How do you learn the most from your own notes?

Studente maakt samenvatting van de lesstof

Many students take notes during a lecture or when reading the subject material. But is it actually useful? Do you learn enough from taking notes and making all those summaries? And what is the best approach? In this study tip you will learn how to get the most out of your notes.

Structure and reviewing

Many students have never learned how to properly take notes. And you can't use a learning strategy optimally if you have not mastered it. A large review study (Dunlosky et al., 2013) has shown that just taking notes is not very beneficial. There are two things that make taking notes more valuable. The structure should be clear and your notes should encourage you to review the subject matter.

Cornell note-taking method; how does it work?

The Cornell note-taking method meets both requirements. The image shows the structure of a Cornell note. At the top you write the topic from your book or (a part of) the lecture. It works best if each page covers a different topic (structure requirement). The right-hand part is for taking notes. You may wish to supplement this with notes from your fellow students. 

At the end of the lecture or chapter you use the left-hand side to write down key words and questions you may have based on your notes. It is important that there is a link between the key words and questions on the left-hand side and the notes on the right-hand side.  

When you want to review a topic or lecture, you can easily use the key words and questions on the left-hand side. By reviewing the subject matter in this manner, you learn effectively and discover what you do not understand properly yet. You can then spend more time on that.

Summary = main thread

When using this method, it is important to not only learn the key words and questions, but also to keep track of the main thread of the lecture. To do so with the Cornell method, you write the core thought of the lecture, chapter, article or topic in at most 3 sentences at the bottom of the page. If you do this at home after the lecture from the top of your head, you have already had one study moment. You will now not easily forget this core thought.

The Cornell note-taking method enables you to take notes that allow you to study effectively and efficiently.

Writing or typing?

Does it matter whether you write your notes by hand or use your laptop to do so? Taking notes on your laptop is quicker, so you can record more in a short period of time. But will you also understand the content of the lecture? And will you remember the lecture afterwards?

A research published in Psycological Science has shown that you learn more from taking notes by writing them down. Students who took notes by writing remembered more and scored higher on insight questions. But what is the cause of this difference?

The authors think that handwritten notes force you to separate main and side topics, while using a laptop often results in copying the literal text provided by the lecturer. This copying of text doesn't really engage you in what the lecturer is talking about, as you are only copying. Another advantage of handwritten notes is the ability to easily show connections by using arrows and ordering the notes differently. As such you are already processing the subject matter while taking notes. You're putting your brains to work during the note taking. The Cornell note taking method fits in well with this. 


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Blasiman, R., & Hollis, R. B. (2019). Note-taking habits of 21st century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, 27(6), 807-819.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168. 


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