Active note-making strategies

You are probably thinking, “I know how to take notes!” But do you consider why you are making notes? And how you are writing them?

Thinking about these questions will help you to see why good note making can be seen as the secret of success at university.

How to develop active note-making skills

This guide can help you to develop active note-making skills which, along with other elements of active learning, are an important part of reaching your potential at university (see our guide on making the most of your university learning experience).

This guide will explore:

  • Why good note-making is a vital skill to develop for your studies
  • What considerations should inform effective note-making
  • The advantages of adopting active note-making strategies and how these can make a huge difference in terms of university success
  • Some examples of note-making strategies that you can try.

Why is it important to make good notes?

Note-making is the secret to university success as it is the vital link between gathering information and utilising that information effectively for any assignment or test. It allows you to develop your understanding and thinking on a topic and helps to ensure you are able to use evidence effectively in assignments.

To achieve this however, it is important to recognise yourself as a note maker rather than note taker: Notetaking implies just taking down everything that is read or said, passively or unquestioningly accepting the information. Note-making as a term, reflects the active role you will need to take to successfully create meaningful notes at university, reminding you that your notes benefit from thinking about and questioning the information you are recording.

Decision-making is integral to good note-making, as you need to decide what you record, how relevant the information is and the best method to use (see later in this guide). Decision-making is a skill you will develop as an independent learner, so by taking a consistently active approach to your note-making, you will have better idea of what is relevant to record (see our guide to starting your Surrey ‘learning journey’).

Additionally, a deeper understanding of a topic is only possible if you always check whether your notes make sense. The benefit of having good notes also means that you can establish your own academic voice in your assessments such as written work or presentations, by showing your own thinking in relation to the evidence you use in your work. This is because as an active note-maker you will need to make sense of (understand) the information but also make meaning (interpret) from the information.

Don’t worry if this concept of note-making sounds difficult: Developing good, active note-making skills takes time, but will, with practice, provide you with notes that will add real value to your learning. This will enhance your understanding of, and confidence in, your subject and be a springboard to assist you in communicating that understanding – and your thoughts – effectively.

As you start to think about study strategies at this point, consider what note-making you have used so far, and how you might adapt this method to make it more active.

What does becoming an active note-maker mean?

In essence, becoming an active note-maker means:

  • Thinking about the points being made and summarising these in your own words
  • Capturing your own thoughts, questions, and queries on the page
  • Being selective about what information you record:
    • In class, getting the balance right between writing and listening; augmenting your notes (revisiting post-session anything you missed and adding your further thoughts) to ensure they make sense to you
    • When researching, being more active than simply highlighting pages, or recording large chunks of text word-for-word; think about why it is relevant and the significance of what you are recording.

You may think copying and pasting content will be a lot easier and save you time, but doing this means you will miss out on the value of note-making as an important stage of the critical thinking process: Have you fully understood and interpreted the information? Copying can also result in unintentional plagiarism (see our guide on good study practices: academic integrity and why it is important).

Actively thinking when making notes takes a little bit more time, but it is beneficial when writing your assignments or taking tests or exams. This is because well thought out notes will provide you with an understanding of the topic, thus, giving you greater confidence to answer the question, structure your assignment more effectively and assert your interpretation of and perspectives on the evidence.

Remember MURMUR

Remembering ‘MURMUR’ will help you to maintain active note making approaches and therefore ensure your notes are of value to your learning.

  • Make sense: Of content by noting in your own words what you read or hear. This will allow you to check your understanding and follow up on anything that is unclear
  • Understand: Why you have recorded or selected the information and how it applies to your understanding of the topic or assessment requirements
  • Recognise: Where you found the information. Record the date and session title or details of texts so you can reference them in your work and avoid passing someone else’s work off as your own (see our guide on good study practices: academic integrity and why it is important)
  • Make meaning: By adding your own thoughts and raising questions in your notes will help you to interpret the information and develop your critical thinking on a topic
  • Utilise: Your notes effectively, for assignments, exams and discussions by recognising how your notes fit in with learning (and notes) from previous weeks and seeing connections to notes you have made in other modules
  • Revisit: Your notes (frequently) to allow you to remember key subject information. This will ensure you develop your subject knowledge and not just memorise information; a useful thing when writing assignments, sitting your exams or online tests.

Note-making methods and considerations

You may have used some note-making methods before, but the rest of this guide provides some brief strategies you may wish to become familiar with before starting university.

There are various note-making techniques, and you may need to utilise different ones for the different learning situations you will experience (see our guide on what learning at Surrey will be like). Whichever you chose, apply the 'MURMUR' method, as this will work with all techniques.

You might also want to consider:

  • Note-making tools: This could include paper, coloured pens and highlighters or a digital note-making app (such as Microsoft OneNote, accessible via your Surrey365 account)
  • How and where you store and organise your notes: Such as paper in files or notebooks or a filing system on your device. This will help to avoid frustration when trying to find the information you need and ensure you include the most relevant evidence.

Note-making strategies

Below you will find some strategies you can try. This guide does not cover every note-making strategy available, so you may wish to explore others, such as creating tables/charts, or the ‘boxing method’, in your own time.

Linear note-making is the approach that most people are familiar with. The important thing if using this at university is that your notes meet the 'MURMUR' criteria.

