Your Full Guide to Note Taking Methods & Tools

. 13 min read

Whether you’re in school, in the workplace, or in the course of your day, note taking is one of the most important activities just about everyone engages in.

Taking notes helps us recall information that would otherwise be lost - or edit out the extraneous bits that aren’t worth remembering. The challenge is to summarize core concepts and create a document that not only makes sense in our own words, but reinforces our knowledge afterwards.

In this blog, you’ll learn why it’s important to have great notes, which note taking methods are available, which methods best suit your needs, and which tools

The Importance of Taking Good Notes

Note taking seems obvious, but the truth is that most people aren’t aware of why taking notes is so important. The following are some reasons that may have you look at note taking in a whole new light:

  • Good notes ensures you are engaged in active listening
  • Good note-taking requires you to think about what you are writing
  • Taking effective notes leads to less stress and anxiety due to inadequate preparation
  • Better notes saves time during the review process
  • Note taking engages multisensory learning
  • Note-taking helps you make connections between topics
  • Serves as quality reference after class, a presentation, and more

Good notes ensures you are engaged in active listening

“Active listening” is the process where you make a deliberate and conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying, but also the complete message being communicated.

Active listening helps capture the nuance of note-taking, emphasizing important points and negating tangents that distract from what should be focused on.

When active listening combined with note-taking, your notes can spring to life rather than merely mimicking what is said - and your ability to recall and interpret information is vastly improved.

Good note-taking requires you to think about what you are writing

One of the benefits that proponents of note-taking emphasize is that you’re not just merely transcribing a verbal and/or visual presentation of ideas. Instead, you’re actively editing and making decisions in real-time to help yourself succeed in the future.

Good note taking requires you to be succinct and relevant, discard irrelevant information, hone ideas to their basic essence, and personalize each entry to be tailored for your studying preferences.

(And as a bonus, an AI-enhanced note taking tool like Otter can handle this process for you, editing according to your preferences, and taking the grunt-work out of note-taking.)

Taking effective notes leads to less stress and anxiety due to inadequate preparation

If there’s something we can all do without, it’s more stress and anxiety. Whether we’re at school, a work meeting, or just about our daily lives, stress and anxiety can hold us back from our true potential.

Luckily, the solution to a significant source of these negative feelings is preparation. Good note taking plays a pivotal role in reducing the effects of stress and anxiety. With good notes paired with study habits, we experience better outcomes in professional, academic, and personal outcomes.

According to several recent studies, researchers were able to find repeatable data that shows a strong correlation between adequate preparation and improved student performance - as well as better overall health.

Better notes saves time during the review process

If you’ve ever jotted down notes in a hurry only to discover an incoherent mess when you go back to review them, you’re not alone.

Ensuring that your note taking methods are on the up-and-up is an excellent strategy for those who want to improve their time-management skills. Instead of time spent rearranging your notes and filling in the gaps where you may have missed critical information, you can use this time for more productive purposes.

(See the sections below for a variety of note taking methods and tools that can make note taking a cinch!)

Note taking engages multisensory learning

As you may or may not know, engaging as many forms of learning at the same time deepens our understanding of topics. Often, poor note-takers stare at an empty page, jot down what seems important, and disregard a wealth of information available in every presentation or lecture.

Multisensory learning” is the process of engaging more than one of our senses to deepen our understanding. There are three ways of learning to engage:

  • auditory (ears)
  • visual (eyes)
  • kinesthetic (touch)

When note taking, the more of these senses you are able to engage, the better the results.

For example, you may be jotting down notes and diagrams (kinesthetic) during a presentation, watching the graphs and body language of the presenter (visual), and taking in the words that are spoken (auditory). If you had not taken notes, you lost the kinesthetic element as well as a visual reference for the future. .

Therefore, the process of note-taking enables you to take any subject and, as sci-fi fans know, “grok in its fullness”.

Note-taking helps you make connections between topics

If you think about it, a lecture or presentation is really just words and a visual display. It’s up to us to discern what is important and connect the unknown to what we already know.

In effect, good note taking requires us to summon our pattern recognition skills to connect what we know to what we don’t know (and would like to learn) - and having a written reference provides us with a tool to deepen our knowledge.

As a practical example, many disciplines in education share similar concepts and themes. If, for example, you had taken notes about mathematics, you may be surprised to see the same topics discussed in a music class. Taking this cross-disciplinary approach broadens our knowledge - and good notes make it possible!

Serves as quality reference after class, a presentation, and more

Good notes help you in the long-term. While notes tend to be thought of as a study aid, the truth is that different note taking methods can be used in the future for other purposes.

For example, if you’ve taken good notes using a note taking style as a student, you can later use these notes for citations in papers, crafting your own presentations, and a myriad of uses.

The Best Note Taking Methods

Now that you understand the the importance of good note taking, let’s take a look at some of the best note taking notes that are available to everyone:

  • The Cornell Method
  • The Mapping Method
  • The Outline Method
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) Note-Taking
  • The Charting Method
  • The Sentence Method

The Cornell Method

To use the Cornell Method, your page will be divided into three or four sections starting from one row at the top (to include an optional title and date) and one at the bottom (the summary of the page) along with two columns in the center. 30% of width should be kept in the left column (for keywords and questions) while the remaining 70% for the right column (main notes and key thoughts).

