Write This Down: Note-Taking Strategies for Academic Success

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 27, 2012 · 89 comments

in Money & Career

A few weeks ago, we published an article on study tips to help you ace your exams. In that post, I mentioned the possibility of doing a follow-up article on note-taking, and many of you requested that I make that happen. And I’m happy to oblige. Below, I’ve provided a primer on note-taking strategies, many of which I personally used during my academic career. A lot of this is fairly basic stuff–there are no “secrets” to note-taking success. But hopefully a few of these tips will help you start taking notes more effectively.

Note-Taking Tools


For most of your classes (especially lecture-heavy social science courses) I recommend taking notes with a laptop. You can type faster than you can write, it makes organizing your notes easier, and your notes will always be in legible type instead of the chicken scratch you call handwriting.

Use a note-taking program. While you could just use your computer’s default text file editor or word processor program, I recommend using a program specifically designed for note-taking. Below are two that I’ve used with success.

Evernote. I used Evernote during law school for taking notes. If you’re a student, I highly recommend you use it too. Evernote is a robust, free(!) note-taking application that allows you to remember and organize everything your professor throws at you.

Notes you take on the Evernote desktop app automatically sync with your Evernote account online. If your laptop crashes or gets lost, you’ll still have your notes sitting safely in the cloud. If you like to handwrite your notes, but would like to store them digitally, Evernote makes it possible. Just scan your handwritten notes into Evernote, and Evernote will use the magic of image recognition technology to allow you to search for your handwritten notes within the app. It also lets you record your professor using your computer’s microphone (just make sure to ask your professor first if it’s okay to record him or her).

OneNote. OneNote is Microsoft’s note-taking program. I used it as an undergrad before Evernote came out. OneNote is a decent program, but it’s got a few drawbacks. First is the cost. You have to buy Microsoft Office in order to get OneNote. That will set you back $119. Check your school’s IT department to see if they sell MS Office at a discount. I remember being able to buy it for $20 in law school. The other problem is that OneNote doesn’t sync as nicely as Evernote. Bottom line: Go with Evernote.

Learn to type (faster). If you don’t know how to touch-type, then learn. It will make keeping up with your professor much easier.  There are plenty of free, online programs out there that teach you how to type, so start using them. My favorite is keybr.com. It’s free.  If you already know how to type, work on getting even faster.

Become familiar with keyboard shortcuts. As you take notes during class, you’ll probably want to bold, underline, or italicize certain points and words. Instead of using your track pad to move to and click the “Bold” button in your toolbar, save time by simply using a keyboard shortcut.

Here are a few keyboard shortcuts that every good note-taker should know:

To bold text: Control+B (Command+B on Mac), then type what you want to bold
To underline text: Control+U (Command+U on Mac), then type what you want underlined
To italicize text: Control+I (Command+I on Mac), then type what you want italicized

To create a bulleted list: Depends on the platform-

  • Evernote/OneNote: Control+Shift+U (Command+Shift+U on Mac)
  • Word: Control+Shift+L (Command+Shift+L on Mac)

To create a numbered list: Depends on the platform-

  • Evernote/OneNote: Control+Shift+O (Command+Shift+O on Mac)
  • Word: Control+Alt+L

To find text: Control+F (Command+F on Mac) This is handy whenever you’re reviewing notes and want to find instances where you wrote about a specific topic.

Use text expander programs. If you find yourself typing certain phrases or words over and over again, save yourself time by using a text expander program. Text expander programs allow you to assign predefined keystrokes to complete words and phrases. Whenever you type that keystroke in, the text expander will type out the complete word or phrase.

For example, when I was taking Torts during my first year of law school, instead of typing out “intentional infliction of emotional distress” every time my prof mentioned it, I programmed a text expander so that whenever I typed “iied,” the output would be “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Pretty cool, huh?

Here are some text expander programs for the various operating systems out there:

PhraseExpress (Windows 7)

Texter (All other versions of Windows)

TextExpander (Mac)

AutoKey (Linux)

AutoHotKey (Windows/Mac/Linux)

Pen and Paper

To keep students from surfing around during class and force them to actually pay attention, some professors are starting to ban the use of laptops during their classes. If you find yourself in one of these classes, you’ll need to use the note-taking tools your dad and grandpa used: good old fashioned pen and paper.

Even if your professor doesn’t ban laptops, there are some classes where it’s actually better to take notes by hand. Classes that are heavy on numbers, equations, and formulas–calculus, chemistry, physics, economics, symbolic logic, etc.–are best suited for handwritten notes. It’s just too hard to type out that sort of stuff with a keyboard. I also found that pen and paper works best for language classes. Oftentimes you’ll be copying down conjugation tables from the blackboard, and handwriting these are easier than typing them.

