The Best Note-Taking Methods for College Students & Serious Note-takers

August 31, 2023

Which is the best note-taking method for you?

There are hundreds of different ways you can take notes — but not all are created equal.

The most effective note-taking methods will help you not only understand the concepts you’re learning better, but help you easily revisit and revise the material easily when exams roll around.

But the best one for you can depend on your subject/topic, learning style, and even how your lecturer teaches.

So, here’s an overview of the best note-taking methods for college students, how to apply each, and when you should (or shouldn’t) use each one!

1. Note-taking method #1: The Outline method

The Outline Method is one of the most structured note-taking methods, and visually looks very organized.

Add your main points as bullet points, and elaborate on them underneath. For any piece of supporting information, create a nested bullet point below it. Remember to keep your points brief, preferably around one sentence per point.

The finished note should look similar to an outline.

When to use this note-taking method

The outline method is ideal for when you need to jot down information quickly, like during lectures or meetings.

With its clear structure, you can easily see the hierarchy of information, and what ideas correlate to which point.


  • Highlights key points of the topic
  • Allows you to group related points together
  • Highly structured and visually organized, making it revision friendly


  • Not great for subjects that require many diagrams, charts, or visuals

2. Note-taking method #2: The Cornell Method

The Cornell note-taking method is one of the most popular and renowned note-taking techniques, created by Prof. Walter Pauk of Cornell University in the 1950s. It’s designed to make you actively think about your notes as you go along, rather than mindlessly jotting things down.

  • All notes from the class go into the main note-taking column.
  • The smaller column on the left side is for comments, questions or hints about the actual notes.
  • After the lecture, you should take a moment to summarize the main ideas of the page in the section at the bottom which will speed up your reviewing and studying process immensely. The best part is that many people already remember and digest the information while they write a summary like this.
Shown in Goodnotes

When to use this note-taking method

Cornell notes are especially effective for studying, because of how easy it is to revise from afterwards.


  • Helps you extract the main ideas
  • Writing the summary gives you a better level of understanding on the topic
  • Your notes are already logically organized and easy to skim when it comes time to revise


  • Takes a bit more effort when taking notes
  • Requires some time to set up the page

(To help you get you started, try this free Cornell notes template.)

3. Note-taking method #3: The Boxing Method

The Boxing Method is a highly visual note-taking method. It gives you an at-a-glance overview of your topic.

Each section or subtopic of your notes will live in its own labeled box

This method was originally coined by a GoodNotes user, ipadstudying. Note-taking apps like GoodNotes are especially helpful for this method, because you can draw boxes and straight lines without the help of a ruler.

Shown in Goodnotes

When to use this note-taking method

We recommend using this for revision. Each page or set of notes will be for one course or topic. In each of the boxes, summarize the key points from each individual lecture (or subtopic). Label the boxes accordingly.

At the end, you have one summary page of all the key points for that course.


  • Helpful to create during revision
  • Gives you a summary of each lecture, chapter, or subtopic at a glance


  • Not a suitable method for lecture or meeting notes, when you have to be able to jot things down quickly
  • Can be a hassle if you’re drawing boxes freehand (as opposed to using a note-taking app)

4. Note-taking method #4: The Charting Method

The charting method is a great way to organize different items or concepts that all share several properties.

For example, if you were studying up on chemical elements, each row would be a different element, and columns would list out their properties, such as atomic mass, melting point, color, etc.

Here is a summary of this article in a note written with the charting note-taking method:

Shown in Goodnotes

When to use this note-taking method

Charts are useful when comparing items across a certain set of characteristics.


  • Great for comparison
  • Summarize a series of items in a systematic way


  • Not effective for more linear note-taking or notes that follow a story/progression of information

5. Note-taking method #5: The Mapping Method

Another visual note-taking style is the Mapping Method.

It allows you to organize your notes by dividing them into branches, enabling you to establish relationships between the topics.

Start with writing the main topic at the top of the map. Keep dividing it into subtopics on the left and right as you go down. You can also try a mind map format, where you start in the middle and branch outward.

Shown in Goodnotes

When to use this note-taking method:

This method is perfect for when individual points require a lot of explanation. It also works for when your notes follow a linear progression or a story.


  • Easy to create and follow ideas
  • Easily demonstrate relationships between information
  • Elaborate on points without cluttering your page


  • You may run out of space on the page if you have many branches of information

Goodnotes Tip: If you run out of space while writing in Goodnotes, just switch to a larger paper template, or lasso tool all your writing and shrink it.

6. Note-Taking Method #6: The Zettelkasten Method

Ever wanted to create your own personal wiki? 

The Zettelkasten method is designed to help capture and organize knowledge for long-term reference and development. You write one idea or learning onto one card (a "zettel"), and store it in a box (a "kasten"). You create connections between note cards with tags. In this way, you create a growing encyclopedia of knowledge over a certain topic.

These aren't the type of notes for recording lectures or meetings, but works well for accumulating knowledge on specific topics over time.

Drawn in Goodnotes

When to use this note-taking method:

While you wouldn’t use the Zettelkasten note-taking method during a biology lecture, you could create a Zettelkasten at the beginning of your degree and continuously add your learnings about biology throughout the four years. 


  • Great way to create a homebase for your knowledge
  • Easy to review, as notes are concise


  • Can take some time to set up if you want to do it digitally

7. Note-taking Method #7: Mind Mapping

A mind map is a visual way to show information and ideas. It starts with a central topic and uses branches and sub-branches to connect related details or ideas.

Mind maps are amazing for synthesizing new ideas. Without a lot of structure, you can let your ideas flow from one to the next, and see where it takes you.

When to use this note-taking method

Mind maps are great to use as a revision method or brainstorming aid. Simply put down everything that comes to mind, and create connections between them.


  • Break down large ideas into smaller pieces
  • Create and discover new connections between different ideas
  • Visually presents ideas and how different elements are related


  • Not the best for recording meetings or lectures in the moment

Curious about the app featured in this article?

Goodnotes is one of the most popular note-taking apps for handwritten notes on the iPad — especially amongst students. With GoodNotes you can:

  • Take handwritten notes and search them afterwards
  • Annotate your PDF or PowerPoint lecture slides or articles
  • Easily organize your notes into notebooks, folders, and keep everything synced across your iPad, Mac, and iPhone

Get Goodnotes for free today, and start taking more effective notes!

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