Taking Notes

Taking notes is a big part of your history class or any other subject in the social sciences. There is a lot of material to keep track of, and state content standards are rigorous and extensive. Knowing how to take detailed notes in the right format will help you keep up with that content and achieve your best grade possible.

Cornell style notes are a time-proven method of organizing and engaging with historical content. I used them for most of my time as a high school teacher and encouraged my college and middle school students to employ them as well. They were a required part of both lectures and documentary films in my classes. I provided a paper copy of printed Cornell forms for students to use as well as online copies in my digital classrooms.

If a printed Cornell form is not at your disposal, create your own. Write your name and the course title at the top of the page and the subject of the lecture or discussion in the top left corner. Draw a column along the left margin about a third of the way into the page and divide that column into three or four parts. This is where you will create topics or questions that can funnel the content you are hearing or seeing into specific categories.

If the instructor is unclear about those categories ahead of time, you will have to do that part yourself as best you can. Keep track of the information you hear and see in the larger space to the right of the subject column. Write down important dates and places (When and Where), people and groups (Who), important events and ideas (What), cause and effect (Why), and cyclical patterns (Historical Consequences). These were the same themes I had my students use when creating their quarter projects and taking notes on them in class.

Repeat this pattern on both sides of your paper. At the bottom, create another margin where you synthesize the page’s content into a summary statement or conclusion. Then review everything you have written before turning it in at the end of class (if that is what the teacher requires) or filing it in your subject notebook.

Of course, Cornell notes are not universally required or accepted by all instructors, but they are nonetheless a good way to organize content as you go. Organize your notes into sections according to the units of the course so you can use them to study for tests and exams. Color code your notes to help you make connections between patterns of people and events. Use the same color code in linking your class notes to the written assignments you complete in your textbook. The more consistency and connection you can create, the better.

Many people try to rely on their “photographic memory” and feel that extensive notes are unnecessary. I can tell you from decades as a student and teacher that this is not the case, at least for the majority of learners. History tests tend to be fact heavy and historical writing demands detail and documentation. The same can be said for economics, psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and world religions. Copious and well-organized notes are an essential part of academic success in the social sciences.

Save all your notes and other written assignments until the end of the semester after your final exams are over. If the course lasts for an entire year and culminates with a comprehensive final, continue to save and reorganize your notes until then. It is too much to ask of yourself to try to remember something you learned many months earlier. A well-organized notebook will aid you in recall and reanalysis.

Use your notes to help you in constructing essay assignments. Remember that writing in the social sciences is different from the expository or creative writing you might do in your English class. The more evidence and analysis you include in historical essays, the more persuasive and impressive they will be to the person reading them. In history, one can never have too many notes. The key to success is to organize them in such a way that they can help you achieve it.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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