Notes on Notes

Five straightforward strategies to help your pupils organize and retain information.

By Noel Woodward

pencil on a notepad

When teachers tell their pupils to take notes, what does that really mean? Since there are so many ways to take notes, and often, so much information to sift through while taking notes, class members without specific instructions and methods struggle to get as much out of their notes as possible. A great way to ensure that your classes are retaining and analyzing the material is to teach them a few explicit strategies. Once they've mastered a few of these strategies, when it comes time to take notes, you can either assign a particular type or tell them to choose a type of their preference. Below are several note-taking strategies that work for a variety of purposes.

Cornell Notes

One of the most well-known strategies, Cornell notes are effective because they ask note takers to come back to their work and make meaning from it. Learners draw a line down their page about an inch or two from the left side. Most of the notes take place in the larger, left-hand column. After class, they fill in the right-hand column with questions, labels, and other categorizing information. They should leave a few lines at the bottom for a summary of their notes. Ask your class to wait a few days before completing the summary so that they have time to process the information. The extra time will also compel class members to review their notes before writing their summary.

Two-Column Notes

While not much different in appearance from Cornell notes or plain notes going straight down the page, two-column notes provide students with a basic level of organization and have the potential for adaptability. For example, note-takers could write vocabulary in one column and definitions (or illustrations of the definitions) in the other, they could note down examples on the left and questions on the right, they could write important quotes or information on one side and their own insight on the other, and so on. There are endless possibilities, and all students have to do to prepare is draw a line down the middle of their page.

KWL Chart

Another well-known note-taking format, a KWL chart shows pupils what they have learned over the course of a unit or lesson. KWL charts are great for bringing a lesson full circle. Class members must think about what they know and pay attention to how they pick up information over time. You can either print out a chart or have kids draw their own, labeling the three columns Know, Want to Know (or Wonder), and Learned. When you begin a lesson or unit, have an independent and then class brainstorm and question-generating session. Class members will have questions to focus on as they read and discover new information. At the end of class or a unit, return to the chart and bring things.


Outlining works well for class members who think linearly as well as students who need more practice with organization. You might help your learners along by providing the main topics and allowing them to decide on the bullets and sub-points. Additionally, if pupils practice outlining regularly, they are more likely to be ready for writing assignments that require well-organized paragraphs.


Another flexible note-taking format, mapping can take the form of a timeline, Venn diagram, mind map, or other visual representation. A graphic representation helps learners make connections and see how things are related. If you are aiming for your class to participate in a specific type of analysis, such as comparison, you might provide them with a template. Mapping can also be flexible. Allow class members to explore an idea by drawing the connections and relationships they see straight into their own map. Later on, if you desire more organization, pupils can translate their maps into a more linear format, such as an outline or Cornell notes.

When class members have an arsenal of strategies that they can access when they are encountering new information, they will feel more comfortable with taking notes and will hold on to more material. Facilitate information retention and analysis across the curriculum by teaching your class a few solid strategies that they can keep in their toolbox throughout their educational careers.

More Resources:

Determining Relevance

Encourage your learners to only write down the most important information while researching by using the acronym and strategy described here. After teacher modeling and guided practice, class members do online research and practice their note-taking.

Abbreviating Even the Strategy

Provide your class with the chart included in this resource so they can use it as a reference while they take notes. On the chart is mnemonic device and examples to help note-takers keep their notes to the point. The lesson described here is about Greek gods and goddesses; however, the strategy would be useful for a variety of lessons

Textbook Trouble

Is your class having difficulty with comprehending the information in the textbook? If so, take a look at this resource! Included is a lesson and rubric specifically designed for reading and taking notes on a passage from a textbook.