Feeling about fifty weeks pregnant on a sweaty, dusty day about a year ago, I stumbled across my old university lecture notes while packing boxes to move house.

When I read through them, I realised I had written notes that were chunky, random, and disorganised. Sound familiar?

Disorganised notes typed out and clipped together

As a teacher, I regularly clenched my jaw whenever I saw my students’ notes. I was so frustrated by their inability to do something that I thought was basic: take effective notes.

After discovering my old notes, I realised that effective note-taking is a skill that needs to be taught (and learned). Are you ready to teach your students to turn their random, disorganised notes into an effective learning tool?

What is the outline method?

The outline method is a style of note-taking that has the key ideas or concepts at the top left of a paragraph or note. Less important/more detailed information is written indented on the lines below that.

This style of note-taking means that relationships between ideas are easily identifiable because the main idea is at the top of a group of notes, and sub-ideas or details are indented below.

Outline notes are also easy for students to use for assignments, essays, papers, and review if they are structured correctly. They allow students to skim read until they find what they need and then look at the details. Skim reading enables students to waste less time reading every single note comprehensively.

Who can use the outline method?

Anyone can use the outline methods and it is the most common form of note-taking. It is easy to use, logical, and highly structured.

Middle and high school students of all ages and abilities can use this method if taught how to take effective notes. However, students will need guidance and a chance to practise.

When is it appropriate to use the outline method?

The outline method is useful for listening to lectures, watching videos, listening to podcasts, and reviewing textbooks. Students will find it easier to take outline-style notes if the lectures or textbooks are well structured.

However, students need to be able to keep up with the content in order for this to be an effective method. For this reason, students who find it difficult to comprehend or process information may need more assistance.

Similarly, students may find it difficult to use this method effectively if the information source is poorly organised. as it may be difficult for them to comprehend and then represent the relationships between the information

The outline method is not useful for subjects that require many formulae, equations, graphs or visual examples. This is because visuals will interrupt the writing and make it difficult to see relationships between ideas.

What does the outline method look like?

Outline style hand written notes

The main idea of an outline note goes to the left of a page.

  • Indented below the main idea are sub-ideas, examples, quotes or further details.
  • Sub-idea.
  • Quote.

When another main idea is presented, it is written as a new note.

  • And then details are indented below.

How is the outline method similar to other note-taking methods?

  • Information is structured from main idea to sub ideas (like mind mapping and Cornell notes).
  • Easy to see relationships between ideas (like mind mapping and Cornell notes).
  • Can be difficult to use for review (unlike Cornell notes).
  • May not be as suitable for learners who work more effectively with visual materials (unlike mind mapping and sketch or doodle notes) .
  • Can be used to create summaries of texts or lectures (like Cornell notes).
  • May not be suitable for students with difficulty processing information quickly. Same goes for students learning in a language other than their first language .
  • Like mind-mapping, students can write notes using pen and paper, as well as on a computer or mobile device.
  • Like Cornell notes, the outline method can be used in conjunction with other note-taking styles. For example, some students find using a combination of Cornell notes and the outline method works best for them.

How is the outline method different from other note-taking methods?

Students may already be familiar with ‘how to’ do it. The caveat: student may ‘know how’ to do it, but may not do it effectively.

Similarly, students may not know how to use outline notes to revise effectively (for example, to create ‘cheat cards’, flash cards, or practice questions/answers). See here to find out more about why these methods are more effective that re-writing notes.

Why teach the outline method?

The outline method is a useful method as it often doesn’t require explicit ‘teaching’ as most students do this naturally.

Having said that, did you read earlier about my university notes? I could have used a lesson about how to logically organise my notes so that they were more effective.

Similarly, is not always the best method for note-taking as it can prevent students from analysing their notes as they go or while (if) they review. And to be an effective learning tool, students need to be reviewing and analysing their notes.

How can I quickly teach my students how to take outline notes?

When I was a student in high school, I didn’t practise taking my own notes. Teachers supplied well-organised notes that we had to copy down. And as a teacher I am guilty of doing this too.

Sometimes there’s no time for students to take their own notes because we have so much content to cover. Don’t have much time to allow students to practise but still want them to learn how to take effective notes?

You have two choices. Give students note-taking practise as homework and check it when they hand it in. Or, do a flipped classroom lesson (read here about how to use videos for a flipped classroom lesson).

I prefer to use a video – I hate marking and I’m not going to sign up for more than I have to! Using videos is an excellent way to get students to practise note-taking for a few reasons:

  • student engagement is often quick and easy.
  • it allows you to circulate the classroom and check students are writing notes.
  • you can pause the video to explain relationships between information and break down the ‘main idea’ and the ‘sub idea’ for students.
  • as a class, you can get students to ‘check’ their notes by asking students to write ‘main’ and ‘sub’ ideas up on the whiteboard/chalkboard.
  • you can show examples of ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’ outline notes.

If you plan on using a flipped classroom, you may like to watch a quick ‘how-to’ video on how to take outline notes. This will help model the process to students.

Useful videos to teach outline method note-taking

Most videos online that teach note-taking are aimed at senior high school or university/college students. However, some good videos that may work for your class include:

  • This video by CrashCourse has a few note-taking styles (outline, Cornell and mind mapping) and explains all three quickly and clearly.
  • Thomas Frank of College Info Geek (and presenter of the CrashCourse study skills series) has a video of 5 note-taking styles .
  • This video by Mariana’s Study Corner explains how she uses Cornell notes in combination with the outline method – she emphasizes how she uses different coloured pens, highlighters, flags, and post-it notes to organise her notes.
  • Studytee has this video about how to take notes, including how to prepare, what to do during class, and what to do after class. This video would be great to use in conjunction with units that require students to do significant reading at home such as novel studies.

Further reading

  • Missouri State University has this pdf that gives basic information about the outline method and shows how to structure notes
  • Oklahoma State University has this pdf that explains advantages, disadvantages, how to structure and provides an example of outline notes


Using the CrashCourse Study Skills videos? Check out our no-prep visual note-taking worksheets and teacher notes to accompany the video.

And check back later for our Freebie Friday post about 3 FREE online tools to help teach outline-style note-taking.

student taking notes with test 'outline method of note-taking'