Mind Maps

Mind maps are a great tool for visual learners. They are much less rigid and more customizable than other note-taking methods. Not only can mind maps be used for taking notes, they also come in handy for studying, brainstorming, and planning. Here’s how to use this intuitive technique for all areas of your life.


Mind maps start with the main topic in the middle of the page. That central idea then branches off into several subtopics. Those subtopics then branch off into smaller subtopics and additional points and elaboration, and so on, until you have as many branches and as much detail as you need. The best thing about this method is its flexibility. You can draw clouds or boxes around your text, doodle, add color, and change the structure as you wish. You can also keep your map simple and clean and black-and-white, and it’ll work just as fine. To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, here are some great examples of mind maps.

A mind map about how to mind map? That’s super meta.

You can make mind maps with pen + paper or with digital apps. My favorite digital mind map maker is a website called Coggle.


Start with the topic or chapter you’re studying in the middle of the page. Branch off into smaller subtopics– these would usually be the bolded headers in your textbook. Here are some ways the topics and subtopics could be applied in various classes:
  • “Communist Russia” as a main topic; “Government”, “Economy”, and “Society” as subtopics
  • “Romeo and Juliet” as a main topic; “Characters”, “Themes”, and “Symbols” as subtopics
  • “American Government” as a main topic; “Legislative”, “Judicial”, and “Executive” as subtopics
  • “Sustainable Energy Sources” as a main topic; “Solar Power”, “Wind Power”, and “Water Power” as subtopics

Although mind maps can work for any class, they are usually best suited for non-technical, conceptual classes such as history and English. They’re great for getting the big picture, but they might not be the best for writing lots of nitty gritty little details. Here’s the mind map I made based off of traditional outline notes from the Cornell notes post:

made using Coggle

More mind map notes examples can be found here, here, and here!


This is my personal favorite way to use mind maps. My classes tend to be very detail-oriented and there’s simply too much information to use mind maps as my daily note-taking system. However, I still love the broad overview that they provide, so I use them as part of my active learning process to study for exams.

All I do is close my textbook, put away my notes, take out a blank sheet of paper, and try to create a mind map of the chapter/topic from memory. I use a ton of branches and arrows because I attempt to include every last fact I can remember. This forces me to recall all the information, reinforcing it in my memory. It also helps me organize everything I’ve learned into a cohesive structure inside my head. I usually do this process a couple days before a big test and again the night before, and it’s worked wonders for me!



You can also use mind-maps to generate ideas and create a plan of action for both academic and non-academic areas of your life. Some ideas include:

  • “Goals” as a main topic; “Family/Friends”, “School”, and “Health” as subtopics
  • “Business Ideas” as a main topic; “Babysitting”, “Lemonade Stand”, “Walking Dogs” as subtopics
  • “Things to Do” as a main topic; “Academics”, “Events”, and “Errands” as subtopics
  • “Birthday Party” as a main topic; “Guests”, “Refreshments”, and “Games” as subtopics
  • “English Essay” as a main topic; “Introduction”, “Body Paragraphs”, and “Conclusion” as subtopics
  • “Places to Travel” as a main topic; “Europe”, “South American”, and “Asia” as subtopics

The possibilities are truly endless. Go nuts and have fun with your mind maps, because they’re meant to be a reflection of you, your crazy ideas, and the unique way you think. Best of luck!

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Cornell Notes

Cornell notes were invented in the 1950s by a professor at Cornell University. The system allows you to quiz yourself directly from your notes and to quickly reference your lectures in the future. It’s comprised of three sections: the main notes, the cue column, and the summary. The diagram below shows how the three parts fit together:



Split your paper into three sections according to the diagram above. I’d recommend setting up the system on several sheets of paper before class so you don’t have to worry about drawing straight lines in the middle of a lecture. Alternatively, you could print out a template or buy a Cornell notes notebook.


This is the largest section of your notes. Here, you’ll write the contents of your lesson just as you would normally. I usually structure this in a bulleted outline format, with a hierarchy of broad topics and little details, although you don’t need to make it so rigid. Feel free to space things out, draw boxes, connect things with arrows, etc. Put the teacher’s lecture into your own words. Use straightforward language and lots of abbreviations to write more quickly.


