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March 24, 2023

Take Smart Notes From a Textbook (+Note Taking Template)

Take Smart Notes From a Textbook (+Note Taking Template)

Table of contents

This article covers advanced tips for students wanting to upgrade their note-taking skills. 

In this post, we’ll cover,

  • 5 Note-taking methods and the subjects they work best for
  • Templates for each method
  • Common note-taking mistakes and how to avoid them
Note taking methods template
Note taking template
Download our FREE Note Taking template (5 different methods) >

Call me crazy, but I’ve spent $11,750 on note-taking tools.

Physical stationery in the form of highlighters, post-its, colored pens, subject notebooks, roller scales—you name it. My beautifully-written, detailed, color-coded notes gave me the feeling of being a productive high-achiever. But these notes rarely translated into results. I was consistently in the average tier of students, despite my organized study practices—till year two of highschool. It was then that I realized all I was doing was beautifying text and not understanding information. 

From then on, I set out on a journey to understand which notetaking methods worked for my subjects. I translated this into a 9.2/10 CGPA in my 10th-grade examination and a 1,900 score on my SATs. In addition, I was able to achieve these results while reducing my study time by half.

Today, I’m going to show you how to do the same with my step-by-step playbook.

Step 1: Answer ‘What do I need the notes for?’

Notes have a lot of different purposes, and it wouldn’t be fair to club all note-taking mechanics together. If you do that, you’d need more time to understand the method than you’d need to understand your text. 

So first, identify what your notes are for: 

To get there quickly, answer these questions:

  • Do I need these once, or is it something I’ll come back to very frequently? For example, are these for an essay competition (one-time use), or are these for semester-end exams (multiple uses)?
  • Do I need to document one textbook or multiple textbooks?

In the following paragraphs, we will see exactly how to choose the right note taking method. Bear in mind that there is always some personal preference that should be taken into account. Preferences that you can discover only by trying out different methods and seeing which one works best for you.

Step 2: Supplement your knowledge 

If you feel a portion of the textbook isn’t exhaustive enough, use Google. Very often, textbooks have updated versions online. This is especially true for science, political studies, archeology etc, where new information such as scientific discoveries, judicial decisions, and new findings come to light. Add this new information to your notes. 

Step 3: Use a note-taking method

Use a systemized note-taking method to make the best use of your notes. This eliminates all of the guesswork from revision and cuts down your reviewing time by a significant amount. 

To decide on a note-taking method based on your needs, use the matrix above.

The Cornell Method

The Cornell Method

The Cornell method divides the page into 4 parts: heading, recall or cue column, notes, and summary.

The cue column is for high level questions or concepts that are clarified in the notes column. Important images, sketches, and formulas also go in the notes column. 

The summary column is used to list takeaways. 

A look at the Cornell method in action:

Cornell method in action
Source: Cornell Notes

Features of the Cornell method

  • Short sentences
  • Abbreviations and symbols
  • Summaries as study tools

How to use the Cornell Method effectively

Use the cue column for textbook headings, subheadings, or questions. 

Use the notes column for additional information under each subheading. Try to break these down into bullet points for faster scanning. 

Reflect on what you’ve learned while filling out the cue and notes columns and summarize those ideas in the summary column. 

A few questions to help formulate your summary:

  • How can I use this information?
  • How does this information link to the previous heading/chapter
  • What questions did I have while reading my notes?
  • What comes next?

Templates to use

Notion: Cornell Notes

Google Docs: Cornell Method

The Outlining Method

The Outlining Method

This method is like the format of this blog post—headings, followed by subheadings, followed by bullet lists. 

The outlining method sequentially lists out information—general information to the left, and details to the right. 

Here’s what this looks like in action:

Features of the outlining method

  • Headings and bullet lists
  • Linear flow of information
  • Highly organized 

When to use

  • When information is presented in an organized way
  • Infomation is deductive (regular outline)
  • Infomation is inductive (go from finer details to general concepts)

Subjects this method is well-suited to

  • Languages
  • History 
  • Political Science
  • Economics
  • Geography 

Note: Skip this method if you use a lot of formulas, graphs, or charts since those do not integrate well with the outline method. 

Subjects this method is not suited to

  • Maths (formulas, graphs, equations)
  • Chemistry (charts)
  • Physics (derivations)

Templates to use

Google Docs: Outlining Method

The Mapping Method

The Mapping Method

Mapping is a visual method of note-taking. It works as a bubble diagram where the logical flow of information is visually represented. 

The bigger or central bubbles contain general topics, and the finer details live in smaller bubbles. Connections between information are represented on branches or connecting arrows.

When to use

  • Topics have interlocking ideas
  • Complex or abstract subject matter
  • There are multiple details to track

Subjects this method is well-suited to

  • History
  • Maths
  • Chemistry
  • Philosophy

Subjects this method is not suited to

  • Geography 
  • Physics 

Templates to use

Google Docs: Mapping Method

Venngage: Mind Map Templates - Venngage

The Charting Method

The Charting Method

The Charting method is a good tool for noting down details.

