Special Education · Study Skills

Take a note…

Another blog in my study skills series.

I’ve mentioned before how much I could have benefitted from the type of support that I now find myself providing to others. If I were to choose just one skill that could have transformed my school experience, it would probably be note taking.

I still remember biology lessons with horror. We’d queue on the stairs to get into the lab and enter the room to see a perfectly drawn labeled diagram, which we were meant to copy during the first part of the lesson. My spidery drawings were unrecognisable save for their neatly written labels. Long before I could finish the diagram, the teacher would start dictation. My first sentence was pretty much verbatim, but so slowly written that I’d miss the next one, and by the third sentence I’d be trying to write in a desperate short-hand that I could never decipher…

Of course, in those dim and distant days before interactive whiteboards or smartphones, we had no choice bu to take notes by hand in class. Today, we have technology on our side – whole presentations can be emailed home, workbooks can be custom-made by teachers and handouts are fairly standard, despite claims of a paperless society. So why take notes at all?

External Storage Effect

One benefit is what’s occasionally called the ‘external storage effect’. This is really just about having notes to refer to for memory boosting. It might be to better understand what’s being said later in the lesson/lecture, or to have something to refer back to for writing essays or revision. In many ways, it’s not really much different than having a handout or a textbook. So, you ask again, why take notes at all?

Encoding effect

There is a reason for this, sometimes called the ‘encoding effect’. Because we have to process things in more ways when we write, we process the information more deeply. So, for example, if we just listen, we hear (although we may be reading notes and watching a presentation, too, so there would potentially be a related visual memory). However, if we listen and make notes, too, we hear, we watch the speaker and their presentation and we have to process the information from spoken language to in order to write it. If we read back to check, there’s another opportunity to interact with the learning, as we both see and convert from written language.

Research has shown that this so-called ‘encoding effect’ improves our chances of remembering facts fourfold – from about 10% of facts recalled without note taking to about 45% with note taking. It also improves our chances of being able to answer test questions correctly, though not by such a huge margin – from just under 40% to about 90%, still over twice as accurate.

Note taking is most important when new information is presented, but there’s no hard and fast rule about how you should make your notes. What’s important is that you use the method that works for you. You may prefer to write notes by hand, or even draw them. There has been research indicating that hand writing notes speeds up the initial learning process, but that doe NOT mean that you shouldn’t type your notes if that’s quicker or easier for you. Develop your own system, using e.g. colours, highlighters, images to suit you.

Tech hacks

Despite the benefits of note-taking, it’s clear that there are times when you will learn more by listening, and perhaps making an audio recording, so that you can focus fully on what you are supposed to be learning. At times when working memory is at risk of overload, or when keeping up is not possible, use every tech hack available to you. If slides aren’t going to be uploaded to a virtual learning environment of some kind, take pictures. There are some great speech-to-text features built into many mobile devices these days – if you sit at the front, you can get a decent transcription using Notes on an iPhone (other apps, phones and operating systems are available). Just make sure you’ve followed school, college or university procedures regarding permission to record.


As already discussed, the layout and style is entirely up to you – if a mind-map is your preferred format for everything from brainstorming through essay planning to note-taking, then use that. Mind-maps deserve a post of their own, so look out for that.

The Cornell method

Two-column note-taking can be really useful for writing notes during a lesson or lecture/presentation (or meeting), or for making manageable revision notes from a set book, textbook, presentation slides or handouts, or your own longer notes. They are useful for organising your revision, to learn foreign language vocabulary or subject-specific terminology – place your target word to the left and the definition in right hand the column. You can also use them as a basis for flashcards question left, answer right (or use flashcards to make them). Once written, they can also be revised from by reading or either covering the ‘answers’ on the right or folding the page to ask yourself, then check.

Note-making grid

While some people love the flexibility of a mind-map, others find they prefer more conventional-looking structure. A note-making grid is somewhere between a mind-map and ‘linear’ notes, where you might combine the form of a list with key bullet points and headings. This can be a useful tool for group work as well for as organising ideas around a central theme. You can use it to categorise key points according to your chosen or given criteria. It can also be used for planning written work. Writing your notes onto post-its means you can try out different ideas and rearrange them as your thoughts develop.

Layers of inference

This can be a really useful method for deepening your appreciation of a particular topic and is especially helpful when breaking down historical events to understand how they unfolded and how they relate to one another. It’s a good tool for analysing a work of art or a poem (and your response to it). It can also help you to plan written work and presentations that build up from detail to a bigger picture.

Starting in the centre/smallest box, make a note of the main things that you KNOW.

In the box around that, note down what can be inferred from the information you have. These are things you do not know for certain but that you think are true. For example, you might make an informed guess about the people in a painting, the subject of a poem, or the location of a photograph.

The next box is where you write any further ideas you may have, or questions for which you need to research answers.

Finally, consider any last gaps in your knowledge or understanding, think about what you could find out that would really complete the picture/story for you. You may not answer all of these questions, but you can still acknowledge them.

Drawing and scanning

There’s really no wrong way to take notes, as long as they make sense to you. One way you can keep them organised, though, is to scan them into online folders. It may feel as though there are new apps appearing every week for this, and you have to choose what suits you best, but here are a few thoughts:

  • choose an app that’s compatible with other software you already use e.g. Evernote or OneNote
  • use an app that can scan your pages of notes or images into neat A4 PDFs – OfficeLens works well for this
  • practise adding notes, pictures and audio, to build yourself a multi-sensory revision source

Free software

Use your built-in phone/tablet/laptop microphone – spend sometime playing with this so you are confident of how it works and you know how to save, label, file, find and play back your recordings. Make yourself really familiar with the accessibility functions in MSOffice, on Google, Mac, or your preferred OS – whatever is not intuitive, Google (other search engines are available) and check out the YouTube tutorials…

More blogs related to study skills can be found here.

You can share this blog using any of the buttons below.

Further reading:

Bircher, R. (2014) Revise GCSE: Study Skills Guide. London:Pearson.

Hargreaves, S. and Crabb, J. (eds) (2016) Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia: Support for Specific Learning Differences, 3rd Edition. London:Sage.

Kirby, A. (2013) How to Succeed in College or University; a Guide for Students, Educators and Parents. London: Souvenir Press.


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