Pros:

  • Combines note-taking and organization for a one-step process requiring fewer revisions.
  • Summarizes all the info in a logical, systematic manner to fill in gaps of a presentation
  • Facilitates absorbing information in a shorter timespan.
  • Helps you to extract main ideas and pose relevant questions

Cons:

  • Pages need to be set up and prepared before a lecture - if notes exceed the length, this method can be cumbersome.
  • Key concepts can require time set aside for reviewing - particularly if a lecture/presentation doesn’t follow a linear format.

The Mapping Method

Got an intense lecture that’s packed with content? Then you might prefer the Mapping Method.

Essentially, you’re creating a map of ideas that’s a blend of writing and drawing. First, start at the top of the page with the main topic, and then trail downward into subtopics, connecting relevant topics with arrows/branches to provide a map to follow in the future. This is the perfect method for notes that involve a lot of information in the form of events, facts and statistics, as you can literally see the connections between topics, subtopics, and related tangents (such as a Q&A session at the end of the lecture).

Pros:

  • A visually-appealing note taking method
  • Used for jotting down detailed information in a concise form
  • Works well to notate content of a presentation that you may not be aware of beforehand
  • Enables easy editing of the notes

Cons

  • If the information spans more than a single page, this method may actually be a hindrance
  • May require editing after taking notes if information is wrongly placed.
  • Can get overwhelming for complex subjects and unorthodox presentation styles

The Outline Method

The Outline method is usually one of the most familiar note-taking styles - especially for those in an academic setting. This method enables you to organize your notes in a structured bullet-point form.

Here’s an example of The Outline Method:

Main topic

  • Sub-topic
  • Thought or supporting fact(s)
  • Sub-topic

Next main topic

  • Sub-topic
  • Thought or supporting fact(s)

...etc.

This method requires you to structure your notes in the form of an outline using bullet points that represent different topics and their subtopics. For the best results, write the main topics on the far-left side of the page, then add related subtopics in bullet points below using a series of indents. For sub-topics of sub-topics, the process either requires a new “main topic” bullet point, or an ever-shortening space to the right side of the page.

Pros:

  • Creates a logical flow of key points of the lecture
  • Easy to use and efficient
  • Significantly reduces the process of reviewing and editing notes at a later time
  • Provides a proper and clean structure to your notes

Cons:

  • Not a suitable note-taking method for subjects such as chemistry and math, which are often comprised of formulas, charts, and examples
  • Not well suited to lectures or presentations that don’t follow a rigid structure

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Note-Taking

Perhaps the best note taking method available today involves leveraging the latest developments in technology. Otter is a promising new assistive technology for students, business teams, and individuals. Using AI-assisted note-taking to automatically create relevant notes from audio, Otter goes beyond traditional note-taking methods.

Instead of the painstaking process of transcribing a presentation or lecture by hand, this modern method of note-taking automatically organizes audio into notation based on your preferences. Designed for fast-paced learning environments, Otter not only provides recording and synchronized speech recognition, it can also recognize who is speaking and integrates search and keyword extraction.

Pros:

  • Produces live transcriptions that you and other participants can annotate and highlight in real time
  • Provides meeting analytics and summary keywords
  • Instantly creates shareable notes (audio, text, and images) for collaboration
  • Usable on smartphones and web browser
  • Record conversations using Otter on your phone or web browser.
  • Import or sync recordings from other services.
  • Full integration with Zoom for eLearning and work-from-home (WFH) adaptability.

Cons:

  • May present difficulties for those who aren’t computer literate
  • Automated note-taking may require review to ensure that all relevant points are familiar
  • Automated note-taking may not engage active listening
  • Some jurisdictions require you to have written consent before you record an interview or presentation.

The Charting Method

The Charting Method uses charts to condense and organize notes. For those that love the style of presentation and simplicity that an application like Microsoft Excel provides, this note taking style will be familiar to create in a spreadsheet. As a matter of fact, by creating a template in Excel, you can have fresh notes at the ready and group them within different sheets per Excel document.

The main page setup involves splitting a document into several columns and rows, with each filled with relevant information (such as category, topic, main ideas, subtopics, and more). This method lends itself to topic overviews and summaries of information, creating efficient comparisons between different topics and ideas.

Pros:

  • Facts and statistical information are easy to review
  • Helps highlight key topics and the main pieces of information
  • Factual and/or statistical information;
  • Subtopics that are directly comparable to each other;
  • Great for notes that can be centralized in one document to connect topics
  • Information is much easier to compartmentalize
  • Aids in creating material for future presentations, handouts, and more

Cons:

  • Of all the methods in this blog, this is perhaps the most time-consuming method
  • Users may be required to go back and revise their notes for clarity
  • Can be difficult to to apply this method in a lecture/class where the content isn’t clear beforehand
  • Is not a method for information that cannot be easily categorized
  • Not suitable for live lectures or without video/audio reference for later comparison
  • Can be difficult for math- and information-dense presentations (ie. coding, mathematics, physics)

The Sentence Method

The Sentence Method of note-taking is like it sounds: using line spacing starting at the top of the page, a sentence is written down to notate thoughts, concepts, and ideas from one another. The result is a list of sentences arranged in vertical order that tells a story about the presentation.

