Note-Taking for University Students

Don't try to write down every word

For most lectures, you will have access to slidesets, signposting to key papers and often a recording of the session to go back to at any time after the live event. In addition to this, not everything your lecturer says is the final word on a topic, or the only time they will say it. In short, you don't need to make a note of everything that is said. 

Having said that, there is evidence that having a pencil or pen in your hand and transferring key concepts from what you hear, into something you can paraphrase or summarise and then putting that personal version of this knowledge down on paper can have a role in an effective learning process. 

The skill is finding the right balance of listening and engaging with noting down key concepts that you want to be reminded of after the event. Try different methods (e.g. computer, tablet, pen, pencil, lined paper, blank paper etc) and also try out different mapping techniques (e.g. spider diagrams, 

A lecture is not a dictation exercise where you have to write down everything the professor says. You need to watch out for key points, arguments and themes in the lectures. It's a good thing that lectures are recorded at LSE, so you can always go back and check if you missed a point.

Don't just write words

Underline, Highlight and Capitalise. Use mind-maps, tables, line diagrams and systems tables (see for more). 

No-one else is going to see the notes so draw pictures. 

Make a note of key sources

It's great to write down important facts and concepts so they can be used in subsequent assessment submissions. What's just as important is to write down the original source of that information. Citing your sources is an essential academic skill. 

Do remember though, that you will probably be able to review slidesets again to find full reference information and/or you don't always need all of the citation to be able to find it in a literature search. Often the first author's name (or one of the author's names that is easy to write yet not too common), the date and two or three key words from the article title will be enough. 

Include your own thoughts

If a lecture makes you respond emotionally or creates links with other content you have experienced, write it down. These type of notes are probably more useful than simply repeating what you could find in the shared slides anyway. 

Laptops, tablets or paper and pen/pencil

This is really down to the preference of the student and might depend on practical factors such as the furniture and set up of you class, the availability of plug sockets and how you choose to travel to University and what you can carry in your bag. 

Technological methods are great for quickly accessing full sources and making connections with other content. They are also great for using apps such as Evernote or Notion that can be navigated and used more innovatively than paper and pen. They can however be complicated, and there are many distractions within an electronic device. 

Paper-based methods have the advantage of having less distractions and being more flexible in terms of transport and power. The act of using a pencil or pen and making 

Ask questions when confused

Don't just write down things you do not understand. Ask for clarification when you are confused. If you're not satisfied, you can always meet the lecturer for further clarification during breaks, after the lecture or during Office Hours.

Share and compare notes with classmates

Two heads according to the popular adage are better than one. It is good to find time to compare notes with your classmates and use theirs to update yours and vice versa. They might have picked up some important points that you didn’t. Find software that might enable sharing to take place. 

Different note-taking methods

There is no single best method for note-taking as context can vary (e.g. individual student difference, setting for note-taking, scale of task etc). There is also no rule that any of these methods must be strictly adhered to or cannot be combined. It would however seem to be important to be aware of a range of methods and to understand that note-taking is a skill that can be developed.

The Sentence Method - You write each topic and the supporting details in sentences using your own words. Each new topic begins on a new line with a number in the margin.

The Cornell Method - Divide your paper up into a template and combine in-class notes and themes with post-lecture summaries.

Outlining Method - Organize your notes with indentations. The level of importance is indicated by the distance from the left margin.

The Highlighting Method - When marking-up existing written text, there are also choices to be made and shorthand marks that can be adopted.

Sketch notes - Literally drawing meaning from your reading

Zettelcasten (‘slip box’) notes - historically an analogue system from pre-computer times but the advent of apps such as Notion, Obsidian and Evernote allow the concept of "index cards" to once again be revisited. Being able to quickly search a database, and/or using tags on file items can be a great way of managing information. 

Note tables - 'Tabular note-taking', is a good technique if you need to summarise information that you want to compare, such as a debate with differing viewpoints. Summarising the points in a table helps you to evaluate them, improving your understanding of a topic and helping you prepare for an essay or exam. 

Diagramming Methods - templates to connect insights and ideas

Margin Meeting notes - take good notes from meetings

More on different methods of note-taking

Cornell method

Divide your page into three with a margin and a bottom bar. During the lecture, take notes in the right-hand (further notes) column, using your usual techniques.

After the lecture or seminar, pick out keywords based on the notes in the right-hand column. Write these in the left-hand (cue) column. Writing these keywords helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships and summarise information.

After class, cover the note taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the keywords in the left-hand column only, use the space at the bottom of the page to summarise the most important information.

Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions. For example: Does my summary match the notes in the right-hand column? Does the information make sense? Are there any gaps in my understanding? Do I need to do any further reading?

Katherine Frith's experience of using the Cornell method -

Image from:

Examples of Icons/Keys to use in bullet journals and note books

Sketchnotes look great and everyone should feel that they are able to draw to help the note-taking process become more useful - the process of drawing images requires increased cognitive engagement AND the notes are easier to navigate as well when re-visited.  Having said that, not everyone is as skilled at making high quality sketchnotes and for some it takes too long and is a barrier to note-taking. 

What more people can do though, is to develop, refine and use a series of common annotations that can help content be differentiated both when taking the notes and revisiting them. See below for some examples. 

Advanced Note-taking

Notion, Obsidian, Building a second brain etc

Fote - 


Organize - PARA (project, organize, area, archive)



Further Reading

Zettelcasten - 

Recommended Resources

Books on note-taking

Carroll, R. (2018) The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future. Fourth Estate.

Ahrens, S. (2022) How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking. [pdf]

Forte, T. (2022) Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential. Atria Books.

Apps for note-taking

Apps compared -