At the end of class or later that day, fill in the left column with some questions and cues. Reword important concepts into question form (6CO2 + 6H2O + sunlight energy = C6H12O6 + 6O2 becomes What is the formula for photosynthesis?) Formulate the types of questions your teacher would ask on an exam. Write down vocab words, big events, influential people, and key facts.

When you’re studying, cover up the right side of the page and quiz yourself with the cue column. Don’t simply read each question, think “Oh, I know that”, and move on. Instead, force yourself to say the answer/definition/explanation out loud, and elaborate on your response as much as you would if this were a test question. This quiz-and-recall is an active learning technique that’ll strengthen your memory more than passively reading your notes over and over.


Either at the very end of class or within a day or two of the lecture, write a brief 2-3 sentence summary at the bottom of the page that includes the most important points from your notes. You can write a summary for every page of notes or for every lecture, depending on how specific you’d like to get. Finding the big ideas in what you’ve learned and seeing how they tie into the big picture will reinforce them in your mind. The summaries will also help you find a particular topic when you’re flipping through your notes.


Lastly, here’s a sample notes page I made to show you what a finished product might look like!


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Studying Math

Welcome back! Today’s post was requested by one of my followers earlier, so if you’re struggling with a particular subject you’d like advice on, please send me a request and I’ll try my best to get a post out in a timely manner. Now without further ado, I’ll teach you how to take notes and efficiently study for the mother of all necessary evils, math class.


It can be difficult to take notes during fast-paced math classes. However, remember that you shouldn’t (and probably can’t) copy down every single little thing that was said. After all, you’re a student, not a court stenographer. Ignore all of the filler information and focus on getting down two things: formulas/theorems and example problems.


Mark these with something noticeable (stars, boxes, highlighting, etc) so you can easily find and reference them later.

Simplify theorems so you can understand them. For example, this is the binomial theorem written formally:


Looks intimidating, right? Would you still understand what that means two weeks after the lesson, when you’re studying for a test? Instead of attempting to decipher and memorize that confusing chain of hieroglyphics variables, break it down for yourself into straightforward language. You might say to yourself, “Oh, so it looks like the exponent of x starts at 0 and increases by 1 every term until it reaches n. And vice versa, the exponent of y starts at n and decreases by 1 every term until it reaches 0. And the coefficient of each term is just n choose k, where k increases by 1 every term.” Better, right? Put theorems and definitions into your own words to make them much more tangible and graspable.

Similarly, aim for understanding, not memorization. Try to write a proof for every formula/theorem. If you don’t cover the proofs in class, I highly encourage you to try to prove them yourself. There are also tons of great proofs on the Internet you can search for if you get stuck. Also make sure you know when to apply each concept. Memorizing the quadratic formula is peachy and all, but if you don’t know that the formula can only be used for a quadratic in standard form that’s set equal to 0, you’re going to run into some issues. Understanding the reasoning and applications for what you learn will tremendously improve your retention of all those complicated formulas as well as challenge you to think outside of the box.

Example problems

If you’re really, really rushed, just copy the problem and answer. You can fill in everything in between later.

Ideally though, you’ll want to show your work. It’s helpful to add short comments next to each step to explain what you did and why you did it (“u-substitution”, “multiplied by denominator to cancel terms”, “subtracted 7x on both sides to use Zero Product Property”). Don’t show each itty bitty step if you don’t need it, but write down enough so that you could follow your train of thought if you were to look back at these notes come finals season.

Lastly, make sure to include units with all of your answers, follow any conventions your teacher tells you to (rounding to a certain decimal place, rationalizing denominators, etc), and always use correct notation. Develop these habits now so you won’t be kicking yourself for forgetting to include units on a test, when it actually matters.

After class

At the end of class or as soon as possible afterwards, quickly review your notes and fill in clarifications, corrections, or explanations you missed while everything is still fresh in your memory.


