As University or College students, we’re frequently asked to process, understand and retain large amounts of information from different sources. The most common are textbooks, but I’ve also studied from slides, lecture notes and exercise books.

I’ve argued before that studying is not the same as learning. Studying means retaining information so that you pass (or hopefully ace) exams, not that you necessarily know what you’re talking about. If we’re pragmatic about it, successful studying is all about getting information in your head as efficiently as possible.

Studies from Educational Psychology [1] [2] [3] [4] suggest that note taking is associated with better retention rates than just reading or reviewing pre-existing notes. Also, some reports [5] [6] argue that highlighting, a popular technique among college students, is ineffective and offers no benefit beyond just reading the text.

The most popular and effective systems are by far the SQ3R note taking system and the Cornell sheet. Let’s check them out.


SQ3R – Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review

In practice, SQ3R is a method to enhance reading comprehension and convert your notes to a Q&A format. Besides easing the first contact with the material, it’s supposed to help your reviewing sessions so that the info is saved in the long-term memory storage.

Survey is the first step — take your source (in this case a Surgery textbook) and resist the temptation to start reading the chapter from start to end. Skim through the headings; what is the chapter all about? Are there any interesting diagrams, pictures or charts? What does the chapter summary say?

Additionally, knowing the rules and structure of the exam in advance should also be included in the Survey step. From that chapter, which parts are most important for your teacher? Which headings and sub-headings are a priority in order to get a good score?

This step will help you catch a glimpse of what you’re about to study. Instead of getting lost in the middle of a foreign subject, you’ll start the reading and be prepared for what you’re going to find. This should take no longer than 7-10 minutes.

SQ3R survey


Then, Question, meaning turn the titles, headings and sub-headings into questions that you can ask yourself while reviewing. I think this is the most creative part of this method, it both forces the student to question himself and paves the way towards effective reviewing sessions.

Later on, your notes will answer the questions you defined using your own words, thus contributing to better comprehension of what you just read. You’ll also keep your notes for later studying sessions, which are high-yield versions of the textbook.

SQ3R question


Next up, of course, is Read-Recite the actual text from your study source. After reading each paragraph for the first time, check if you can answer one of the questions defined in the previous step. Then, take notes of the answer in your own words, much better than just copying the whole thing. Rinse and repeat until the end of the chapter.

You can tailor the notes to your preference; some people like to outline the material and use a lot of bullet points, others prefer to stick with full paragraphs of their own writing. You can also highlight heading and sub-headings with a color code of your choice.

SQ3R Read-Recite


All this work is just a first pass of the material. The real retention comes after Review. In theory it’s pretty straightforward: ask yourself the questions you defined and try to answer them mentally. If the answer was correct, great, move on to the next. If you struggled to recall or if it was plain wrong, then review your notes and come back later.

Doing this several times over the course of a few days is indeed effective. You’ll master the material, since your brain creates an information retrieval system — given a cue, it’ll pick up the right answer immediately.

SQ3R Review


Cornell Note Taking System

Combined with SQ3R, the Cornell system is just a fancy way of naming this:

Cornell Note Taking System

Instead of taking notes in a plain sheet of paper, you’ll write the main notes in the middle (Notes), keep each question in (Qs) and write a short summary in (Summary).

Reviewing will be even easier — just cover the right side of each page with a blank piece of paper and try to recall the answer to each question on the left. Then, before moving on to the next page, review the main points by reading the summary.


Integration with Other Methods

While SQ3R+Cornell work just fine on their own, some specific subjects or types of material benefit from integration with other methods I already discussed here on TheStudentPower. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Memorization of Raw Information: some subjects rely heavily on rote memorization, nothing else. I had to memorize the half-lifes of dozens of drugs before, how are you going to do that effectively if not via flashcards+spaced repetition? It’s easy to integrate it with SQ3R, write a question in the front of a card and the answer (your notes) in the back.
  • Quizzes and Problem Sets: in some review rounds, instead of going over your notes, solve a couple of problems from the end of the textbook chapter or exams from previous years.
  • Mind-maps: instead of settling for a written summary at the end of each Cornell sheet, create a mind-map to create visual association between concepts.
  • Mnemonics and association: you can use a special symbol — I use a small 5-pointed star — to signal a mnemonic in the Qs section of the Cornell sheet. That way, there’s a small clue next to a given question.


Are these Methods Worth It?

The main drawback of this system is that it is time consuming. You need to dedicate several hours per week to be able to apply this method to all the material for one semester. During finals week, it will, of course, be much easier to review and to work on your weaknesses.

The alternatives to note-taking are scarce and rely on just reading/reviewing, highlighting/reviewing, summaries prepared by students from previous years, slides from lectures and a few others. I’d include these strategies under cramming — sometimes, that’s all we can realistically do.

On the other hand, a lot of students just don’t want to invest a bunch of time just for note taking due to several reasons:

  • They do a lot of extra curricular activities and will rather cram and suffer the pain during finals week.
  • They completely hate note taking and feel that reading (and other methods) work much better for them.
  • They study Engineering and a lot of subjects rely on problem sets and comprehension of scientific phenomena, not on memorization of facts and figures.

At the end of the day, you need to decide what will work better for you. If your studying goals rely on retaining a lot of information and you’re having trouble doing it, by all means, try SQ3R. The same goes for people who absolutely need to score great GPAs, invest the time and you’ll get results with this method.

My personal experience with note taking is simple — I use it if I need to get stellar results in a test or exam. It’s without a doubt a great way of retrieving information and streamlining the review process. After a couple of reviewing rounds — question, think, answer, read, move on, repeat — it’s incredibly motivating to feel your knowledge grow.

For the full version of the infographic featured in this post, click here.

John Ramos

Author John Ramos

A medical student, entrepreneur and Science enthusiast. When outside the gym, hospital or conference halls, John does his best to keep up and running.

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  • Really good information. I liked the way of presentation and diversity of topic. Thanks John Ramos :)