Top 21 Note-taking Strategies that Will Help Students Score Better on Tests

Note-takingIt is not enough to just teach something and expect students to learn it. Teachers and catechists must assist students as they organize new information within their already pre-existing knowledge about a topic. There are many ways for students to organize new information in through note-taking. Many of the strategies below extend well beyond simple listen or read and copy. Try using some of these strategies next time you lecture and feel free to download some of the templates below.

2 Column Notes: Have students fold their notebook papers in half (hotdog-style) or draw a vertical line through the middle of the papers. Label the left column “Topic” and the right column “Notes.” Some variations could include main idea-details, opinion-proof, problem-solution, vocabulary-definition, etc. When students return to these notes to study, they should fold the paper in half and mentally or verbally elaborate on the topics in the left column before checking their answers in the right column. Try using this sample 2 column notes template.

3 Column Notes: Similar to the 2 column notes with an added column to add personal opinions, observations, and thoughts that relate to the topic. You might have students label their columns Main Idea, Details, and Observations. Try using this sample 3 column notes template.

APPARTS: Strategy for reading primary documents. APPARTS is an acronym for Author, Place and time, Prior knowledge, Audience, Reason, The main idea, and Significance. Discuss each aspect of the document with the students or have them write a description of each topic and share it with the class.

Charts: It can be helpful to create a chart or grid that may help students organizer the information they are reading or hearing in specific ways.

Chunking: It is cognitively easier to remember things that are “chunked” or “bunched” together. This is why phone numbers and social security numbers are broken apart in sets of three and four (555-555-5555). This is one reason why the Rosary is such an excellent catechetical tool. We memorize essential events in the life of Christ and Mary through chunking them in the mysteries of the Rosary.

Clustering: A note-taking and brainstorming technique that connects a cluster of ideas to one central concept. See Mind Mapping, Concept Maps.

Concept Fan: Similar to a concept map, but more linear. Concept fans are graphic organizers used for problem-solving. Three or more solutions are written to “fan” out or radiate out on lines stemming from a problem. From there, students can take step back to a broader view of the problem and create a series of other solutions.

Concept Map: Possibly the most popular format for brainstorming. Start with a concept and write it in the middle of the paper. Write a few concepts related to the main concept in circles that surround it. Then create additional subtopics in circles surrounding the supporting concepts. See also Mind Maps.

Copying: Copying is possibly the most popular form of note-taking, yet often the most ineffective. Students copy overhead notes or PowerPoint slides or listen and write down what the teacher says in their notes.

Cornell Note-taking SystemCornell Note Taking: Similar to the 2 Column Notes strategy, the Cornell Note-taking system is divided into three boxes: main ideas in the left column (the “cue column”), details in the right column, and a summary in a box at the bottom. Some educators suggest using taking notes based on the “Five R’s”: Record, Reduce, Recite, Reflect, Review. The summary portion is key to the system. Consider using this sample Cornell Note-taking Graphic Organizer.

Fishbone DiagramFishbone Diagram: A graphic organizer that helps students visualize concepts and details or causes and effect with details that correspond to certain events or concepts. It is similar to a mind map, but resembles the bones of a fish. Try this sample Fishbone Map with your students.

Flash Cards: This is the most popular way to take notes on vocabulary terms. On one side of the note card, students write the name of the term or concept. On the other side they write definitions or details about the topic. You may have students draw pictures with the word or phrase to help job their memories and connect to prior knowledge.

Flow Charts: Flow charts are similar to timelines in that they are sequential, but this graphic organizer is used to display a series of cause-and-effect events or topics.

Outline: Whether students create a formal outline or a list of main ideas and bullet points, outlining is an excellent skill that will help students categorize information. The classic format for an outline is I, A, 1, a, i, ii, b, 2, B, II, III.

Mind-Mapping: Also known as a Concept Map, a mind map is a way of organizing thoughts or a brainstorming technique that has one central idea in the middle with subtopics and supporting details branching out across the map.

PowerPoint Slides: Microsoft PowerPoint® and other similar programs allow teachers to print out copies of their slides as handouts. Students can add additional notes to the slides based on what the teacher describes in reference to the slides.


Reading Guides: It is often a good idea to create a reading guide with questions to be answer or sentences to be completed as students read. These can be a simple list of questions or more visual worksheets for the students to complete.

Skeleton Notes: Skeleton notes are pre-created handouts that have missing parts of sentences. Students must fill-in the missing blanks as they listen to a lecture or complete a reading.

Summarizing: Summarizing is a great way to review notes and organize them in a way that is memorable. Often there is an organizing principle that can be used to recall the main ideas and details in one’s notes.

Storyboarding: A visual way to represent a series of events in a reading or lecture. Storyboarding is something move producers use to develop films. Storyboards are a series of pictures that represent how a story plays out.

Timelines: Timelines consist of a line with incremental dates and lines indicating a date and an event that corresponds to that date.

(Photo by Caitlinator)

These note-taking strategies are some of the many teaching strategies included in the free ebook The Religion Teacher’s Guide to Lesson Planning. To receive your free copy, sign up for The Religion Teacher newsletter today by filling out this sign-up form.


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Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher. He is the Digital Marketing Manager at Ave Maria Press and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach, and Praying the Angelus.


  1. Sandra C. Figueroa says:


    I have been an educator in public education for 25 years and I have been thinking about becoming a Religious educator. I have also been an elementary principal. What words of wisdom can you share with me regarding this next journey in my life?


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