They say that math isn’t a spectator sport, and they’re right. In other subjects, you might be able to get away with passively sitting back and hoping something the teacher says will work its way into your brain. But in math class, flipping through your textbook will not help you. Highlighting your formulas in different color schemes will not help you. Watching Sal Khan solve problems on YouTube without picking up a pencil yourself will not help you.

The only way to become a successful math student is to be actively involved in solving as many practice problems as you can get your hands on.

So where can you find practice problems?

  • your homework problems
  • your textbook
  • any problem sets or worksheets you recieve in class
  • the Internet, especially Khan Academy, IXL, and Kuta Software
  • if you ask your teacher nicely, I’m sure he/she will direct you to some helpful resources
  • if your school has two or more teachers who teach the same level math and use different problems, see if you can get extra worksheets from the other teacher/a friend in the other class
  • you can use problems from smaller quizzes and tests to prepare for midterms and finals

While working through the practice problems, simulate test conditions as much as possible. Close your textbook and notes. Put away your calculator, unless you’re allowed to have one on test day. Show all appropriate work and use correct notation for each problem. Maybe even set a timer for yourself if you’re someone who tends to work too slowly.

If you have an answer key, check all your answers at the end. If you get a problem wrong, attempt to solve it at least one more time before asking for help (see section below).


You can get math help from your friends, parents, tutors, teachers, online resources, or a combination of any of the above. (Or even me, if I’ve taken your level math before.) However, even if you’re completely bewildered, don’t just slump back in your seat and whine, “I don’t get itttttttt” because that won’t help anyone help you. First, as mentioned above, always attempt a problem at least twice before asking someone else for assistance. Oftentimes an incorrect answer is due to a silly error that you could catch by doing the problem again. When asking for help, instead of vaguely gesturing at a problem and shrugging, tell whoever’s helping you which parts you were able to follow, which step tripped you up, which formulas you understood, and which ones you didn’t–  the more specific, the better.

Never be afraid to ask for help! Each concept in math builds off of previous ones, so if you hold in your questions and remain confused, you’re going to have more and more trouble in the future. As long as you start early, practice consistently, and clarify confusion as soon as it arises instead of the night before a test, you should be well on your way to excelling at math!

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)


Annotating & Taking Notes From Literature

Annotating and taking notes from literature is an essential skill for students. In today’s super duper long post, I will attempt to answer the questions: “What’s the best method for taking notes from a novel?” and “What the heck am I supposed to write anyway?”  Let’s dive right in.


A copy of the book

Even if your school lets you borrow copies of the assigned novels, I’d highly recommend buying your own cheap copy from Amazon. I love the freedom that comes with being able to mark up the text and margins as I wish. Plus, I usually enjoy all the novels we study, so it’s nice to have my own copy that I can read again and again. If you don’t have the means to purchase your own copy though, use sticky notes and page flags to make notes while keeping your book clean.

A standard pencil or black pen

I use this for all of my original thoughts— questions, reactions, responses, analyses, etc.

Highlighters and/or colored pens

I use these to indicate important quotes and descriptions, themes, symbols, and other literary devices (more on those later). You can be general or very specific with your color-coding system, depending on how many colors you have. For example, you can mark all the symbols with one color and all the themes with another, or you can dedicate one color to tracking one specific, prominent symbol throughout the book. But don’t go crazy with an entire rainbow— try to limit yourself to 3-5 distinct colors max. When you’re pressed for time and frantically flipping back through your book, I can guarantee that you’re not going to be able to differentiate between Baby Pink and Cotton Candy Coral.

Page flags or sticky notes

As stated, these are essential if you’re not allowed to write in your book. I also use them to mark sections of text that are too large to be highlighted or underlined.

Index cards

Sometimes I need to make a note or response that’s too long to be crammed into the margins. In these cases, I’ll take out an index card and write my thoughts there. Make sure to also write the page number and passage/paragraph you’re talking about so you can flip back to that section later.

A dictionary

Pretty self-explanatory. Chances are that you’re going to encounter some unknown words, especially if your novel is set in a different time period.

