Helping Students Take Better Notes

Helping Students Take Better Notes

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project

How can you apply the psychological and historical insights from our notetaking overview to build the practical skills of your science students?

Framework Aids

The basic explanatory techniques in the good-description guidelines apply to one’s own notes, just as they help improve talks and posters in science. And as with talks and posters, the specific constraints that notetaking imposes influence how to focus those techniques on the special communication demands of this task. The “Taking Notes Effectively” checklist “reveals this magic” to students by

  • exposing the common framework (left column) that general descriptive techniques and specific notetaking techniques share, and also
  • spelling out how to apply and extend these techniques (right column) to make one’s own technical notes more usable.

This checklist thus brings cognitive apprenticeship to bear on building student notetaking skills: first expose the hidden moves that “masters” routinely (but unobtrusively) use, then promote iterative practice toward mastery of those same moves by students.

Scope Management Aids

Frederic L. Holmes’s historical study of Hans Krebs’s laboratory notebooks (see “Noteworthy Content” in the overview) revealed one common weakness in the notes taken by young scientists: their scope is too narrow. This failure to thoroughly record (and thereby share) one’s own goals, plans, and struggles is so common a trait among scientists and engineers that historians of science even have a name for it: lack of interiority (Bycroft, 2010). Like so many flaws in (personal and) professional life, however, this can largely be cured with a few well-chosen techniques.

The “Taking Notes Effectively” chart therefore offers students some scaffolding to promote a more inclusive, strategic approach to notetaking. They should still not clog their notes with trivia, of course, but this chart gives them three sets of thematic cues for building more inclusive notes:

  • Under “Organization” (left column) are reminders (right column) to include (and make explicit) the relationships among their note entries (reasons, examples, etc.).
  • Under “Content” (left column) are reminders (right column) to stretch their notes to cover not just claims or data but also the goals, pitfalls, or influences that shape and explain the data (to others).
  • Under “Signals” (left column) are reminders (right column) that lists, tables, and diagrams often serve more effectively that plain text for useful capture of scientific information.

Even students who take conscientious notes (clear, organized, specific) can benefit from such scope-management aids because, as biologist Robert Barrass warns his junior colleagues, “Things which seem unimportant during an investigation may prove to be important later” (Barrass, 2002, p. 11). “Later” might mean simply for an end-of-term exam, or it might mean for subsequent lab or field research (just as in life after school).

Usability Management Aids

The Case of Darwin’s List

A document that captures a dispute between Charles Darwin and his father Robert in 1831 provides a nice history-of-science example of how the techniques listed on “Taking Notes Effectively” can improve the usability of science notes. (Your students can work the historical case sequentially themselves, as shown here, or they can use it as a model for improving their own notes.)

In August, 1831, Charles Darwin received an invitation to serve as naturalist on a round-the-world voyage by the HMS Beagle (the trip that greatly influenced his developing views on species evolution). His father argued against taking the job, however, offering many personal and professional objections, which Charles summarized in these words (see Dolgin, 2009):

Darwin's summary in paragraph

In this paragraph format the summary is not very usable, however. That is probably why Darwin himself arranged his words instead as an explicit list of objections (he numbered each one not because their order is important, the usual reason, but for convenient reference). This is a reproduction of Darwin’s own handwitten list:

Darwin's handwritten list of objections

And here is the same text reprinted for easier reading:

Darwin's list printed


Grouping related content items together under headings that reveal what they have in common is a different standard way to improve their usabilty:

Darwin's list grouped under headings

And a scientist can certainly combine these usability techniques to amplify the benefits of each alone:

Darwin's list using combined usability techniques

So this case illustrates how deploying in one’s science notes the same good-description techniques familiar from other contexts can improve the ease with which their author as well as others can use those notes to achieve practical ends. For Darwin, itemizing his father’s objections enabled his uncle (Joshiah Wedgwood) to draft a specific rebuttal for each point in turn. When presented with these point-by-point replies, Robert Darwin relented and allowed Charles to take the voyage that revolutionized biology.

The Dual-Column Case

The previous examples involve techniques for note improvement that also apply to other technical texts. But special usability scaffolds also exist that are seldom appropriate elsewhere yet often boost the effectiveness of technical notes.

The most influential of these note-specific improvement techniques is the use of a two-column format: one’s primary notes go into a (relatively wide) right-hand column and diverse commentary goes into a (relatively narrow) left-hand column on every notebook page. Swarthmore’s Colin Purrington explains why splitting each note page vertically improves the usability of notes: “Keeping a notebook gives you a forum to talk to yourself, to ask questions” (Purrington, 2009). Using two columns gives you a place to carry on that conversation, namely, in the left-hand column of every page.

This two-column scaffold has been much publicized by Cornell University, and many people call this approach “Cornell notes.” I suspected that this technique predated Cornell’s influence, however, since attorneys and college debaters everywhere often use a similar dual-column note format to capture in parallel what their opponents are claiming and how they plan to counter each claim.

Actually, the history of science reveals that the usability benefits of two-column notes were recognized 500 years ago. In his journals and notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci, writing around 1500, used two columns to align his diagrams with his explanatory text, as this sample shows:

page from da Vinci journal

The arrangement seems a little strange because da Vinci used mirror writing to disguise his text, so the left (secondary) and right (primary) columns appear reversed. Here is the same page flipped over, to reveal his strikingly modern notes-with-commentary format:

da Vinci's journal page flipped

For the science classroom, several variations on this dual-column scaffolding are available to prompt student self-comment.

  • The Basic Template.Blank templates on to which students can take their own “Cornell notes” can be freely downloaded from the Internet.
  • The Cued Template.
    More elaborate versions that add brief cues (section labels, suggested content, short-cut tips) can help younger or less mature students remember how to take advantage of the dual-column note format. 
  • The Customized Template.
    Robert Barrass (p. 11) encourages science students to design (and then reuse) their own customized two-column note template whenever they need special support for recurring data tables or annotated diagrams. Here is one simple example:
    Customized template from Robert BarassThe (linked) HTML file for this case lets your students easily edit this framework to suit their specific note-taking needs.

Together, these three alternatives make using dual-column notes a straightforward opportunity for differentiated learning.

Revising Notes

Using any two-column note template implies, even encourages, “improving” one’s original notes (by adding comments and other usability aids) after capturing a first version. Likewise, ethnographic studies of working biologists have revealed that some take notes in two stages (quick but crude, then redrafted more carefully into formal notebooks). Of course, such editing can change the evidence value of notes in patent or priority disputes. For students struggling to create merely adequate lab or lecture notes in class, however, such legal concerns may never arise and improved usability for themselves may be everyone’s primary goal.


Barrass, Robert. (2002).
Scientists Must Write, 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge.
Bycroft, Michael. (2010).
Adventures in romantic science. History of Science Newsletter, January, 39(1), 20. Online at adventures-romantic-science.html
Dolgin, Elie. (2009).
Darwin vs. his dad, circa 1831. The Scientist. 23(2), 72. Online at