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Take Great Notes in Class

Handwriting notes, besides perhaps being less distracting, might allow students to retain information better.

Whether you’re an EMT student, paramedic student, medical student, or just taking a course or class, at some point you’ll need to take notes. Is your note-taking as efficient as it could be? This article will outline several systems you can use to take and review effective notes that help you learn and retain information.

By Hand or Laptop?

It’s a personal preference whether to take notes via your laptop or handwritten notes on paper. The advantages of a laptop include faster entry (for those who type fast), paper-free searchable storage, and the ability to hyperlink. Disadvantages of the laptop include the possibility of distraction (checking e-mail, social media), battery life, and lacking the ability to quickly draw graphs or other sketches.

Handwriting notes, besides perhaps being less distracting, might allow students to retain information better. As noted by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University, “the students who were taking longhand notes in our studies [are] forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”1

Here are four popular note-taking systems to consider:

The Outline Method

In this method the instructor gives students an outline or copy of their slide deck in advance. Using this as the foundation, the student follows along and adds details during the lecture. If you use this system, be sure to write neatly and highlight important details the instructor emphasizes. If the instructor gives you copies of the slide decks, the text is often quite small. Consider setting up a parallel outline on a separate sheet of paper to enlarge what you cannot read. If you’re using a laptop, you can make a copy of the slide deck using Google Slides and take notes in the notes section for later review.

The Cornell Method

The Cornell method of note-taking has the user create two columns. The first is about 70% of the space of the page, and the second the remaining 30%. The goal of the Cornell system is to record information, reflect on what was written, and then review. You take notes in the 70% column during the class, focusing on key words, vocabulary, emphasized points, and data. As soon as possible after the class, you use the 30% side to elaborate, add details from the readings, formulate further questions, highlight, and draw conclusions about significant information.

The CUES+ Method

Similar to the outline method, the CUES+ method uses particular coding and process to chunk your information. CUES+ stands for:

  • Cluster: Put your information in like places, typically with 3–6 main points;
  • Use teacher cues: Listen for the instructor to say things like, “This is an important point to remember”;
  • Enter: Utilize key vocabulary;
  • Summarize: After the lecture go back and write a brief summary of what you heard;
  • +: Utilize abbreviations and symbols you understand to get thoughts down quickly.

Sketch Notes

According to author Nichole Carter, sketch notes are symbols, icons, handwriting, subtitles, and quotes presented visually to help the brain remember information. There are two kinds of sketch noting, real time and revisited. In real time you use simple sketches in an outline mode and focus on your listening skills during a lecture. In the revisited mode, you take your time going through your notes after class and let simple art support your structure. Five quick tips Carter offers when using sketch notes:2

  • If you hear a name, draw a stick figure and write their name;
  • If you hear an important number, draw it on a chart;
  • If you hear a list, draw arrows to a map;
  • If you hear a history or steps to a process, draw a flowchart or timeline;
  • If you hear comparisons or contrasts, draw a t-chart, dividers, or scale.

Final Thoughts

No matter what system you employ, a few key ideas will help you use your notes effectively as a learning tool. First, sit at the front of the room. Being close will allow you to hear better and make eye contact with the instructor, keeping you more engaged. Next, don’t write every word down. Rather than being a stenographer, use your own words or phrases to get key points. Also, develop your own system of symbols and abbreviations. After class, review your notes as soon as you can and highlight, rewrite, and add details. Further, if there were readings assigned, connect your readings to the notes you took in class.3

Once you have an organized system, your notes will be an effective tool to learn with and from!


1. Elggren A. Why You Need to Trade Out Your Laptop for a Pencil and Paper. Medium, 2018 Oct 17;

2. Carter N. Sketchnoting in the Classroom: A Practical Guide to Deepen Student Learning. Portland, OR: International Society for Technology in Education, 2019.

3. University of Iowa, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of History. Taking Lecture Notes,

Barry A. Bachenheimer, EdD, FF/EMT, is a frequent contributor to EMS World. He is a career educator and university professor. Active in EMS since 1986, he is currently a firefighter with the Roseland (N.J.) Fire Department and an EMT with the South Orange (N.J.) Rescue Squad. He is also an instructor at the National Center for Homeland Security and Preparedness in New York. Reach him at


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