Effective Note Taking

Take Note: Note Taking for Success

After deciding to invest in your professional development, you can maximize your investment by setting yourself up for successful comprehension of the course content by improving how you take notes during your class. Your personal note-taking style, the format in which you take notes and what you do with those notes, can have a direct impact on how much you gain from a training. In fact, the act of taking notes can increase the chance of remembering the information by as much as 34%, in contrast to a mere 5% chance of remembering without note-taking.

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Take note: with the information in this article, you can use the power of quality note taking to support the advancement of your career goals.

Power of Good Notes

How well do you remember the Forgetting Curve? It is not the name of a new roller coaster ride nor a trending series on Netflix. Rather, the Forgetting Curve is a research-backed concept showing that without concerted effort made to remember things, we pretty much forget things from the moment we hear them. In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus put forward the “Forgetting Curve” to demonstrate the rapid speed at which we all forget that was just explained to us.

Notetaking 1

The science of memory and how humans can retain more information is an ongoing area of study. As online resources, such as audio lectures and virtual classes have become more prevalent, research has been conducted to determine the efficacy of note taking in those settings. In the MoocLab (Massive Open Online Courses or “MOOCs”) resource area, they share data indicating note taking improves your comprehension and retention and that of information you hear:

Notetaking 2

The act of taking notes has a direct correlation on information retention. If you are taking notes from a professional conference, during an important meeting, or as part of a class, you will remember more than if you merely sit and listen.

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Start With the Purpose

To maximize your note taking process, you need to know the purpose of them. Just as you would ask the objective of a project you are managing, determine the purpose of your note taking effort. Recognize that all training is not the same, and as such, all notes from training do not have the same purpose. Consider your note taking purpose:

  • Prep for certification exam?
  • Gain insights to apply to current job or project?
  • Prepare for a new job or increased responsibility?
  • Refresh on existing knowledge?
  • Learn best practices to later share with colleagues?

A clear purpose will give your notes the needed direction. It will guide what you capture and how you organize the information.

Handwriting vs Typing

It might not be as big a debate as “is a hot dog a sandwich?” or “do you use a fork to eat pizza?” but, many people feel strongly about how notes should be taken: writing or typing. To get an answer to the question “which is better, writing notes or typing notes?”, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles conducted a study with the results published in Psychological Science. National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed the researchers who shared:

“The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

The note taking research and resulting study concluded that “students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those who type their notes on [computer keyboards].”

Hybrid: Writing with Stylus

The academic note taking research is grounded in a distinction between handwriting on paper and typing on a keyboard; many devices today include the functionality to “write” or sketch on a screen using a stylus. What we can take from the research and apply to writing with a stylus is the difference in knowledge retention experienced with the act of crafting the notes through scripting vs punching out letters on a keyboard.

How You Capture Notes Makes a Difference

Consider this comparison of handwriting, scripting and typing notes:

Note Taking: Pros and Cons of Write, Script and Type

The research indicates greater knowledge retention when you write notes during a class or learning. Within the resources you have available, use the method that is most effective and comfortable for you. No matter the approach you use to capture the notes, keep these tips in mind:

  • Know the purpose of the notes.
  • Organize the information collected.
  • Use same method for all note taking.
  • Number the pages.
  • Use symbols, underlining, arrows and lines to emphasize key ideas.
  • Capture only key ideas.

What is important is that you do not depend on your memory or any provided class materials as the means to retain the knowledge. You must make the effort to take your own notes if you want to remember more of what you are learning.

Note Formats

Short term memory is not reliable; of it. Note taking can help you retain important information if your notes have purpose and organization. Here are three classic methods for notetaking.


1. 2 -6 Method

The 2-6 Method is a way to layout the information on a piece of standard 8 ½ x 11 note book paper. Set up the 2-6 Method with these instructions:

  1. Make two columns, using the red line on the left of the page as your border.
  2. Use the 6” side for notes and the smaller 2” column on the left for highlights.
  3. Write main headings and important points on the left, including material you think you will be tested on.
Note Taking: Highlights and Main Notes

You can simply use standard notebook paper if you are handwriting notes. Or, you can use the Columns feature or Tables in Microsoft Word to mimic the paper layout and achieve a similar layout.

