No-Fail Notes: A Guide from A Grade Ahead

Whether in middle school or college, students are exposed to new and increasingly complex concepts. These concepts usually build on each other so that each subsequent class is dependent on the material learned in the previous one. Learning all of this material can seem impossible, but by taking good notes in class and reviewing them afterward, students can master the material and succeed in school. And yet, many students struggle to take good notes in class. Here at A Grade Ahead, we are dedicated to helping students succeed, so we have put together the following tips for taking effective notes in class. Cultivating these habits will encourage student success.

Taking Notes is Essential to Successful Learning

Studies show that taking notes has two important functions. In class, it requires students to actively listen and engage with the material. After class, reviewing their notes helps students retain the information. Kenneth Kiewra, Tiphaine Colliot, and Junrong Lu call these two functions the “process function” of actively learning information and the “product function” of reviewing notes to retain information. While the product function has proven to be more beneficial, it cannot happen without good notes! 

Before Class

The best note-taking practices start before class. Here are a few habits students should develop before going to class.

Get Organized:

First things first. Organization is the key to taking good notes in class. If you can’t find the information, you can’t review it later. Students should dedicate a separate notebook or a separate section of a notebook for each class.

We recommend color-coding the notebooks and notes by subject or using different colored tabs for each section of the notebook. That will help students locate the information for each subject more easily later. Similarly, investing in colored pens and highlighters will also help students color-code their notes later.

Dating notes is also crucial. At the start of each class, students should put the date and the topic at the top of the page.

Preview the Material:

The second key pre-class practice is to preview the unit or topic that will be covered in class that day. Many teachers provide syllabi or overviews of the entire course at the start of each semester or year. This overview tells students what topics will be covered and when. Therefore, consulting the syllabus each week will give students an idea of what will covered in class.

Completing the reading assignments before class is another excellent way to preview the subject. At a minimum, students should read the introduction and the section headings in the textbook chapters. By completing reading the assignment or at least familiarizing themselves with it, students will know something about what they will be learning in class, which will help them listen for the important details in the lecture.

Review Notes from the Previous Class:

Reviewing the notes from the previous class will also give students an idea of what to expect and help them listen for essential ideas in the lecture.


Studies now show that successful students take complete notes, which include key adjectives, examples, and exceptions in addition to the major concepts. Kiewra, Colliat, and Lu use the example of a teacher stating that “monsoons are likely in western coastal areas.” If the student writes: “monsoons occur in coastal areas,” they have missed a key detail about monsoons and will not be able to accurately recall the information. Taking complete notes in a fast-paced lecture class, though, can be difficult. Here are a few ideas about how to take and organize thorough notes in class.

Learn How to Paraphrase:

Although students must include key adjectives in their notes, it is a good idea to avoid quoting teachers directly. Paraphrasing puts quotations in your own words, which serves two purposes. First, it avoids plagiarism, which is when quotations are used without proper citations. Plagiarism not only has serious consequences that can derail an academic career, but it also encourages students to memorize someone else’s words and ideas. Paraphrasing, though, forces students to process the information rather than memorize it. To put an idea in your own words means that you understand it clearly.

Use Appropriate Abbreviations and Symbols:

Learning shorthand, a method using specific symbols and abbreviations, is a wonderful way to increase students’ abilities to take complete notes in class. Students can also learn other subject-appropriate symbols and even create their own. Notes, however, are only effective if students can read them later, so we recommend creating a key to the meaning of the symbols at the beginning of the semester.

Choose the Note-Taking Method that Best Complements Your Learning Style:

There are a variety of note-taking methods, including the Cornell Note-Taking System, the outlining method, and the diagram method.

Cornell Notes are widely used and taught by teachers. This method splits each page into sections. The topic is noted at the top of the page. The left side includes the main ideas, and the right side more details or notes about those ideas. The bottom of the page is devoted to a summary.

The outlining and the diagram strategies both require students to organize the information. While outlining relies on words organized in a specific order, diagraming uses arrows and circles to connect essential ideas.

More recently, teachers are discovering the benefits of “sketchnoting.” This new method helps students visualize the information and organize it on the page as they go. Sketchnoting can be mostly doodles that relate to specific concepts, or it can be any combination of pictures and words. It is another way to take more complete notes and actively process the information.

It is important to choose the strategy that works best for you!

Include All Visuals:

Speaking of using visuals, it is important to make sure that students include all diagrams, graphs, and charts as well. For example, a diagram of the water cycle can help students visualize the concept later.

Listen for Cues:

Being able to listen for the most consequential information can be the most difficult part of taking notes in class. Teachers frequently give cues in class, though, when communicating important concepts and facts. For example, historians usually feature an argument or theme in their lectures that they clearly state when they introduce the topic. Students will know, then, to listen for the ways in which the information relates to that theme.

Teachers also frequently repeat themselves to emphasize concepts and the supporting facts. They will also use phrases like “The four most important definitions are…” and “There are three key ideas….” Students then know that there are a specific number of points the teacher will make. Other terms to listen for include, “Keep in mind…” or “It is important to remember….”

At the end of class, teachers will summarize the key points made in that lecture. Students should be sure to include that summary in their notes.

A Grade Ahead knows that listening skills are important, so we include listening exercises in our English enrichment classes.

After Class

Students’ habits after class also matter.

Review Notes within 24 hours:

Students who review their notes within 24 hours of class retain more information. They are more likely to remember the class lecture or discussion and be able to fill in gaps in their notes as a result. Reviewing the notes later that day also shifts the information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Waiting until the night before an exam to review notes may help students memorize the information, but cramming will not help them remember it after the exam. Since subsequent topics build on this knowledge, students will find themselves at a disadvantage.

When reviewing the notes, it is sometimes helpful to use highlighters and colored pens to color code the concepts and ideas in the notes. These colors can also help students visualize the notes when taking exams.

If in Doubt, Ask:

If students have questions, whether in class or after reviewing their notes, they should always ask their teacher! Most teachers are happy to answer questions and fill in gaps in the notes. Asking questions is also a great way to get to know teachers, who are also more than willing to encourage student success.

While each student needs to find the note-taking habits that suit them, there is no doubt that taking thorough notes in class is essential to student success. Developing these habits will establish a foundation for success both in school and out.

Have you and your child developed a successful note-taking strategy? We would love to read all about it! Please put your story in the comments below.

Author: Susanna Robbins, Curriculum Assistant and Teacher at A Grade Ahead.


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