate actively in learning rather than just a method of recording information. Taking notes that are brief and concise will also give you time to listen or read with more energy and interaction.


Whenever you finish learning new information it is helpful to take a moment or two to evaluate what you have found most useful and what you would like to do with that information. This process can be very useful whether you write out the answers or just think about them.

1. What general concepts, ideas or techniques have you learned?

2. List at least three techniques from this chapter that you could use immediately.

3. What other concepts, ideas or techniques do you want to learn?

4. Is there anything you have learned that you could pass on to your colleagues, family members or friends?

  1. 5.Do you have any further comments or ideas you want to record based on what you have learned?


The following references are only a few of the many useful resources that you can find in your local libraries, within your school library, and in your local book stores. Look for further books but also for journal articles, magazine reports, films, videos and audio cassettes. Also keep in mind how much you can learn from experts in the field, including people at school.

For more intensive research, read the suggestions in the chapter on "Writing and Researching Papers".

Buzan, Tony. (1980). Make the most of your mind. New York: Anchor Press.

All of Buzan's books are based on using your mind to the fullest with specific exercises and ideas. Buzan is also coined the phrase "mind map" to represent using diagrams as a note-taking tool.

Grassick, Patrick. (1983). Making the grade: What you need to know about how to prepare for and write tests. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada. 146 pages.

Includes information on preparing for exams, how to write tests, what to do about anxiety, how to take lecture notes, how to study from textbooks, and a few speed reading skills.

Grossman, Jeremy. (1976). Quickhand: A self-teaching guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Quickhand is form of short-hand writing to replace the more complex forms studied by secretaries in school. Quickhand does not use vowels. It also has an abbreviated form for the 35 words we use most often in our language and it contracts the rest of the words using consonants.

Kesselman-Turkey, Judi and Peterson, Franklin. (1982). Note taking made easy. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

Easy to read text on various note-taking strategies and techniques.

Millman, J. and Pauk, W. (1969). How to take tests. New York: McGraw Hill. 176 pages.

Examines how your notes can add to your study skills to give you the best chances when writing various forms of exams and tests.

van Bommel, Harry. (1985). The Busy Person's Guide to: Note Taking, Speed Reading, Studying and Time Management. North York: Skills Development Publishing.

Combines note taking, speed reading, studying and time management techniques to give people a comprehensive approach to practical learning skills.

Yates, Virginia. (1979) Listening and note-taking (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 125 pages.

An easy-to-read guide filled with exercises. Part of a larger series on learning.


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