It is unhelpful to try to record everything being said in a class or written in text for the following reasons:

  • In class, you could lose concentration or fail to keep up with relevant information that the lecturer is communicating. It is better to devote more time to listening and selectively recording key information and writing less
  • When reading texts for assignments or revision, copying large amounts of text into your notes is time-consuming, unsustainable and not very productive. It is better to spend more time thinking about what is being stated, summarising key points in your own words and annotating your thoughts and queries as you go.

With class notes, it’s important to review and annotate these as soon as possible after the session (before your memory of the class fades); this is to:

  • Fill in any gaps
  • Note points you are unsure about, for further investigation.

This is because abbreviated linear notes risk:

  • Not making sense later
  • Lacking your understanding (making sense) and interpretation of the topic (making meaning).

Both of these are useful if revisiting notes for assignment or revision purposes.

Considerations for employing linear note-making

Good for:

  • Lectures or recorded sessions, as each line on the page or app can be used to add a key point
  • Recording facts, numerical data, processes, or sequences
  • Reviewing and elaborating on your notes post-session - allowing you to expand and add meaning so they make sense to you.

Things to consider:

  • Ask yourself critical questions and include these in your notes
  • Are you getting the balance right between listening and writing information?
  • Not slipping back into writing down everything instead of the key points
  • Handwriting legibility.

The Cornell note-making method, is a more advanced form of note-making and it may be less familiar to you. It is particularly suited to university-level study as it encourages an active note-making approach. It involves dividing each page vertically in two, the note-making right-hand column being twice the width of the 'cue' left-hand column, plus, creating a 'summary' section at the bottom of the page.

During the teaching the note-making column is where you write notes, paraphrasing and summarising while listening carefully for understanding.

After the session, complete the ‘cue’ column, by writing additional information that will enhance your understanding of the topic.

The cue column can be useful for:

  • Adding key themes or headings so you can see the point, at a glance
  • Adding information that you remember
  • Identifying key questions
  • Identify what you are not sure about, highlighting aspects that require further investigation.

Also, after the session, complete the 'summary' section. This is where you review and reflect on your notes from the note-making and cue column and write a summary in your own words.

Adding to your notes after the teaching session will ensure they continue to make sense long after your memory of the class fades.

Considerations for using Cornell note-making

Good for:

  • Organisation and structure to notes
  • Subject concepts or theories to help cohere your thinking
  • Noting key points and adding details to ensure your notes make sense
  • Adding to the ‘cue’ column and summary to help you interpret your notes (make meaning)
  • Quickly seeing relevant aspects of your notes when revisiting them to complete your assignments and/or exams
  • Meeting the 'MURMUR' criteria.

Things to consider:

  • Setting up the Cornell format in advance, either digitally or on paper
  • Requires discipline to ensure you are getting the balance right between listening and recording information
  • It takes practice and can be difficult to sustain in the first instance
  • The trick is to confine yourself to recording key points that allow you to add more information post-session.

You may have used forms of visual note-making in the past, but at university visual approaches and diagrams are beneficial for identifying relationships between points, which helps you to think more critically about a topic. Such approaches can also highlight gaps in your knowledge which can then be researched.

Visual notes can include images, sketches and keywords, allowing you to produce distinctive page layouts which can help you to access the information quickly. You don’t need to be artistic to create visual notes: The main principle is to capture information in a visual format, noting key details as pictures or key words.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping is one method that allows you to manage large amounts of information in a small space by linking ideas to a central concept. Adding short keywords or images allows you to see connections. The approach allows you to think creatively about a topic and can be a useful method for thinking about keywords to carry out research, or to map out your approach to an assignment.

Flow diagrams

Flow diagrams can be useful for providing a very accessible overview of a process as it can show the order or sequence of events.

These are just a couple of examples of visual note-making, but there are plenty more you can explore to best suit the specific learning circumstances and your own learning preferences.

Considerations for employing visual thinking

Good for:

  • Visual triggers which help you quickly and efficiently make sense of a topic for revision purposes or to identify appropriate structures for assignments (mind maps and flow diagrams)
  • Developing and maintaining a ‘big picture’ overview of a topic (mind maps and flow diagrams), and for demonstrating the complexity within the topic (mind maps)
  • Seeing all the elements involved in a process and to identify any problem with the sequence (flow diagrams)
  • Being active and creative, allowing you to manipulate and reorder information, particularly if you use mind mapping software
  • Meeting those 'MURMUR' criteria!

Things to consider:

  • If you are mind mapping on paper, you may run out of space
  • Mind mapping software has no page-size limits and adds useful functionality, allowing for moving images and boxes easily and offering a range of structure options
  • Not everyone is a natural visual thinker: For some of us it will take more time to make this approach work
  • You may need to build in extra time to review visual maps as your knowledge of a topic develops
  • Mind maps sometimes require ‘reigning in’: There can be a danger of making too many connections, so you need to think about the purpose of the map.

Key takeaways

The key takeaway is that active note-making underpins and enhances your whole university experience. You will get so much more out of your learning, as you will understand your subject more deeply and your notes will be an effective springboard for managing assignments and revision.

  • Always think about what your notes are for and why you are making them
  • Experiment with and practise different methods to know what works best for you and is appropriate to the specific learning setting
  • Make your notes work for you and use 'MURMUR' to help make this happen!

What next?

Active note-making strategies contribute to ensuring that the work you produce for University adheres to good academic practices; see: guide 5. Good study practices: Academic integrity.