Reading & Note-Taking

One of the most important skills you need to develop to succeed in any history course is taking notes. It is a skill that few of us spend a huge amount of time explicitly learning.

Each teacher will have a different system of notes that will be expected in their class. Some require Cornell, two-column, outline/dot-dash, or any number of other variations. Spend some time acquainting yourself with the style your teacher expects right at the beginning of the year. There are good reasons why your instructor recommends or requires note taking to occur in certain ways. If you are unsure of the actual benefits, ask a question. Opening dialogue about this foundational skill will be welcome.

The primary key to taking good notes is reading well. Ensure that you're prepared your environment and yourself to read thoroughly and actively, or else no number of notes will help. Copying information from one page to another without any sort of active processing will result in notes that might look good, but you may not retain much in your head.

Why take notes?

Note-taking is a crucial skill in general. It is easy to argue, "why should I take notes? I can just look all of this up if I ever need it." In our hyper-Internet dependent culture today, we rely on our mobile devices to contain any knowledge we might need to work with. Additionally, many of us are tempted to simply type them into a computer. Sometimes, that is the only way that we are able to take notes for a variety of reasons, but the superior method of note taking remains writing it out by hand with a piece of paper. 1

Active Reading

No note-taking system will save you if you read passively, but an effective note system will help keep you on task. Eliminate distractions ruthlessly, focus your mind on the subject regardless of how much it "interests" you, and read with determination to understand. If you don't understand something as you read it, re-read it. Use context clues, use prior knowledge. Don't give up, as you can learn anything that you set your mind to.

Tips for actively reading history texts:

  1. Place yourself in the story. This doesn't mean fictionalize something historical, but place your mind in the reading as if you were watching a movie. Imagine the sights, the smells, and the sounds. 
  2. Visualize complicated relationships between entities (e.g., individuals, nations, or groups), and/or draw out concept maps to arrange information spatially.
  3. Pay close attention to locations and dates, as keeping information in order and remaining aware of spatial relationships enhances memory.
  4. Read either in silence or with instrumental music without a driving bass line (lyrics and intense beats, though they make you feel like you're in a rhythm, can be major distractions - no, Drake is not helping you focus on your work, and neither is Taylor Swift). Use music to calm yourself and place your mind in a mode where it's receptive to information, but listening during reading splits your attention.
  5. Periodically pause and relate something you've just read to something you read much earlier, either on a different day or several pages ago.
  6. Ask questions as you read, whether or not you think you'll find the answers.

Note Taking Best Practices

  • Always put the date on your notes. There will be times that you'll need to remember when you studied something, or only remember what time of year you learned a piece of trivia, but not exactly how you categorized it.
  • Keep your notes in order in a notebook of some sort. Don't take them on random pieces of paper and store them in multiple places.
  • Take a few extra seconds to write neatly. You may have to look back at your notes after weeks or months, and you won't remember what those scribbles were supposed to be.
  • Focus on changes over time and the other major modes of historical thinking used to form quality historical questions.
  • Write notes for you. If you know you have trouble remembering or understanding certain things, don't skip over them. Focus on them.
  • Actively think about your subject as you write your notes. Ask questions and write them in the margins. Engage with the material.

Suggested Formats

Please note: Some of these notes are taken in specialized notebooks. Nothing special is needed, and regular spiral notebooks are perfectly fine. A special notebook may help you put more effort and attention into your notes, however.2

Outline/Modified Outline

Example Modified Outline

This is a very flexible form of note taking that is highly recommended for history courses. The features include the standard outline style notes in the primary column, including highlighted/bold headings. In particular, sections of the book divide up blocks of notes. Off to the right, some space is set aside for extra trivia or arrangement of data in structures that don't fit the order of the book. For example, this section of the textbook listed many dates with valid information mixed in, but to get the dates out by themselves and arranged neatly, it made sense to write a mini-timeline in the right margin.

The most important feature here is the page numbers on the far left. If notes are confusing or further detail is needed, you can quickly return to the source page without hunting.

Cornell Notes

This is a very popular form of note taking that requires you to set up your paper in three sections. About an inch from the left margin, draw a vertical line along the length of the paper to about six lines from the bottom. Draw a horizontal line about six lines from the bottom as well. 

The narrow left column is where you put your subjects (e.g., major events, vocab terms, or concepts). Notes following the outline method above fit in the large section to the right of that dividing line. You can leave the left column blank and fill it in when it becomes clear what each section is going to be if allowed by your instructor.

At the bottom of the page, use the space below the horizontal line to write summary and/or review. Write questions or additional information that's relevant. 

Consult this excellent guide on GoodNotes.com for illustrations and further detail.3

Efficiency and Effectiveness Tips

Developing aptitude at taking notes often requires becoming faster. Some students choose to be more selective about what they include in their notes. Sometimes this causes them to leave out information that does not appear important at first, but might be needed later. Balancing speed and detail is a skill that requires deliberate attention, and won't happen automatically. Follow these guidelines and adjust your process to what suits your learning best.

The 80/20 Rule

Instead of trying to write everything down from the presentation or lecture, spend more time listening. Spend 80% of a lesson listening, and 20% writing notes. Your brain best processes one type of task at a time. Do not kid yourself - you are not some multi-tasking master because you cooked an egg and scrolled through your phone once. This type of overconfidence is what causes many people to believe they can text and drive simultaneously, somehow believing that they are not subject to the same psychology as everyone else. When you multi-task, your brain is actually switching tasks rapidly, not handling multiple at one time, and each time it switches it must reload working memory with the task at hand.4

When you actively listen, you connect concepts, you generate questions, and you visualize information in ways that your brain can call on when trying to recall it later. Passive listening and listening while actively writing have similar effects; sounds and ideas are entering the brain, but without processing them, only snippets here and there remain in memory, and will probably not be retained.

Note: This rule actually applies to a huge number of things in your life, including studying, doing your homework, and completing tasks in the workplace and around the house. It's called the Pareto principle. Take a look at The 80:20 Rule: How to spend less time studying but be more productive from Lanterna Education.5


When you take notes in any discipline, you will find that you write some terms repeatedly. For example, in social studies, some words you will probably write thousands of times include location, nation, development, technology, population, and economic. There are many more, and if you actively pay attention to what you write most often, you can start coming up with a list of words that you need abbreviations for. For example, these words could all be easily abbreviated as follows: loc, naxn, dev (or devt), tech, pop, and econ.

Eventually, you might find that some suffixes and prefixes could also be replaced with abbreviations throughout your notes. Reducing the number of times you write the letters "-tion" (e.g., to "xn" or simply "n") could have a much larger impact on your efficiency than coming up with individual abbreviations for each word that uses it.6

You could skip a lot of these steps and learn an established form of shorthand. For example, Gregg Shorthand uses the sound of words as the basis for the abbreviations. An advantage of using a fully developed system is that others may be able to understand your notes as well. Gregg and several other systems used to be taught in schools and were used by secretaries and reporters to capture every word as it was said. One downside to enhancing your ability to record everything, though, is that you might find yourself reversing the 80/20 rule explained above.

Review Notes the Same Day

When you get home, review your notes for the day. Spend ten minutes doing this. If you remember something from the lesson that you didn't write, or remember a question, write it in the margin. Reviewing helps cement the information, and reprocessing it reconnects it.