Your assignment

Always, always keep in mind the task at hand. Every teacher is different, and your teacher might need you to pick up on aspects of the novel that this guide won’t cover. Plan accordingly and adjust your technique to suit your unique end goals. Your note-taking needs will change depending on whether you’ll be writing an essay, presenting a book report, participating in a class discussion, or doing something else entirely after you’ve finished taking notes.



If you’re studying literature in high school or beyond, the focus is usually more on analysis and less on summary, so don’t spend too much time trying to memorize all the itty bitty plot details. I usually draw a quick story mountain, scribble down what happened next to each part of the story, include page numbers for extremely important events, and call it a day. My notes on the plot are solely for refreshing my memory and helping me find sections of the book; I focus 90% of my attention on actually analyzing the literature using the other tips in this section.


My English teacher once told us, “The first sentence about a character often tells you everything you need to know about him or her.”

Example: Here’s the first time Atticus Finch is mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

“We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.”

Yes, Atticus’s character does continue to develop throughout the novel, but these two sentences really capture the essence of who he is. He’s the calm voice of intelligence and reason, the opposite of physical violence. He is diplomatic and just, able to understand both sides of a conflict. His children call him by his first name, showing that he regards them as equals. These traits define him as a character, influence his actions for the rest of the book, and are all revealed in just the first two sentences.

Most of the time, you won’t even realize how meaningful or prophetic an introduction is until much later in the story. But if you’re looking for a character’s important traits, his/her introductory sentence is a great place to start.

As the story progresses, identify the main characters’ traits, how they change and grow, and the plot events that cause these changes.

Common ways for characters to develop include:

  • gaining/losing morality
  • coming of age
  • falling from grace
  • challenging the status quo
  • overcoming an obstacle
  • becoming empowered
  • discovering him/herself

And some common catalysts for those kinds of development are:

  • shouldering newfound responsibility
  • gaining/losing power, wealth, knowledge, abilities (i.e. superpowers)
  • being prematurely exposed to a great challenge
  • gaining/losing an influential person/thing
  • transitioning into a new place or new stage in life


Themes are the central, underlying ideas behind a piece of work. They are the messages the author wants you, the reader, to take away. To identify the themes, ask yourself, “What is the author trying to express about the human condition?” Topics that fall under the “human condition” umbrella include:

  • society
  • race, sex, and class
  • family
  • friendship
  • war/peace
  • good/evil
  • love
  • lust and temptation
  • power
  • wealth
  • freedom
  • justice
  • death

However, the words listed above are not themes. They are merely topics, aspects of humanity that authors frequently comment on, and any two authors can present the same topic completely differently. On the other hand, themes are complete statements– they cannot be expressed in a single word. In order for the topics above to become themes, they must be attached to some sort of insight into human life or experience.

Example 1: “Temptation” is a topic.

“Giving into temptation often results in tragedy” is a theme.

Example 2: “Societal class” is a topic.

“People’s accomplishments define who they are, not their position in society” is a theme in Harry Potter.

“You are who you’re born, and attempting to move between classes is futile” is a theme in The Great Gatsby.

As you can see, this is a case where two novels take the same topic and turn it into two opposing themes.

As you read, track the development of themes and the events the author uses to convey them.


Simply put, symbols are things that represent other things. They function to add a profound, figurative layer of meaning above the literal one. Symbols could include objects, actions, colors, weather, seasons, you name it. Common symbols include (the things they frequently represent are in parentheses):

  • red (love, passion)
  • doves (peace)
  • fork in the road (decisions)
  • storms (turmoil, conflict)
  • seeds (hope, new life)
  • chains (repression, burden)
  • springtime (youth, rebirth)
  • nighttime (death, fear)

Of course, not all symbols are so obvious and cliché. Deciphering symbolism in literature often takes much more thought.

Examples: Mockingbirds in To Kill a Mockingbird symbolize innocent people.

The green light in The Great Gatsby symbolizes an unattainable dream.

Fire and ice imagery in Jane Eyre symbolize the struggle between passion and authority.

As you read your novel, identify the symbols, note when they occur, and reflect on the meaning they add to the story.

