Outline Note Taking. Make Studying Easier

a blank notebook with a pen

It’s easy to reach information-overload at college, especially when the professor talks too fast, or when you are doing final preparations for an exam. To make things tougher your brain needs time to file the information for remembering later. This all adds up to the need to organize the data right from the beginning. Outline note taking is one way to achieve this.

Look Through a Practical Example

Let’s assume you would like to summarize “outline note taking” as a possible examination question, in which case you might set it out in layers like this.

outline note taking table

Notice the main thoughts are down the left hand margin, with the lowest levels at the far right. Let’s use the same outline for the rest of this blog to help you get a feel and cement your understanding.

Introduction to Outline Note Taking

Outline note taking is a study method that uses an outline to logically structure a block of information, and make the details easier to retrieve from memory later. The data could come from a lecture, a tutorial, a textbook, or your own ideas as you get to grip with a topic. Making summary notes is as old as written history, for example the hieroglyphics on Inca and Egyptian pyramid walls. The ancients did not have space to write everything down so they created symbols for the key concepts.

Outline note taking at college has a related purpose. There is so much information coming out of class you don’t have time to write it down. If you did, how would you find it in a box full of notebooks and scraps of paper? It makes so much more sense to jot down the teacher’s thoughts in a logical set of headings. That way, you can concentrate on what they are saying.

Outline note taking is also a great way to summarize a chapter in a textbook so you get to see the bigger picture, and understand the overall message.

How This Method Works

Use a pencil and have an eraser handy because you are going to make changes throughout the process. You need to separate the main topic from the lower order ones. This is not always as easy as it seems. For example, the lecturer’s thinking may not be logical from your perspective, or the textbook chapter not directly related to your major.

Most students put the key thoughts on the left and the minor ones to the right. This is entirely a matter of choice and you can do this the other way around or from top to bottom if you like. Whichever way you go it is important to use a separator between the words and phrases, so you know where one ends and the next one begins. I used a grid. Bullets, numbers, highlighter colors are equally good.

Practical Application of Outline Note Taking

Capturing key thoughts in the appropriate boxes is the secret to outline note taking that works. For example, if your teacher says, “Today we are going to discuss the political implications of the Civil War” you could outline it this way:

outline note taking

There are no model answers. What works for you is right. As long as you are flexible, are not hogtied to an early idea and keep that eraser handy, you will do fine and get your mind around outline note taking soon.

The words in the titles are incredibly important because they trigger your memory later of the details you are summarizing. If you are a history student, then ‘U.S. Civil War’ could be advisable. Which do you think is best: consequences, penalties or implications? This is not just semantics. Outline note taking is about words and their meanings.

You may find it helpful to use ‘cue words’ as further memory triggers where the outline titles are broad. Here’s a worked example to illustrate what we mean.

outline note taking

Again, these are just loose thoughts. Do you remember the definition earlier? Outline note taking is a study method that uses an outline to logically structure a block of information, and make the details easier to remember later.

So next time you do your homework, try taking notes the outline way. See for yourself how useful that will be.

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