To implement this, make columns and rows with headings and add information to each cell. This will allow you to compare related fields for different topics. 

Image Source: https://byjus.com/math-formulas/

This is a method I learned through the childhood game called ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ and I use it almost every day as a writer. In the game, you draw out a letter of the alphabet and list a name, place, animal, and thing starting with that letter. 

The Charting Method

You can use Google sheets or Excel to take notes using the charting method. 

Subjects this method is well-suited to

  • History 
  • Psychology 
  • Biology 
  • Math
  • Chemistry

Subjects this method is not suited to

  • Geography
  • Physics

Templates to use

Google docs: Charting Method

The Sentence Method

The Sentence Method

The Sentence method can be used for all types of note-taking, but it is not the most efficient method for documenting information. 

Note: Don’t use it if you have ANY other option available. 

Suggestion: Rewrite notes from the sentence method in the Cornell Method or Charting method so you can organize the information for easy comprehension. 

When to use

  • You need to quickly take notes
  • There’s no structure to the information
  • You don’t need to review the information 

How to use

  • Record each new idea in a new line
  • Add numbers to the lines
  • Review your notes 

Step 4: Avoid common notetaking mistakes

Now that you’ve identified the best method for note-taking for your course, it’s time to eliminate some common traps and errors even the best students fall for. I made each of these mistakes a hundred times before identifying the best way to eliminate them. 

1. Writing without understanding 

I used to do this a lot. I was so fond of taking notes with colored pens, highlighters and post-its that I’d often fail to summarize what I was reading. The fully filled pages would make me feel productive without actually making my work efficient. 

Here’s what that looked like:

1. Writing without understanding 

How to avoid doing this

For me, this was more of a mindset shift from ‘I need beautifully laid out notes’ to ‘I need notes to help me revise and remember stuff’. Here are three things I do—and you can copy—to remove filler information from notes:

Start reflecting on the material before writing it down

When you summarize what you’ve read in your head, it forms a clearer picture of the information. Your brain automatically sorts and organizes data. 

Limit yourself to half a page per subheading or 600 words

You can increase or decrease this limit depending on how extensive your subheads are. This forces you to cut out filler words and information and only retain the most important details. 

Pro tip: Ask yourself ‘Can I form an intelligent question around this?’ 

If you can form an intelligent question, chances are it’s an important detail. If you can’t, don’t add it to your text.

For example:

Adding intelligent questions

2. Being topic-agnostic

Very often, we take notes that go on and on for pages without any mention of the headings dividing them. We do this because we don’t want to break our flow of thought. But this simple error can cost you time. If you’re revising for a particular topic within the notes, you’re going to have trouble locating it because it will be mixed with a sea of text. 

Here’s what that might look like:

2. Being topic-agnostic

2. Being topic-agnostic

Now if we add sub-topics and subheads to the notes, this is what it would look like:

2. Being topic-agnostic

In the example above, if you were quickly looking for audience research tools, you’d have to just look at the third section to find your answer. But if you wanted to locate it in the first set of notes, you’d have to read through the entire notes. 

3. Not reviewing notes 

Note-taking is usually the exciting, proactive part of studying—you learn new information, document it creatively, and are set for revision. But revising itself can be dull. That’s why most students, me included, put off revision for as long as they have to. 

But not reviewing notes deems them useless and leaves you scrambling to prepare for exams. 

How to avoid doing this

I’m not going to tell you to just revise your notes. I’m going to tell you how to do it in the least possible time. 

Stick to a combination of two note-taking methods for all your subjects. 

Pick out your subjects from the table below and chose which two methods work best for your set of subjects. 

3. Not reviewing notes 

Note: The table lists the most efficient method for each subject, but you can repurpose any method for any subject. 

When you work with fixed methods, your brain remembers how to look for information because it’s used to sorting the data programmatically. If you pick new methods every time, you’ll spend more time adjusting to the new method than actually taking in information. 

Use flashcards

Interestingly, both Cornell Method and Charting method are well suited to the flashcard. 

Add cues to the front of the card to repurpose Cornell notes to flashcards and bullet notes to the back. 

To repurpose Charting notes to flashcards, add rows and column headers to the front of the card, and cell information to the back.

Take advantage of tools

Quizlet is an app that turns your information to flashcards. Use it for digital flashcards and self-revision to get a revision done quicker. 

Use diagrams and doodles

Studies show that visuals are processed 60,000X faster in the brain than text. Using doodles and diagrams and help your brain store more information, and store it faster. 

Note-taking for the modern world

Whether you go for the more structured Outlining method, or the more visual Mapping method, the important thing is just to get started, and to keep examining what works best for you.

For the lifelong learners, taking notes doesn't end after college. It's a muscle you keep working on and perfecting to fit your personal style. I hope this article inspires you with some tools to add to your note-taking arsenal.

Click here to download our top 5 methods for taking notes >