Note Taking Sample

Figure 1https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/learning-at-home/homework-study-skills/5-simple-strategies-for-note-taking


2. Cornell Method

Building on the 2-6 method, a very popular method is the Cornell note taking. >The method was created by Cornell University hence the name, Cornell Note-Taking Method. The layout> of the notes, with key points and summaries easy to find, has been very helpful in preparing for tests and exams.

You will need to prep a bit more if you are using this method however by marking out the summary section on the bottom of each page or setting up your electronic file with specific borders and columns.

Note Taking: Cue Column, Note Taking Area and Summaries

Figure 2 https://www.onlineuniversities.com/articles/students/note-taking-101/

To set up the Cornell method you should:

  1. Use the front of each page If handwriting notes)
  2. Create a left column or use the one indicated by the paper’s red left border.
  3. Draw a thick margin 2” from the bottom across the entire page to create a section on the bottom.
  4. Use the left section for key points, the right for notes, and the bottom for summaries.


3. Outlining

Whether you are handwriting or typing your notes, you can never go wrong with an Outline. When using the Outline approach, you capture a key idea, then align supporting ideas underneath. Leave white space around your notes so that you can expand on them and/or add symbols or notations to enhance later.

Note Taking Sample 2

Figure 3 https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/learning-at-home/homework-study-skills/5-simple-strategies-for-note-taking

You will find that the outline structure is one of the easiest ways to take your notes. Using the outline method does not imply that your notes are only snippets. The goal of an outline is to reinforce the learning and serve to refresh and remind you of the key points after class. Fill in information along the outline structure so that you have concise but useful information to review.

Active Listening Impacts Notes Quality

Regardless of handwriting or note layout, the note taking process is heavily impacted by your active listening skill. Utah State University’s Academic Resource team provides this summary of the connection with listening and note taking:

Listening effectively is hearing and understanding what a speaker is saying and how it applies to you, and then remembering it for future use and evaluation.

Your ability to listen, to focus, can be influenced by your environment. Before your class or study time, prepare your space the best that you can:

  • Remove distractions (leave your phone in another room, shut down email clients and instant messaging tools, etc.).
  • Seek active body state with good posture, room for note taking, and good lighting.
  • Have readily available note taking resources (paper, pens, power cord, etc.) so that you do not have to start and stop to get them during class.
  • If there is a live instructor, ask questions (speak up, use the chat window, etc.) to stay engaged and confirm your understanding.

These same tips for active listening not only position you for good note taking, you may find they also carry over into work meetings, 1:1s with leadership, and leading project team meetings.

Accessing Your Digital Notes

If you are looking for digital applications for note taking, a few to start your research include:

Google Keep

While you may be inclined to use Google Docs, Google Keep program is made specifically to take notes, so you can be more organized and format them better.



Evernote is a popular note-taking application accessed via computer or mobile device. It’s allows you to keep multiple files organized.


Microsoft One Note

Included in Microsoft’s One Drive, OneNote is an electronic binder that has all the formatting features of Word but in a “binder” or note structure.

Your stylus will require an app or software for the information to be captured by the device. In whatever software you use, just as you would with handwritten notes, be organized and label the notes so that you can quickly find information later.

Microsoft Surface Pen

Do some research to confirm compatibility with your technology, including how it may work with any Android devices: Surface Pen.

Apple Pencil

Same as with the PC side, make sure you confirm compatibility and features for the Apple Pencil.

Note Taking Tips

The skills that are used by all project managers – strategy, organization, consistency – also apply to the process of note taking. Before your next class, review these ten notetaking tips:

  1. Be prepared before you start.
  2. Establish a note taking strategy and stick to it.
  3. Only capture main points, not every word.
  4. Use diagrams, pictures, sketches to emphasize key ideas.
  5. Date and label all notes.
  6. Number all pages.
  7. Use standard symbols, such as & (and); # (number); ? (question), ! (important), ** (remember this), etc.
  8. Use abbreviations relevant to topic, such as info. (information), sys (system), cx (communication), /d (supply and demand), etc.
  9. Use margins for questions, comments, notes to self.
  10. Review and refresh your notes.

The best practices and information in this guide can help ensure your note taking process is note perfect.


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Megan Bell
Megan Bell
Project Manager & Writer at Project Management Academy
Megan Bell