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Note Taking: Techniques

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This guide includes the following pages: Techniques (this page), Considerations for Note-Taking Software, Citation Software, How-to Videos, and Contact & Yale Support.

On this first page, you will find information about how to take notes, read effectively, and manage your time, including:

  1. General techniques
  2. BEAM Method - reading strategy
  3. Cornell Notes - note taking
  4. Pomodoro Technique - time management
  5. File organization

This guide also has a corresponding zine to help you find your specific note-taking needs. Download the zine here:

Library Workshops

General Techniques

Define your purpose

Notes are meant to be used. Are you taking notes for comprehension, an exam, to generate ideas...?

The practice of (physical) note taking promotes metacognition, while spending 5 minutes with your notes on the same day provides immediate review to enhance learning.

General reading and note-taking strategy: Don't read every word without a purpose. Instead, make informed decisions about what to read: 

1) skim the abstract, and if it still looks good...

2) skim the introduction and conclusion ONLY, and if it still looks good...

3) take a high level view of the article - find relevant sections (method, analysis, etc.) and skim those, and if it still looks good...

4) THEN read the whole article

BEAM Method - reading strategy

Mark up the text

An image with the words "Background, Exhibit, Argument, Method"Highlighting every word isn't effective and does not promote use or information recall. Instead, make yourself a key to identify key texts to come back to later or to connect to your written notes.

For instance, using the BEAM method, classify phrases / paragraphs according to B (background), E (evidence), A (argument), or M (method)

Some apps for marking up PDFs include:

Cornell Notes - note taking

The general page layout of the Cornell Notes method, split into 3 sections

  1. Record your notes into columns
  2. Reduce ideas to a keyword or phrase in the left-hand margin
  3. Review your notes immediately to get a complete picture of the ideas that were recited
  4. Recite it without looking at it, and if you can't, you don't know it
  5. Reflect by speculating on the implications of the facts and concepts

More about the Cornell Note-taking systemLearn the format of the Cornell Notes system, including videos about the benefits of note-taking. Public access through Canvas.

Pomodoro Method - time management

Within the Pomodoro Technique, the idea is to break down a project into specific units of time, spaced by short breaks.

  1. Decide the task

  2. Set your timer

  3. Work on the task

  4. Put a checkmark on a piece of paper

  5. Take a small break and set the timer again

  6. After you do four cycles, you can take a longer break.

File Organization

With a notes system in place that works for you, whether on its on paper or online, you will eventually start creating digital files. Create a meaningful digital file system that can hold up to years of research.

For instance, organize your files into User: Documents > Semester_YEAR > Course Name or Project.

  • Write down your system and periodically review it over time.
  • Marking any active documents with a flag or a color category can help, too.
  • If you have access to cloud storage, like OneDrive, consider saving files there instead of locally.

Consider organizing article PDFs with Zotero (see tab Citation (and Note Taking) Software using collections, folders, and file attachments.

Things that likely won't work over time:

  • Saving everything to a downloads folder
  • Making meaningful file names... but without consistency or folder structure
  • Using file names like "final_FINAL"

Create a Custom Knowledge Base (advanced)

If you're interested in a fluid file structure, you might be interested in the Zettelkasten Method and/or the application Obsidian. Note that these both have a steep learning curve. If you have defined your purpose as needing a complex, custom knowledge base over time - they might be worth exploring.

See the How-To Videos tab for more information and sample applications.