4 uncommon & effective notetaking methods that every student must know

by | Oct 7, 2021

Are you the sort of person who takes notes word-for-word? If you are, you should probably stop.

A 1979 study had found that university students who took notes verbatim had significantly poorer performance on recall tests as compared to students who paraphrased or summarised lecture materials.

This emphasises the importance of meaningful note-taking and note-taking methods that will help achieve this!

In this article, I’ll be introducing 4 not-so-common note-taking strategies that will guarantee understanding and better recall for everything you study.

1.) The Cornell note-taking method

What is the Cornell note-taking method?

In the 1950s, a professor (Walter Pauk) from Cornell University devised this note-taking method. The intent was to make note-taking more efficient and make the review process easier.

This makes the Cornell note-taking method one of the best note-taking methods for exam preparation as it encourages you to paraphrase class materials in your own words for better comprehension.

It’s also easy to review, and you’ll probably only need your Cornell notes when revising for tests and exams!

When should you use the Cornell note-taking method?

The Cornell note-taking method should be used during your lessons to take notes.

If you happen to have your class materials beforehand, it’d be good to skim through for keywords so you can add them to the keywords section. Then, in the actual lesson, address those keywords.

During the lesson, jot questions down in the same column as your keywords. Then, answer those questions in the notes section if the answer has come up.

Which subjects are best suited for the Cornell note-taking method?

Subjects that involve concepts and terms are ideal for the Cornell note-taking method. Basically, all humanities, social science, and science subjects are well-suited!

On the other hand, language subjects and anything involving math equations or complicated diagrams are not ideal for the Cornell note-taking method.

How do you use the Cornell note-taking method?

Cornell notetaking method

Divide the page into 4 sections (3 sections if you want to omit the title portion on top).

The left-most portion is for keywords and questions you might have. These would accompany the notes on the right side.

The biggest portion is meant for notes. Ideally, you’d want to use abbreviations (using “b/c” to substitute “because”) and write in short, simple sentences.

These should answer the questions or address keywords to make reviewing these notes later on easier.

Finally, the bottom-most section is the summary section. Sum up everything that you’ve written in the first two sections here, ideally in about 5–7 sentences and in point form.

If you find that you don’t have enough space for the notes and keywords sections, you can omit the summary portion.

Prefer taking your notes digitally? Use this Notion template for your Cornell note-taking needs!

Following the Cornell template to a T isn’t a must, so feel free to customise it according to your needs. In the end, what you want are systemised, easy-to-review notes.

2.) Zettelkasten note-taking method

What is the Zettelkasten note-taking method?

Close up shot of drawers
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash
Zettelkasten is the German word for “note box”. This note-taking strategy was developed by the German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann.

The Zettelkasten note-taking method also goes by the name “slip-box” method.

Just like how people used to organise their notes into little boxes, this note-taking method uses a similar strategy.

Complex topics get broken down into bite-sized chunks in this note-taking method, but that’s not all!

The Zettelkasten method encourages you to create a web of knowledge, where these small ideas all interlinked with one another to form a big picture.

When should you use the Zettelkasten note-taking method?

The Zettelkasten note-taking method is more of a knowledge management system of note-taking, so using it during a class or lecture is a bad idea.

It’s best used after a class when you want to organise the information and ideas you’ve just gained into something cohesive, or want to add it to any prior knowledge you have on the subject.

Which subjects are best suited for the Zettelkasten note-taking method?

Subjects, where topics are interlinked with one another, are excellent for using the Zettelkasten method, for example, history.

Also, this isn’t a subject per se, but the Zettelkasten method shines for anything that needs ideas or content generation.

It’s a good tool to use if you want to generate ideas for an essay, or even things like generating content for your next YouTube video!

How do you use the Zettelkasten note-taking method?

All you need for this are some flashcards or your preferred note-taking app!

There are only 2 steps to the method I’m about to show you, but there are actually many variations (like this Notion template) of how you can use the Zettelkasten note-taking method.

Step 1: Take bite-sized notes

Let’s say you’re reading something dense, like a textbook or a journal article, and you come across a paragraph or sentence that you think is important for you to know later on.

Your first instinct might be to highlight it. Instead of doing that, jot that information down in your flashcard or note-taking app.

Ensure that this information is condensed into no more than 3 sentences. More importantly, you must write it in your own words and not directly lift.

This is to ensure you completely understand the material!

Step 2: Tag your notes

Once you’re done going through your materials, tag it by referencing where you got the information from.

If you’re using flashcards, you can just write this on the reverse side, or bundle the flashcards and have a tag for them. But if you’re using a note-taking app, you can use its tagging functions if it has any!

This sort of works like hashtagging, and the goal is to create a system where it’s easy to find the information you’re looking for the next time you want to.

So, make your tags as descriptive as possible!

For example, I have a General Paper (GP) essay to write on whether libraries are redundant in today’s world.