Diction & Syntax

Diction and syntax are closely related. Diction is the choice of words an author uses in a particular situation. Syntax is how the author arranges those words into sentences and paragraphs. Together, syntax and diction serve to add emphasis onto certain ideas and artistic effect. Choosing to use one word instead of another might add a nuance that changes the tone of the scene. Inverted word order may stress one particular word over another one.

Example: This is the first sentence of To Kill a Mockingbird (which, if you hadn’t noticed by now, happens to be my favorite book):

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

Your diction and syntax alarm should’ve started blaring as soon as you read that. Something sounds off, right? The phrase “got his arm broken” is weird. If Jem fell from a tree or crashed his bike, wouldn’t it say he “broke his arm”? Why the use of passive voice? In this case, the way the sentence is phrased implies that Jem’s injury was no accident– something else, an outside force, broke his arm. Which, if you’ve read the book, is exactly what happens. To astute readers, the climax of the novel is actually foreshadowed in the very first sentence. That’s the power of diction and syntax.

Identifying diction and syntax usage is tricky, but it’s especially difficult in plays, poems, and old books. After all, every Victorian novel sounds weird and every Shakespearean play is nearly incomprehensible to begin with. But if a sentence or passage sounds overly descriptive, stilted, or just plain awkward within the rest of the text, it’s probably worth making a note of the diction and/or syntax.

As you read, mark important uses of diction and syntax and identify what meanings or nuances they contribute.


So you’ve gathered your supplies, reviewed your assignment, and understood what you need to look out for while reading. Now to tie it all together, I’m going to run through my entire process of taking notes from a novel, from start to finish.

  • Get through the exposition, where the main characters and setting are introduced (usually the first 1-2 chapters), before even picking up a pen. Trying to keep track of new names, new places, and a dozen language devices all at once is much too overwhelming. Familiarize yourself with the basics of the story, then go back to take notes on the first couple chapters.
  • Along the same lines, read and take notes in chunks. Don’t read a sentence, put down your book, write a note, pick up your book, read a sentence, put down your book, write a note, pick up your book, read a sentence. Your attention will be constantly diverted and you’ll interrupt the natural flow of reading. Try to take notes at the end of each scene, act, event, flashback, chapter, or other natural structural element. It’ll be easier to identify what’s important when you have a bigger picture of things.
  • When it’s time to take notes, use the margins or an index card and your pencil/black pen to define any unfamiliar words, write questions you need clarification on, or note any kind of prediction, inference, reaction, etc. At this stage, nobody else has to see anything you write, so go nuts. I’ve doodled hearts next to Mr. Darcy’s name in my copy of Pride and Prejudice and I’m not ashamed. Whatever helps you better understand the book and enjoy the reading process.
  • If you come across a significant passage, description, or quote, leave a page flag there. Jot down a short note about why it’s important, but don’t worry too much about detailed analysis just yet.
  • Using your colored pens/highlighters and whatever color-coding system you chose earlier, mark up all the examples of character traits and development, themes, symbols, diction, syntax, figurative language, and any other devices your teacher may require you to find. Beside each, write something straight-forward and concise to explain the effect that device has on the story.
  • Any time you run out of room in the margins, grab an index card or sticky note and keep on groovin’.
  • As stated earlier, adjust your note-taking to the requirements of your assignment. If you know you’ll have to write an essay specifically about character development once you finish this book, perhaps you could draw a chart on a separate piece of paper that has columns for each of the characters’ traits that you can fill in as they change.
  • Finally, once you’ve finished the book, go back through your highlighting and page flags to pull out the information you need. If you followed this guide, you should have plenty of great examples to pick from. Use your margin notes and index cards to jumpstart your analysis and begin to put together your assignment or project in its final form.

And you’re finished!! *throws confetti*

I’m not even sure if this explanation of my note-taking process made sense outside of my head, so if you need further clarification or more examples of anything I mentioned, don’t hesitate to ask. And as always, this is just a summary of my personal technique, not a rock-hard set of rules. I highly encourage you to adjust and experiment. In fact, I’m really interested in learning about other people’s study methods, so reach out to me if you’d like to share your unique note-taking system or fangirl about books together.

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)