Useful Tips for Effective Note Taking

When teaching on the Diploma course, I often see students trying to write down everything that is discussed in class. Now you may be able to write down every single thing that is said, but this type of note taking is rarely the best way to learn or remember information. Effective note taking is a skill, and there are different theories and techniques that you can try in order to develop the style that suits you best. We will start by considering three widely used strategies.

1)    Visual Aids – Visual study aids can help you process new information. I often make a set of “skeleton” notes that contain key words and topic headings and then create a more detailed mind map as a study aid. Below is an example of a very basic mind map on marriage. This visual aid just highlights key topics. If you want to exercise your creativity, you could make further summary notes on each topic. 

2)    Cornell Method – This method encourages you to condense and organise your notes. Using this system, you break down your notes into three sections. The right-hand column provides a space for you to summarise the topic. You record key words and concepts in the column on the left. The summary at the bottom of the page can help you to quickly review a topic and boost your memory. An example diagram from is below.

3)    Symbols and Abbreviations – If you cannot stop yourself from writing everything, then try to give your hand a break by using shorthand. There are, of course, widely used methods of shorthand such as the Pitman method, but there is nothing wrong with you creating your own language with symbols and other abbreviations. For example A for appeal, B for breach, C for contract, D for Defendant and so on.

Contents of your notes

The strategies above provide a solid basis for writing notes. With the limited time you will have to summarise key points, you should consider:

•    Jotting down the legal topic and any subtopics. For example, if you are studying what makes a valid contract, your main topics would be offer, acceptance, consideration, capacity, intention, formality and legality.

•    Underlining essential information for each topic. In law, this can often be a reference to a case or piece of legislation.

•    Making extra notes in the margins after class when you are studying your online Diploma course notes at home. 

Of course, not everyone agrees that taking notes in class is the best use of time. On the Diploma course, it is entirely acceptable to make no notes in class. If your style of learning is to simply listen to the discussion and try to work out the full meaning of what is being taught, then you should stick with what has worked for you in the past. It might be the case that you prefer to take notes at home in your own time, which is easy to do as you have access to detailed online course materials in your membership area.
Next steps

Hopefully we have suggested some better ways to do things; but unfortunately there is no quick fix solution to note taking and studying successfully. Whatever your preferred learning style, consider these three action points that might help you improve not only how you take notes, but how you learn overall:

•    Evaluate your current method of taking notes both in class and at home;

•    Try using the note-taking strategy which appeals to you most; and

•    Take advantage of technology, using the different types of notes and resources provided by the Institute to help you learn a topic.