Note Taking & Concept Mapping

Taking notes requires more than just transcribing a lecture. Effective note taking requires you to quickly summarize a lecture or digital media. Note taking involves recording ideas and facts that you learn in class to help you remember and use them later.

Choose a method that works for you. No single note-taking method is right for every medical school student. You may need to try a few before you find the one that works best. Chances are it’s going to be the one that most closely matches your natural thinking style. For example, outlining often appeals to students who think in a hierarchical fashion. Concept-mapping might be best if you prefer to visually associate ideas.

On this page:

  • Basic Tips

  • Basic Methods

  • Cornell Method

  • Concept Mapping

  • Digital Note Taking

  • References

Basic Tips

  • Preview the lecture or digital media to let your mind prepare. Simply review the PowerPoint (or any other provided materials) to see what the main points are, the organization of the lecture, or to Jot down important medical terms, and look up those that are unfamiliar. Spend no more than 15 minutes per lecture previewing.

  • Take care of your basic needs. Hunger, being too hot or too cold, etc can be a barrier to taking good notes. Eat snacks often and wear practical clothing.

  • Bring the correct materials for note taking. Make sure you have your notebook and pens or your note taking app updated.

  • Stay present and focused. Be intentional about posture, your position in the classroom, and eliminating distractions.

  • Keep it simple. You don’t need a word-for-word transcript of every class. Lectures are recorded, so you can view them again if you miss something.

  • Think in terms of summary. What is the main idea for each slide, section, or sub-topic?

  • Pay attention to your professor’s spoken cues. If he or she does any of the following, it’s a good indication the information is important:

    • Makes a statement such as, “This is testable information,” or “It’s vital you remember this”

    • Repeats a statement more than once

    • Annotates the slides

    • Defines a theory, term, or equation

    • Provides facts or figures

    • Discusses a hypothetical situation

    • Reviews information from a previous lecture

    • Summarizes the material covered at the end of a lecture

  • Write down your questions. If you don’t understand something, make a note and consult your professor or watch the recorded lecture later.

  • Draw charts, graphs, and pictures in your notes. Doodles help us think about information in a different way, and the choices about what to draw helps to encode that information (Schwartz, 2015).

  • Leave space for new information when you review later.

  • Review your notes as soon as possible. See “Retrieval Practice” in the Advanced Study Skills tab.

Basic Methods

Note taking is highly customizable. Your system should meet your needs. Spend time thinking through what you want to get from your notes. Do you need to record data and tables more than terms? Do you need to write down abstract concepts for further review? As with any study, being intentional about what you want from your notes will help you understand how to organize them and what to write down.

Some basic ways to organize notes include:

  • Double entry journal: split your note down the middle. On the left side write only facts, paraphrases, and summary of the main ideas. On the left side, write subjectively about the notes on the left. Make connections to other concepts. Make inferences and associations to other material. Ask yourself questions.

  • Outlining: Write in a hierarchical structure. Big ideas and concepts are listed at the top of the page. Supporting details are listed below the big idea they relate to. Supporting details are indented so it is easy to see the big ideas.

  • Stacking/ Grouping: Each big concept gets a seperate card, sheet, or note. Everything about that concept goes on that card, sheet, or note. You can also break down difficult or large concepts into smaller groupings or categories.

Cornell Method

The Cornell Note taking method was developed in the 1940’s by Education professor Walter Pauk. It is one of the most widely used note taking systems. The system stresses organizing your notes in a way that will help with self-testing and reflection. It is based on the five "R's" of note-taking: Record, Reduce, Recite, Reflect, Review (Pauk & Owens, 2011). The Cornell note taking method is explained in detail in this video.

Concept Mapping

Visual organizers can help you see ideas in a new way. Concept mapping help you think through piles of information and organize it all into realistic chunks. tootRN offers this quick tutorial on how to construct a concept map.

You can make a concept map with paper, in a digital file, or with mapping apps like Coggle and Padlet.

Digital Note Taking

This is a digital world. You have an iPad. It makes sense that you’ll want to take notes digitally. There is a lot of research out there which talks about the issues with digital note taking. In “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) describe a study which found that students who take notes digitally tend to remember less than those who write them by hand. However, they also acknowledge that the reason behind this is that students who take notes digitally tend to write a transcript rather than summarizing and synthesizing ideas.

Mobile learning expert Beth Holland (2017) adds that “The researchers behind these studies acknowledge that the act of note taking can be beneficial to student learning when used to summarize, synthesize, or draw conclusions.” She further argues that when used with purpose, digital note taking can enhance note taking by adding an unheard of level of organization. It follows that:

*How you take notes is more important than what you record those notes on.*

Best practices for digital note taking include:

  • Don’t transcribe the lecture. It is recorded--you can view it again later.

  • Summarize and make connections--just like handwritten notes.

  • Use digital tags or navigation to your benefit. Create searchable notes.

  • Use multimodal formats. Include snips, screenshots, audio files, and hyperlinks.

Some note taking apps include:

  • Google docs

  • Onenote

  • Evernote

  • Notability


Concept Mapping: An awesome way to take notes! (2016, February 11). Retrieved June 26, 2018, from

Holland, B. (2017, August 17). Digital note taking strategies that deepen student thinking. Retrieved July 26, 2018, from

Karpiuk, L. (2017, February 01). Cornell note formatting and the Cornell way. Retrieved July 26, 2018, from

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen is mightier than the keyboard. Psychological Science,25(6), 1159-1168. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

Pauk, W., & Owens, R. (2011). How to study in college. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Schwartz, K. (2016, June 03). Making learning visible: Doodling helps memories stick. Retrieved from