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Styles of notesDifferent ways of taking notes

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The main reason for taking notes in a lecture is to be able to use them later, for example in exams or in your academic writing. It is therefore important not only for you to understand how to note the main points accurately, but also how to note them with a clear organisation, which the relationship between the ideas clearly shown. This page describes two different ways to organise your notes, namely linear notes and pattern notes. It also gives information on a very common method of note-taking, the Cornell Method.

Linear notes

Linear notes are the simplest and therefore the most common style of notes, both for reading and listening. The word linear is the adjective of the word line, which indicates that these notes are written down the page, one line after the other. This type of notes is sometimes called outline notes as they are similar in format to the outline of an essay. Two common features of this style of notes are the use of:

  • numbering or lettering;
  • indentation.

The use of numbering/lettering and indentation is important to help distinguish the main points from the minor ones. The use of indentation also helps to make the information more visual, which is useful for visual learners (although of course linear notes are not as visual as pattern notes, described in more detail below). An example of linear notes, for information on this page, is given below.

  1. Linear notes
         - go down the page
         - use letters/numbers
         - use indenting

  2. Pattern notes
         - more visual
         - several types
                  a) Spidergram
                  b) Flowchart
                  c) Table
                  d) Tree diagram

From the above, it can easily be seen that there are two main topics (linear notes and pattern notes). These are indicated both by the use of numbering (1, 2) and indenting (all the other information is moved across the page, to the right of these ideas). Both of the main ideas have several supporting points. As these are not in any kind of sequence or order, there is no need to use lettering or numbering, and in this case a dash is used to indicate each point. For the second main point (pattern notes), four types are given, indicated by a combination of lettering (a, b, c, d) and indenting.

When using lettering, it is possible to use capital or small letters, or large or small roman numerals, as shown in the table below.

Numbers1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ...
Large roman numeralsI, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, ...
Small roman numeralsi, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii, viii, ix, x, ...
Capital lettersA, B, C, D, E, ...
Small lettersa, b, c, d, e, ...

These can be used in any combination which you prefer, though for clarity it is important to make sure each level uses a different system. The notes above, using a different combination of numbers/letters, could look like this:

  A. Linear notes
         - go down the page
         - use letters/numbers
         - use indenting

  B. Pattern notes
         - more visual
         - several types
                  i. Spidergram
                  ii. Flowchart
                  iii. Table
                  iv. Tree diagram

The main advantage of linear notes is that they are usually very clear, especially when there is a clear structure to the lecture (or reading text, for reading and note-taking). The main disadvantage is that they are not as interesting or visual as pattern notes, which means the information may be less memorable.

Pattern notes

Pattern notes are notes which are not linear and therefore have some distinctive pattern. There are four main types considered here, which are spidergram, table, flowchart and tree diagram.


A spidergram, also known as a mind map, is a diagram in which ideas are linked to each other by lines, usually starting from the middle and working outwards, making the diagram look a little like the web of a spider (spidergram is a combination of the words spiderweb and diagram). Although it can be used at any time, it is best when there is one central topic with several sub-topics related to it. An example of a spidergram, for information on this page, is given below. In this spidergram, the central topic is pattern notes, and there are four sub-topics, namely the four types of pattern notes described on this page.


The advantages of this style of notes are that it is quick and easy to make, and it is very visual, which makes it ideal for visual learners. It is also easy to add information later. It tends to be briefer than linear notes, which could be both an advantage and a disadvantage.


Another type of pattern notes is a table. This is most commonly used when two different things are compared, and is therefore usually only used for part of a lecture (or reading text). It can be difficult to use this style of notes when listening, as when you are listening you need to make a very quick decision of which style to use, though it is easier to use when reading and note-taking since you have more time to think before making notes. If two things are being compared, this is definitely an effective form of notes to use, as it makes the similarities and differences very clear. Below is an example of a table, for information on this page.

Linear notesPattern notes
Connection between ideas very clear
Not very visual
May be a little boring
Can be difficult to add info later
Connection between ideas quite clear
Very visual
Usually quite interesting
Usu easy to add info later


A flowchart is useful if you want to show a process or a change over time. A flowchart usually has steps shown in boxes connected by arrows which show the order. Below is an example of a flowchart, for the process of writing an exam essay.


Tree diagram

A tree diagram is another form of pattern notes. It is called a tree diagram because, if turned upside-down, it resembles a tree. This type of notes has a specific use, which is to show classification. Below is an example of a tree diagram for information on this page. Here it can be seen that notes can be divided into two types, linear and pattern. Pattern notes can be sub-divided into four main kinds, namely spidergram, table, flowchart and tree diagram.

tree diagram

The Cornell Method

The Cornell Method is a particular method of note-taking, rather than a separate style. It was developed in the 1950s by a professor at Cornell University, and is especially common at universities in the USA. For this method, the page is divided into three areas: notes go on the right side of the page; questions are added on the left; while a summary is added at the end. The space on the right for notes is the largest area. This is a method of note-taking rather than a style since the two styles described above, linear and pattern, can both be used within the Cornell Method when noting the main points. The main advantages of this method are that it is specifically designed for making notes in a lecture, and the questions ensure a more active engagement with the lecture. The main disadvantage is that it can take some time to learn how to take notes using this method.

The page format for Cornell notes is shown below.





In short, there are two main styles of notes, linear notes and pattern notes, with pattern notes sub-divided into four main kinds, which are spidergram, table, flowchart and tree diagram. Whichever way you use, you should still try to make the main points as clear as possible, and ensure the connections between ideas are also clear, so that you will be able to use your notes later. Both styles can use headings, underlining, highlighting and space to help make these relationships clear. Although some styles of notes are better suited to particular functions, for example a table when comparing or contrasting, or a flowchart for showing a process, which style you choose will depend on your ability to recognise the best type to use, and also your own personal preference.


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Below is a checklist for different styles of note-taking. Use it to check your understanding of the information on this page.

Item OK? Comment
I know what linear notes are
I know why it is important to use numbering/lettering and indenting for linear notes
I know what pattern notes are
I know when and how to use different pattern notes, i.e. spidergram, table, flowchart and tree diagram
I know what Cornell notes are, and how to lay out the page if I want to use this style of notes


California Polytechnic State University (2016) Note Taking Systems. Available from (access date 5 April, 2016).

University of Sussex (2016) Note-making styles. Available from (access date 5 April, 2016).

Wallace, M.J. (1980) Study Skills in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp.52-56.

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 15 June 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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