Taking Notes: Organizing Your Notes for Studying

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

You take notes from lectures and readings for a purpose: to study from them or to use them to complete an assignment (such as a paper, for example). While you may think at first that reading and attending class is just busywork — a waste of your time — if you put the effort into good note-taking, you’ll see how much easier it is to study for upcoming tests or other assignments. There’s one last step for note-taking and that includes reviewing and, if needed, reorganizing your notes so that they are easy to use for studying.

When you’re preparing for a test, you have many resources to study from: lecture notes, textbook readings, and any notes from your reading. Often, these overlap. Or one element (like lecture notes) provides an overview, while another element (the textbook) provides the necessary details.

Rather than studying from all these various sources, consider getting into the habit of reviewing and reorganizing your notes into one comprehensive, organized, concise, and complete set of notes. The end result not only helps you better prepare for the test, but the actual act of compiling, arranging, and reviewing the notes also acts as an effective method to help you see connections and create a complete picture from disparate parts.

Compiling Your Notes

You can use any number of methods to create a review sheet. Consider some of the following:

  • Type up your notes from the various sources, putting “like” information together. Ideally, you want to review your notes soon after the class and fill in any gaps.
  • Create an outline of the key points, and then fill in the details under the main and subpoints.
  • Use a two-column grid. On the left hand, write questions you have (or questions you think may be asked). On the right hand side, briefly list the answers to the questions. If you use a column method to list questions, but don’t know the answer, flag areas where you need to do more research in the left column. You can then find the answers either in your textbook, from your instructor or in a study group.
  • Use visual mapping methods to record the main idea and then show how other themes, concepts, and facts relate and tie together with this subject area. A visual map is like a graphic outline; you write the information in a way that illustrates how the ideas relate. For instance, you usually start with a main idea written in the center of the paper. You then add key facts to the main idea, using lines to connect them. For the key facts, you can add other supporting information underneath or connected with lines.

Anticipate Questions

When you read through your notes and own thoughts, think about how the instructor may test you on your knowledge of this topic. If you were the instructor, what questions would you ask that would demonstrate that your students have a good understanding of the key facts? Often, good students already have an idea of what test questions may be and prepare accordingly. But this is a skill that you can learn and improve by trying yourself to guess appropriate test questions.

Once you think of the question, see whether your notes provide the answer. If not, look back through your notes and reading assignments to find the answer and then include that material in your study notes. For some detailed questions, for instance, essay questions, you may want to create an outline of the response. In doing so, you may need to pull information from different sections of your notes to create a cohesive answer. When you study, you can practice answering questions using your notes.

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