The secret to good note-taking actually has little to do with note-taking. The people who get the most out of their notes are people who know how to think critically and how to be good listeners.
Whether you outline, map, chart, box, or Cornell, your note-taking style represents only part of the process. If you want to get the most out of your notes, do what the masters do:
Good note-takers show up prepared.
Whenever possible, critical thinkers familiarize themselves with new material before it is presented. They read their text or do some background research to create a schema from which to analyze new material. This preparation frees up their cognitive process from simply absorbing new information to thinking about how the new information relates to what they already know and why the new information is important from a contextual perspective.
Good note-takers know what’s important.
Because critical thinkers show up prepared, they are better at discerning what is most important to write down. They are able to pinpoint main points and distinguish extraneous elements from important details. Consequently, their highly organized notes emphasize what matters.
Good note-takers are on constant alert.
Good listeners know what key phrases and transitions signal important information. When a speaker uses direct statements like “for example,” “here are the reasons for” or “and most importantly,” good listeners know they need to write down information. Critical thinkers take special note when examples are given because they understand that examples will trigger contextual understanding of newly learned material when the time comes to review their notes.
Good note-takers are expert body-language interpreters.
Tuning into body language and voice patterns provides valuable clues as to what the speaker finds most important about the material being shared. A change in voice pitch or increase in volume indicates excitement, and good listeners know to pay close attention. They use the time a speaker takes to repeat information to check that their notes adequately capture essential points.
Developing the skills of critical thinking will improve listening skills. These skills build the foundation for developing a good note-taking system because it trains the brain to be actively engaged with new material.