For many college students, note-taking can seem like an impossible process. How do some students come up with such neat, organized sheets? How can you read through your chicken scratch well enough to learn something from it?
Many students don’t realize that note-taking is a skill that you need to practice, not an innate ability you’re born with. You need to experiment until you find the format that works best for your brain. These 8 tips will get you started with taking notes that make your future self happy.
1. Always be prepared for class.
- Make use of three-ring binders rather than a bound or spiral book. These binders allow easy removal and review of the pages. You can also insert handouts to supplement your notes, and put your outside-of-class notes in chronological order.
- Bring highlighters with you. If your instructor tells you to make a note of something, or to understand the importance of a concept, highlight it. You’ll need to know it later.
- Read the previous class notes and assigned material before class starts. Take notes as you go, keeping track of concepts and material that confuses you. Look up unfamiliar vocabulary words. This improves your understanding of the lecture, and you can target your in-class note-taking toward the concepts that confused you earlier.
2. Learn how to listen.
- Before you do anything else, you need to enter with a positive attitude. Be ready to give it your all. Engage in the lesson instead of zoning out and wishing you were somewhere else. A positive attitude encourages you to be open-minded, allowing you to get satisfaction out of the presented information.
- Consciously try to pay attention. Concentrate on your concentration.
- Be adaptable and follow whatever path a lecture might take. When unexpected detours occur or you find yourself uninterested in the source material, you might stop paying attention. This is a great way to miss important pieces of the lecture.
3. Make a system that works for your brain.
- Practice your note-taking until you find an organization and structure that increases both your speed and later understanding. Start by prioritizing your future self’s studying. The speed can come afterward.
- Use a fresh page for every new lecture. Give the date and a page number so you keep your material in order.
- Write one-sided notes so you can set the papers side-by-side while studying.
- Leave blank areas where you can comment or ask questions later.
- Keep the notes brief while retaining enough information that you’ll understand the concepts later. If a phrase will work, don’t write a sentence. If an abbreviation will work, don’t write the whole word.
- Use symbols and abbreviations in every place possible.
- Make notes of all concepts that you don’t understand or unfamiliar vocabulary words. When you study, you’ll have a reminder to look these things up.
4. Know what should be included in the notes.
These are a few items you should keep in your notes:
- If there are explanations, facts, or details centered around the main lecture point, note them. Make sure you capture examples.
- Copy word-for-word definitions of new vocabulary and concepts.
- Any lists of the discussed topics should be copied.
- Capture material that your professor writes on the chalkboard or whiteboard. If there are charts or drawings, either obtain a copy or recreate them.
- Repeated information and spelled-out concepts.
5. Study by editing and cleaning up your notes.
- Do your first note review on the evening or morning immediately after the lecture.
- Get out a sheet of clean paper and begin to rewrite.
- If phrases and words are nonsensical or illegible, correct them on the fresh page. If your abbreviations might be unclear to you later, write a key with their definitions.
- Edit the original copy by using differently-colored pens, so you can see what was the original note and what was the edit.
- Underline or highlight any information you don’t understand. If possible, write out questions to ask your instructor later.
- Compare the notes to your textbook’s information, adding important details that the textbook supplements for you.
- If you wrote the notes by hand, make a typed copy. Digital notes will get you far.
6. Intuitive layouts are your friend.
- Use a computer to create homework PDFs. A PDF format of your notes is ideal because it displays properly on any screen, so you can study on mobile. Use software to convert the notes to a Word document so you can print them.
- Divide the notes into sections. One column should be for new vocabulary and definitions, while the main part of the page should be used for key concepts. Create a section for questions and confusion. When possible, write out the questions you want to ask your instructor. Write a key for any potentially obscure abbreviations.
- If you need any drawings, diagrams, or charts, use outside software to make them. Then import them into your homework PDFs.
- Consider color coding your notes. Use red for concepts that confuse you, green for new terms and concepts you’re unfamiliar with, black for key details and definitions, and blue for examples. A color coding scheme means you’ll know exactly where to look when you need information later.
7. Use school PDFs to supplement your work.
There’s a good chance that a great deal of material is available through your school PDFs and online documents. You should make notes by yourself at first, as this process helps solidify the information in your brain. But consider supplementing with any of this material:
- Information, examples, and diagrams taken from the online textbook
- Any published lecture notes that your professor has put online
- Helpful information from reliable websites, if you need external sources to understand certain concepts
- Convert essay to PDF form and save the information to study
Essays will often have a great deal of information, though it’s not listed in bullet points like a note page. That’s why it’s so important to convert essay to PDF format. Doing so lets you view your information on all electronic devices, rather than needing to scroll and resize constantly.
8. That thing you’re sure you’ll remember later? You won’t. Write it down.
- You know you’ve done this before. The concept seems perfectly clear, and the step-by-step process is so simple that you couldn’t possibly forget it. You don’t want to copy everything down and organize it. You just want to doodle on your notebook paper.
- Write the thing down.
- Seriously, write it down.
- Write. It. Down.
- No chicken scratch either. Make the kind of comprehensive notes that your future self, who will absolutelyforget, will thank you for.
- Note taking is an exercise in being kind to your future self. If it’s important, write it down.
There are two main aspects of a solid note-taking strategy: Capturing the information you’ll need later in a format you can comprehend, and speeding the process until you don’t miss any information. Like any skill set, you need to practice. If you didn’t need to use notes in middle and high school, you might be intimidated by practicing now. But it doesn’t need to be scary.
Your notes are the tools you’ll use to learn. If you’re in love with learning, you can have your notes reflect that. As long as you make an effort, you’ll refine your process, and soon enough find yourself writing notes without even thinking about it.
By Katherine M.