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Note-taking

Taking notes helps you to process the academic material so that you understand and remember it better.  

You can take notes when reading a text or in class. The purpose of taking notes is not to write everything down, but to write down key points to help you remember the material later on. Therefore, it is important to consider the purpose of taking notes. Once you know what you want to focus on, it will be easier for you to select and note down the most relevant aspects.  

Find your own style  

Notes can be structured in many ways, and you can choose between a wide range of techniques - both for note-taking in class and for notes on texts. Try different techniques and find your own style. You can also develop your own note-taking language, using abbreviations, symbols and “codes” that are relevant for you and your course of study. See examples of abbreviations used in notes

Post-processing of notes  

It is a good practice to post-process your notes, for example by adding comments and references after class, or making a very brief summary of a text after reading it and taking notes. Consider whether your notes are useful and whether your note-taking technique worked in the given situation. Moreover, make sure your notes are saved appropriately, so that you can easily find the notes and the specific information you are looking for. 

Why take notes?

Note-taking can be used to process the academic material and promote your learning. 

Note-taking can help you understand and remember the topic and the material better. For example, notes can help you to: 

  • focus your attention on the content so you understand the topic better 

  • familiarise yourself with a new subject area and new terminology 

  • gain an overview of large volumes of material 

In the video below (in Danish), students and teachers explain why you need to take notes, and how to use your notes actively in your study group, when writing assignments, or in exams.

Taking notes in class

When you take notes in class, it is important to concentrate on what the teacher is explaining and presenting. It is often in teaching sessions that you can deepen and develop your understanding of the academic content, and it can be difficult to divide your attention between listening and taking useful notes at the same time. 

Note-taking techniques during teaching sessions 

The following suggestions for note-taking techniques are especially suited for teaching sessions. They may serve as inspiration, but you need to find out what works for you, and adjust the techniques to your own preferences. 

NOTE-TAKING TECHNIQUE 

PURPOSE AND METHODOLOGY 

Mind map

Mind maps can help you gain an overview of a topic, an article, a lecture, or similar. By linking the sub-elements and presenting them in a visually meaningful way, you can develop your own coherent understanding. See a real-life example of mind-map notes from a student at Aarhus University here (in Danish): 

Visual notes 

Visual notes provide clarity. 

Visual notes make it easier to gain an overview of your notes when you revisit them later on. Visual notes can be drawings, figures or illustrations. You can add detailed explanations to the notes and develop your own coherent understanding of texts and theory. This will help you remember the topic and the material better. 

See a real-life example of drawn notes from a student at Aarhus University here (in Danish): 

Concept notes 

Keep track of concepts and terminology. Writing down concepts and their definitions during the semester gives you a better overview and makes it easier to study for the exam. 

  You can use a concept form (Word) to keep general notes and concept notes separate, thereby making it easier to ‘drill’ the concepts later.

Use keywords 

Record key content as you go along. Write down keywords, theorists and concepts as they are presented in class. Recording key content as you go along, possibly adding your own comments, will help you remember it in the exam. 

 You can use a keyword form (Word) to retain the key content from presentations or slides, and then add your own comments on the topic.

Map out your understanding 

Map out your understanding and any knowledge gaps. When preparing for class and during teaching sessions, reflect on and note down what you have learned, what you want to study in more detail, and any aspects you don’t understand. Use your reflections as a basis for work in your study group. 

  You can use the Nifty notes (Word) note-taking method to map your understanding of the academic material.

Notes divided into sections 

The Cornell method helps you to engage actively with the material and strengthens your understanding. When using this method, you divide your notes into visual sections, ask questions about the topic and summarise it. The Cornell method helps you to make useful notes for the exam. See a detailed explanation of the method here: 

Download the Cornell method (pdf) 

Notes on slides 

If your teacher hands out slides before a lecture, you can choose to write your notes on the slides. Consider, however, whether you would remember the content better if you wrote the words yourself and developed a methodology that makes sense to you. 

Notes on texts

Writing notes on the texts you are reading will help you process the information as you go along and thereby understand the material better. Furthermore, your notes will make it easier to remember the material later on – or to access it if there are things that you don’t remember. 

Note-taking techniques for texts 

The following suggestions for note-taking techniques are especially suited for text reading. They may serve as inspiration, but you need to find out what works for you, and adjust the techniques to your own preferences. 

NOTE-TAKING TECHNIQUE 

PURPOSE AND METHODOLOGY 

Highlighting notes 

Highlight and write comments in the text. Highlighting notes provide an overview of your text and enable you to quickly go back to relevant content afterwards. You might consider using different colours to highlight different kinds of content or to indicate the importance of the content. You can also mark sections, topics or chapters with self-adhesive tabs or you can write keywords in the text margin to divide the sections into topics. 

Orientation notes 

Don’t go into the specifics, but clarify the key content. Orientation notes can help to emphasise the general information in a text and provide an overview of its content and relevance. Briefly summarise the main idea, content, purpose or structure of the text. Later, you can use your orientation notes to select relevant literature for your exam or an assignment. 

