Note better

Remember the university days with long lectures in even longer afternoons? Somehow a metric of being attentive was taking notes – lots and lots of notes. You looked busy and felt smarter. The more your scribbled the better you felt. You used to take notes with a propensity that could make a journalist who forgot his recorder at home envy you.

taking_notesAs the semester progressed, your notebook grew fatter and you happier. You felt confident that this mountain of text just needs a cursory glance at any time and the entire lecture would replay in your mind. After all you wrote it and there is so much of it. Heck, you can even give the notebook back to the professor as a souvenir. So you wade through the semester and slept in comfort with the knowledge that you have your savior.

The only problem was that when you actually reviewed your notes later they did not make much sense. You can recognize your handwriting – after all who can write that awfully bad. But you cannot understand it. You seem to be gazing at this mass of text that is coming out of the page and simply caressing those areas of your brain that deal with solving cryptographic puzzles.

Apart from many other things that can be contributing to this unsavory situation, a major one is the lack of structure in your notes. Your focus was on recording the words spoken – and that too as much as possible. More the better. While it started neatly left to right, top to bottom but soon you were patching white spaces – as if any white space left would mean something missed. You did not realize that your scribble speed was far less than the professor’s delivery, so there may be pieces of the lecture that you may have completely missed in your enthusiasm to fill the notebook. You are neither here nor there.


Taking notes, whether its in a college class, a corporate training or an office meeting, is an art – a nice balance between listening and recording smartly. It makes complete sense to take notes. Your brain is for processing stuff, not storing them. Even whatever storage capacity it has is small, short-term and volatile. As new bits of information roll in, the previous one has to make their way out. If someone is not writing anything down and pretending that he will recall it later, thats hogwash.

However, writing profusely is equally bad because what you are doing in essence is focusing all your faculties on jotting down what you are hearing. It seems more a recording of content from one medium to another without much processing. Its a dump – not an intelligent composition.

Walter Pauk, a Cornell professor understood this problem in college students and devised the Cornell Note-Taking System to help students be effective in note taking. The motivation was for students to take notes smartly so they can focus on the lecture while easily able to review and recall the content later. Its an excellent tool that makes note taking for a raw dump to an effective structured and reviewable content.


(Click image to enlarge)

What Walter recommended was to divide a notebook page into 3 sections (refer to image above):

  1. Note-taking Area is the right top vertical section where you jot directly during the lecture or meeting. This is the major portion of your note page. You do not write down everything – just the main points and themes and use shorthand, symbols and diagrams whenever you can to abbreviate. Only you need to read them later – no one else. This section is an abridged sequential recording of the delivered content.
  2. Cue Column is the vertical section to the left of Raw Notes and about half its size. The raw notes are reviewed as early as possible (say before next lecture or end of the work day) and key ideas, phrases, diagrams or questions are abstracted out and recorded in the cue section. They need to be concise – as evident from the size of the section. The idea is that one can review the cue section and quickly recall the main notes. You should not have to refer to the raw notes again. There are invisible associations between the cue entries and the main notes as well as content that was not recorded. Its just like playing your childhood favorite song bringing back associated memories!
  3. Summary/Next Actions is the bottom horizontal section where a concise summary of the entire content is recorded. For an executive, in addition to a quick recall this can serve as the list of actions he has to take – call Bob about the budget, update the quarterly projections, send email to CEO with meeting summary, read the latest press release. This should be done either alongside the cues activity or as close to it as possible.

Notice that the only section that is recorded during the content delivery is the Raw Notes. The other two are added later. The system is not simply a recording tool – it includes processing and reviewing as well. You simply missed the review part in college which helped you take control of the content. The very act of reviewing and writing in your own words takes your understanding of the content to a new level.

We all have enough lectures – and meetings – and equally large quantity of content delivered to us in one form or the other. It is nice to have a process that can manage it simply and effectively.

Worth a shot in your next lecture or meeting? All you need to get started is to draw two lines on your page.


6 thoughts on “Note better

  1. dear ather
    thanks for sharing. i have been an avid notes-scribe. and clealry a bad one from what i learn from this very useful technique that you have posted.
    i had an added advantage as the topic covered i.e. motivational theories is my area of interest and i am working on it (what motivates a soldier to kill and or get killed).
    mowadat rana

  2. Pingback: My Weekly GTD Review | Thinking Spirits …

  3. Pingback: Note better | Ur Edge

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