By Sean Alexander

Everyone knows that it’s important to take notes during class and use them to study for exams. However, students don’t always learn how to create and use notes effectively. You might find yourself frantically scribbling down everything your teacher says, leaving you with pages of indecipherable notes. Or you might be frustrated to realize that you didn’t take notes on a key concept you needed to know for a test. You can master the art of effective note-taking with the outline method. This popular approach involves sorting notes into a structured format and using indented bullet points to make connections between ideas. The outlining method has numerous benefits and uses for students of all ages.


What Is the Outline Note-Taking Method?

What is outlining? This term refers to the process of organizing information into a hierarchical structure. Outlines typically include key ideas, supporting details, and other critical information. Many teachers encourage students to create outlines as roadmaps for research papers.

The outline method of note-taking is similar to outlining a paper, except you include notes taken from a lecture or textbook instead of your original ideas. This approach uses a series of hierarchical indentations to organize your notes into a logical and structured format.

What is an outline supposed to look like? Say your English teacher gives a lecture about different genres of literature. Here’s an example of outline notes you could take:

  1. Romance
  • Romance tropes
    • Meet-cute scene
    • Couple who falls in love
      • Enemies to lovers trope
      • Opposites attract
      • Forbidden romance
    • Happily ever after ending
  • Popular examples
    • Pride and Prejudice
    • Twilight
    • Romeo and Juliet
  1. Horror
  • Horror tropes
    • Creepy setting
      • Cabin in the woods
      • Haunted mansion
      • Hotel
    • Scary villain
      • Vampires
      • Ghosts
  • Popular examples
    • Dracula
    • The Shining

Some people use indented letters, numbers, or Roman numerals to organize key concepts when creating outline method notes. Others prefer to streamline their note-taking by only using bullet points. There’s no right or wrong way to take notes, so use the outline format that works best for you.

Using outline methods can improve academic performance by speeding up the learning process. As you create your outline, you’ll actively engage with the material and draw connections between concepts. You may also find it easier to recall ideas later by visualizing where you placed them in your outline.

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Who Should Use the Outline Method of Note-Taking?

Many students can use the outline method to take fast and effective notes. Here are a few scenarios where this approach comes in handy:

  • Listening to Lectures. Teachers often organize their lectures logically and include key concepts in their PowerPoints. You can easily add notes to an outline template while listening to your instructor speak.
  • Reading Textbooks. Most textbooks use headings, sections, and other elements to present information in a structured format. Using the outlining method, you can quickly take notes on the most important concepts.
  • Analyzing Media. You may need to read novels or watch films for your classes. The outline note-taking method allows you to keep track of key characters, themes, and symbols.
  • Preparing for Exams. Rewrite traditional notes in an outline format when studying for an exam so you can review them more quickly.

However, the outlining method does have a few limitations. For instance, this system is less effective for classes that involve extensive formulas, diagrams, or visual aids. As a result, you may need to use another approach to take notes for chemistry, math, and physics classes.

You may also find it challenging to create a cohesive outline if the material doesn’t follow a logical format. For example, a meandering lecture or confusing novel may not have identifiable key points and subpoints. Additionally, visual learners may prefer a note-taking strategy that allows them to draw diagrams, such as the mapping method.

Steps for Using the Outline Format for Effective Notes

The outline method is simple and widely accessible. Follow these five steps to organize your notes into an outline format.

Choose Your Note-Taking Tools

You can use digital or physical tools to create your outline notes. Many students use laptops to speed up the note-taking process and produce legible notes. Also, digital tools make it easy to rearrange notes to create the most logical hierarchies.

However, studies suggest that people who handwrite their notes are more likely to memorize the information than people who type them. Thus, investing in a traditional notebook and pencil could help you study more effectively for tests.

Identify the Main Topics From the Lecture

Start by picking out the key concepts from the lecture or textbook. Look for headers and words that appear frequently throughout the material. You can also identify critical topics by signal phrases, such as “the first argument” and “another key point.”

Write Down the Key Ideas on a Separate Line

Create a keyword outline that lists each central concept on a separate line on the far left side of the page. You can number these topics or use bullet points, depending on your preference.

Indent to the Right and Write Down the Subtopics for Each Main Topic

Under each main point, you’ll use indented bullet points to list the subtopics for each key concept. All subtopics should be indented once to the right to distinguish them from the main ideas.

Continue Adding Subtopics Until You Have All of the Important Information

The indented part of an outline can also include additional layers of bullet points beneath each subtopic. These bullet points include supplementary details related to their associated subheadings.

Choose the Best Method of Note-Taking For Your Learning Style

Taking effective notes is one of the most essential study skills for students of all ages. Writing down and reviewing key concepts helps learners engage with the material and cement it in their memory.

The outline form of note-taking is one popular approach, but students can use many methods to create well-organized notes. Alexander Tutoring helps learners identify the best note-taking methods based on their learning styles, preferences, and abilities. We also teach effective study skills that promote academic success and reduce test anxiety. Get in touch today to learn more about how our expert tutors can help you enhance your note-taking and study skills.


  • Sean Alexander

    COMMAND PILOT, OWNER Sean has been a professional educator for 15 years and has taught math, physics, and astronomy at all levels.  His experience ranges from working at a high school for severe learning differences to teaching advanced physics at Stanford.  After completing his graduate work in theoretical physics Sean founded Alexander Tutoring, with the mission of revealing the deep connections between math and nature to as many students as possible. 

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