Pros:

  • Due to the brevity of this method, you can focus on visual elements to actively listen to what is being presented (ie. slides, graphs, demonstrations)
  • Perfect for taking notes where the subject matter and structure of the presentation isn’t known beforehand
  • Users of this note taking method are able to cover a lot of details and information efficiently
  • Jotting main points aids in determining which information is important (and which is not)
  • Notes are vastly simplified for later review

Cons:

  • Important details may be lost
  • May not be useful for topics that require visual representations
  • Requires revision to organize notes into an consolidated form for easier studying and review
  • Unless your handwriting and short-hand is legible, critical ideas can be obscured by legibility

Developing Your Note Taking Style(s)

As you learned in the previous section, there are many different types of note taking methods to choose from. No matter which note taking method you choose, you will still need to develop your skills and follow best-practices for success:

  • Practice the right habits - You’d be surprised at how much can be gained by choosing a note taking style that suits the task at hand. However, you need to understand how and when notes should be made, which only comes through the repetition of trial and error.
  • Experiment with different note taking styles - Not all methods of note taking lend themselves to each situation
  • You may need to use backups - If not the primary method of your choice, using AI-assisted note-taking can serve as a backup that fills in the gaps for information that you may have missed.
  • Include sources for deeper learning - Notes are meant to be a distillation of a presentation or lecture. Therefore, include any references to other materials (ie. previous lectures, study guides, books) for a more comprehensive studying experience.
  • Always take more notes than you think you need - When taking notes, it’s more difficult to remember key points and information rather than edit out irrelevant and extraneous information.
  • Use abbreviations when applicable - If you’re able to use short-hand methods that are understandable, you can save time on manually copying every word or phrase.
  • Have the right tools available and ready - Before taking notes, make sure your pages are set up, you have working pens and/or a fully-charged devices, and/or you’ve activated an AI-assistant to record/transcribe.

Note Taking for Individuals

Just about everyone takes notes for every situation in our lives, so it’s important to have a note-taking style that fits your preferences. Being able to have your notes organized and legible takes precedent, particularly for self-study or where you may not have other sources to reference.

What’s Important:

  • Being able to understand your notes after you’ve written them down
  • Keeping them organized in a centralized location (ie. laptop, notebook, the cloud)
  • Fits your personal style and needs

Best Methods:

Note Taking for Businesses

In a business environment, being able to take down relevant notes and share them in real-time helps you and your team members work efficiently. Whether you’re in a collaborative environment, tasked as an assistant to a staff member during meetings, or want to keep your team on the same page (pun intended), good note-taking should be about seamlessly creating notes that benefit the entire organization.

What’s Important:

  • Being able to share legible and coherent notes after you’ve written them down
  • Organizing notes and having them available to others is key when working in groups/teams.
  • Creating a reference to share information for those not in attendance

Best Methods:

Note Taking for Education

Education demands that students and educators produce relevant notes to facilitate deeper learning. Note-taking must be used to help understand difficult-to-grasp concepts during lectures, converting them into usable knowledge.

What’s Important:

  • Being able to understand your notes after you’ve written them down
  • Keeping them organized
  • Fits your personal style and

Best Methods:

The Best Note Taking Tools

Now that you’re aware of what you need for note taking, there are plenty of note taking tools at your fingertips. Many smartphones come equipped with plenty of apps that store notes, but few possess the capabilities to capture, organize, and streamline communication to meet the challenges of our busy modern lives.

With the development of AI and machine learning, technology has created new tools to choose from for the purposes of generating, sharing, and refining notes. Best of all, these technologies are radically transforming what it means to take notes.

Otter is the right choice for those who want to be more focused and productive in school, work, and life. Here’s why:

  • Otter saves you time by transcribing audio instantly (from live events and Zoom calls) to convert shareable and searchable content - even in real-time for unlimited collaboration potential.
  • Because Otter is powered by Ambient Voice Intelligence, it’s always learning. Otter is able to recognize voices, learn special terminology, and help you work and collaborate smarter.
  • Otter Assistant automatically joins your Zoom meetings, takes notes, and shares them with meeting participants to improve team collaboration in real-time.
  • Otter supports your workflow by integrating seamlessly with your favorite calendar and video meetings applications.
  • Otter can be easily activated in any environment via the mobile app or browser.
  • And much more!

If you’ve begun considering new ways to make your note taking more accurate and efficient, Otter can help. Otter’s Free and Pro plans provide AI transcriptions in real-time that can be used for a variety of purposes. Whether you’re looking to succeed at school, in business, or in your personal life, give it a try to see how Otter helps your team navigate remote work effectively.