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Successful University Study

Tips and tools to streamline the study process.

Why should I take notes?

Note taking strategies

Here are some general principles for good note taking:

  • Have a separate notebook for each unit you are studying.
  • Avoid looking at the original text when you summarise or paraphrase the ideas in your own words.
  • Always acknowledge the author at the end of the quote, paraphrase or summary.
  • Identify and select – not everything is important. When reading through material, look for keywords, phrases, reasons and details.
  • Do not write word for word – summarise ideas and concepts using bullet points, short phrases, flow charts, concept maps, and diagrams.
  • Use abbreviations and symbols to reduce your notes. Symbols like arrows can be used as a quick way to indicate relationships.
  • Use colour – it will bring your notes to life and draw your attention to important concepts. When highlighting, use it sparingly. If you highlight too much, it defeats the point of highlighting!
  • Review notes regularly and briefly before your next lecture.

5Rs of note-taking

Pawk (1989) recommends a 5-step note-taking process.

During the lecture or whilst reading, write down the important information.

Then, write a summary of the ideas and facts using key words as cue words.

Try to recite and recall all the information in your own words without looking at the notes.

Think about your own opinions and ideas as you read over your notes. Ask questions, then try to answer them. Write down original ideas in your notebook and review them regularly. Use these ideas when answering exam questions, in tutorial discussions, and when writing essays.

Before reading or studying new material, take ten minutes to quickly review your older notes. Skim over the main ideas and details. Reviewing helps you to remember old information while adding new material to your long-term memory.

The Cornell notes method outlined on the next tab is one system that can help to do this.

The Cornell method works by:

1. Recording the lecture in a way that is meaningful to you in the note-taking area.

  • Note significant information and look to record how ideas and concepts connect to each other.

2. Identifying and separating keywords and concepts

  • Reduce the notes to the main ideas in the cue column (this will help with revision later). This is also a place to note key questions.

3. Summarise each page of notes in a sentence or two (This also helps with revision).

The 3 steps to the Cornell method


Cue or question column

Reduce notes to main ideas or key questions in this space












Note-taking area

Listen to content

Record significant information

Focus on main ideas and connections between ideas

Explain key terms

Note your ideas

Use symbols, diagrams and colours to make sense


Summary area.            After the lecture, summarise content here.


Here is one example of how the Cornell method has been used to capture lecture notes (Click to expand).

Note the use of colour and systems to capture connections between the ideas.

Cornell Sample 1   Cornell Sample 2   Cornell Sample 3

Mind mapping is the graphical representation of notes. There are distinct advantages of taking notes this way for many learners.

  • Capturing a lot of information without using too many words, aids retention and understanding. 
  • Images and visual placement can be easier to remember.
  • Mind mapping challenges the brain to actively organise, contextualise and make sense of information.
  • Mind mapping requires that you see the bigger picture in order to make connections between facts, ideas, and details of the topic. These connections support a better understanding of the theme or topic.
  • Using mental triggers such as images, icons, colours and a two-dimensional structure can help memory and retention.
  • It is the process of creating the mind-map that makes it an effective method because it requires active participation, improves concentration, and sharpens critical thinking abilities.

Constructing a mind map

The main keywords or themes in a topic go in the centre, with related concepts branching off.

  • As an example, the image below (click to enlarge) shows that the tricky concept of "belonging" is linked to the ideas identity, relationships, acceptance and understanding. The map also includes opposing concepts such as rebellion and difference.



Pauk, W. (1989). How to Study in College (4th Ed.). Houghton Mifflin