Syllabus notes 

Restate main points to understand the topic. Syllabus notes are a good way to acquire knowledge about a topic so you can restate the literature in the exam and/or gain an overview of the topic before reading the text more selectively. For example, summarise the main thesis of the text, recap the conclusions, outline the text structure, or account for the key concepts or studies in the text. 

Assignment notes 

Be focused and selective. Assignment notes are best when you have a problem statement, so you can target your reading and your notes towards your assignment. You can use your reading and your notes to learn more about a topic and ask questions about the parts that are relevant to your assignment, or that you need to investigate further. 

Ask questions about the text 

Review and reflect on the text. Asking questions about the text and trying to answer them while reading will encourage a reflective approach to the text. Ask critical questions, for example about the argumentation or documentation of the text, or ask questions based on a specific assignment or problem statement. This will focus your reading towards writing your assignment. 

  You can use a form for asking questions (Word) about the text so you can easily find your reflections again later.

Concept notes 

Keep track of concepts and terminology. Writing down concepts and their definitions during the semester will give you a better overview and make it easier to study for the exam. 

  You can use a concept form (Word) to keep general notes and concept notes separate, thereby making it easier to ‘drill’ the concepts later.

Use keywords 

Record key content as you go along. Write down keywords, theorists and concepts as they are presented in class. Recording key content as you go along, possibly adding your own comments, will help you remember it in the exam. 

  You can use a keyword form (Word) to retain the key content, and then add your own comments on the topic.

Mapping out your understanding  

Map out your understanding and any knowledge gaps. When preparing for class and during teaching sessions, reflect on and note down what you have learned, what you want to study in more detail, and any aspects you don’t understand. Use your reflections as a basis for work in your study group. 

  You can use the Nifty notes (Word) note-taking method to map your understanding of the academic material.

Oral notes 

Talking about a topic, a concept or a problem helps you understand it better. And the more often you talk about it, the better you understand it, and the more clearly you can explain it. Therefore, it is a good idea to talk about the text you have read or the assignment you are going to write. 

Make audio recordings of your notes 

Record your comments about academic texts to underline the main points of the text and discover any gaps in your own understanding. This is a non-committal note-taking technique, where you don’t need to include all the details, but can focus on your overall understanding. Using your phone, PC (e.g. via OneNote), dictaphone or another device, record your notes while reading. Watch the video (in Danish) below to learn more about how to switch from oral to written notes. 

Note-taking in computationally intensive courses

Taking notes in computationally intensive courses supports your learning. 

In computationally intensive courses in particular, notes and visual representations can be a meaningful way to develop your own coherent understanding of the material. This applies to your reading, during teaching sessions and when doing assignments. 

When you have completed an assignment, or it has been discussed in class 

Write down your answers in a way that allows you to subsequently reconstruct the process. You can also add a few explanatory notes to your solution. This may determine whether you can use the notes later on to study for your exam. Highlight any aspects that you find particularly difficult, or any errors that you could easily make. 

Different note-taking techniques 

Consider the best way to take notes for computationally intensive courses, and test several different methods. Note that new methods will require a bit of training before you can decide whether they work for you. Different methods can help you understand the material in different ways. Therefore, keep the situation and the desired output in mind when selecting a particular note-taking technique. 

The Cornell method 

The Cornell method (pdf) is useful, for example when taking notes for later use in your exams. Below is an example of how to use the Cornell method in computationally intensive courses. 

Concept mapping 

Concept mapping is another suitable method to increase your understanding of connections in academic materials. 


The content about computationally intensive courses was prepared by Tine Wirenfeldt Jensen, PhD in Learning & Education. The example of using the Cornell method in computationally intensive courses is from: https://jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com/ 

Group work and sharing notes

Share your notes with your study group or fellow students. 

It can be a good idea to share your notes from class with your study group or fellow students. If you have been absent from class, or if your own notes are imprecise or incorrect on some points, others’ notes can be a great help when revising the syllabus and in the exam. Sharing notes with others means you can read the same material with different wordings, and this can improve your understanding. 

Online documents 

There are different online word processors for sharing online notes with your fellow students, for example Word Online in OneDrive or OneNote. These are simple and useful tools that allow you to produce texts together from your own computers. You can all write, edit and copy your notes into a shared document at the same time, or you can take it in turns to take notes in different lectures. In this way, all notes will be easily accessible and gathered in one place. Each student or group member can write in their own colour, so you can see who has written what. 

Online presentations 

Online presentation programs, such as PowerPoint in OneDrive, are useful tools for group presentations, as they allow you and your fellow students to create online presentations together. Each of you can fill in the slides you will be presenting. Slides are not just a visual supplement to your presentations in class; they can also serve as useful notes that you can revisit later on. 


See also


Make digital notes

  • Evernote is a free program where you can save notes in text, images, sound and film, access them and search them from PCs, tablets and smartphones.
  • OneNote is an Office tool that is suitable for taking notes. As a student at Aarhus University, you can get free access to the note program, which can be used both online and offline.
  • Onedrive allows you to save and share documents, articles and empirical data.

Tool for brainstorming and mind maps

Bubbl.us is a free online tool for brainstorming and mindmaps. The program runs directly in the browser and is simple and straightforward.