ZettleKasten note-taking
Any useful information I come across for this essay, I’ll not simply file it under a tag called “library” because that’s too vague. And if I ever look at it again in a month, I might’ve already forgotten what I put in “library”.

I’ll probably name my tag something like “libraries are redundant”, so that any information I find that supports this point is easy and quick to find, even if I want to write this essay months later.

At the end, I’ll have a few tags like: “introduction ideas for why libraries are obsolete”, “libraries are redundant”, and “libraries are not redundant”. All the notes that I took in step 1 are now neatly categorised and I can organise them into a coherent essay!

3.) Charting note-taking method

What is the charting note-taking method?

The charting method of note-taking makes use of spreadsheets to organise information.

Just like how you’d normally use a spreadsheet to keep track of data, the charting method does the same by allowing you to categorise your notes in the columns, and sort it into topics in the rows.

This video explains just how powerful the charting method can be!

When should you use the charting note-taking method?

The charting method is best used after a class or during revision sessions since it involves systematically sorting and organising your study materials.

Which subjects are best suited for the charting note-taking method?

Subjects that have a lot of factual knowledge that require memorisation are perfect for the charting method! For example, science and geography.

How do you use the charting note-taking method?

In this case, I’m going to use Google Sheets to show you how I’d use the charting method, but you don’t have to use spreadsheet software to do it!

Google Docs and Microsoft Word also work, but you’d have to create your own tables.

Let’s say I’m studying different types of fruits. “Type of fruit” will then be my main topic.

There are plenty of ways to categorise fruits: by their colour, how many seeds they contain, etc.

Find categories (columns) and subtopics (rows) that make sense to you—something that will further your understanding of the main topic.

For my columns, I’m going to sort the fruits into berries, citrus, etc. And for my rows, I’m going to sort it by the colour of the flesh.

Charting method
This is the table I came up with after sorting the fruits in their respective categories and subtopics. Start by inputting your main topic in the top-left cell and from there, insert your categories and subtopics.

Sometimes, categories and subtopics are interchangeable (i.e. I can switch around the rows and columns without making the table difficult to understand).

But for some subjects, these cannot be swapped. Try to play around with the organisation of the columns and rows and see what works best for you!

What’s good about the charting note-taking method is that I can see at a glance where everything fits.

This makes it easier for me to memorise this information rather than just memorising a list of fruits.

If there was a test question asking me about tropical fruits that aren’t orange or yellow, I can pull up this table in my mind and quickly tell you “coconut” as the answer.

4.) SQ3R note-taking method

What is the SQ3R note-taking method?

women reads a book
SQ3R stands for survey, question, read, recite, review—the steps taken to use this note-taking method.

It’s a note-taking strategy that you use to enhance your understanding of anything that you’re reading!

When should you use the SQ3R note-taking method?

Use it when reading intensely, for example, while reading journal articles, news articles, or a comprehension passage!

Which subjects are best suited for the SQ3R note-taking method?

Subjects with lots of reading like English and General Paper are good for the SQ3R method!

You could also use it for shorter passages, like in social studies or history that have source-based questions (SBQs) if you have the time.

How do you use the SQ3R note-taking method?

Before you start, get a piece of paper and divide it into 2 columns, one for “questions” and the other for “answers”. This is for steps 2 and 3.
SQ3R method

Step 1: Survey

This step involves gathering information quickly by scanning the reading material.

There are several ways you can do this:

  • Read the title. Titles are basically a one-line/word summary that will give you clues about what the topic is.
  • Skim the first and last sentences of every paragraph. Often, these are enough to summarise what said paragraph is talking about.
  • Scan for headings and subheadings. Sometimes, articles do include these and this is an alternative to reading the first and last sentences of paragraphs.
  • Notice for anything in bold and/or italics. Usually, textbooks would use these typefaces if there are key ideas they want to highlight to the reader.

Step 2: Question

Form questions about the material to keep your mind stimulated. Make sure you write these down as they come so you can review them in step 3.

This’ll ensure you’re actively engaging with what you’re reading!

You can start with simple 5W1H (what, when, why, who, which, how) questions. As you read further and understand more, ask yourself evaluative questions if needed, such as “What’s the author’s purpose in writing this?”

Step 3: Read, recite, review

Once you have all your questions, read the text again, section by section. Find answers to your questions, and write it down.

If you think you have more questions and answers to those questions, feel free to jot them down too.

Next, recite your questions and answers from memory to train your brain to focus. Stop reading after every section and test yourself to see whether you can recall the questions and the answers you wrote.

Finally, review the questions for each section to check if you can still answer them after reading the entire text. If not, repeat the previous steps to solidify your memory.


I’ve introduced 4 different note-taking methods (as opposed to point-form notes and mind maps) that you can now use to ensure you take meaningful notes.

Pair these note-taking strategies with active recall and spaced repetition to ensure complete mastery of subjects!

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