Notebook for each class. Have a separate notebook for each class. It keeps things organized. Plus, if you keep all of your classes’ notes in the same notebook and you lose that notebook, you’re pretty much SOL.

Write clearly. If you’re going to handwrite your notes, make sure you can read them later. PenMANship. It’s got the word “man” in it, so it’s manly.

Before the Lecture: Prepare for Effective Note-Taking

Do the assigned reading. The best way to prepare for class is simply doing the assigned reading. Being familiar with the material will better enable you to understand the professor’s lecture and separate out the important points. As you read, take notes of what you think are the main ideas. Highlight, underline, and write in the book’s margins. Write down questions that come up as you’re reading.

Arrive 10 minutes before class and review the assigned reading and notes from the previous class. Try to get to class a few minutes early. Grab a seat near the front of the class and get everything ready. Scan through your reading assignment and the notes you made. Write down any questions you had during the reading that you’re hoping to have answered during the professor’s lecture.

Turn off wi-fi card or block the internet. Surfing Reddit during class will not help you pay attention. Turn off your computer’s wifi card or use one of the internet blocking tools that we covered in this previous post.

During the Lecture: What to Write Down

Only write down the main points of the lecture. Don’t write everything down! Your goal isn’t to transcribe your professor’s lecture word for word, rather it’s to extract and record the main points of it. The trick to successful note-taking is learning how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Your professor will likely go off on tangents during the lecture and spout off stuff that won’t be on the exam. You don’t want to waste your time writing down and studying info that you won’t even be tested on.

So how do you know what the professor’s main points are? Pay attention to cues your professor gives off either consciously or subconsciously. Here are a few cues your professor may give during the lecture. Whenever you see them, it probably means he’s saying something important, so write it down.

  • Anytime the professor says, “You need to know this,” or “This will be on the test.” Duh.
  • Anytime the professor repeats himself.
  • Anything the professor writes on the board or includes in a Powerpoint slide.
  • Anything the professor repeats very slowly so that it can be taken down word for word.
  • If your professor starts talking more quickly, or loudly, or with more emphasis.
  • Watch for language that shows relationships between ideas. These sorts of points are often where professors get their exam questions from:
    • first, second, third
    • especially, most significant, most important
    • however, on the other hand
    • because, so, therefore, consequently

Write the professor’s summary at the end of class and his review at the beginning of the next class. At the end of the class, your professor will often summarize the main takeaway points. Write this down. Your professor is basically telling you the main points she wants you to know. At the beginning of the next class, your professor may give a quick review of the previous class and then provide a preview of how those points are related to the day’s lecture. Write that down.

Write down any examples or hypotheticals the professor gives during class. This is especially important for math and science classes. Also, if you’re in law school, write down any hypothetical issues your professor may present. You’ll probably see a similar hypothetical on your final exam.

If you didn’t get a point, make a note of it, and wait until after class to ask.  Don’t be this guy. No one likes him. If you missed a point, make a note to remind yourself to ask the professor about it after class. Show some respect to the professor and the rest of your classmates.

After the Lecture: Review, Clarify, and Synthesize

Review and clarify notes right after class. Organize your schedule so that you have some time right after each of your classes to review your notes. During this time, go through your notes and make sure you actually understand what you took down. I don’t know how many times I wrote a note in class that later left me scratching my head and wondering, “What the heck did I mean by that?” If you don’t understand a note, clarify it by reviewing the reading material or by asking a fellow classmate or the professor. Reviewing your notes after class also aides in memory retention.

Synthesize notes into a master outline. In the comments on the study tips post, someone asked me what I meant by “synthesizing your notes.” It simply means combining your lecture and reading notes into a coherent whole.  This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. It requires you to look at different bits of information, figure out the main ideas and how they relate, and organize them in a way that makes sense.

One of the best ways to synthesize your notes is to create a master outline. The very act of creating an outline forces you to combine all your notes into a congruent whole. For more advice on creating an outline, see our article on study tips.

Note-Taking Styles

Over the years, professors and learning experts have suggested various note-taking styles to help students organize their notes. I’ve tried them all, but I always end up using my usual method. Below is a quick summary of the various note-taking strategies floating out there. Experiment with them and use what works for you.

Rough Outline Method

My typical note-taking style is to simply create a rough outline of the lecture using bullet points. If there’s a sub-point, I’ll just hit “tab” and create a nested list. I’ll bold or underline important points. It’s not the most sophisticated note-taking method, but it works for me. This format makes organizing your notes later into a final outline much easier.

Cornell Style Notes

This system of note-taking was developed in the 1950s by Cornell University professor Walter Pauk. It’s a way to organize your notes to make reviewing easier and more effective. Here’s how you do it.

Divide your page into two columns. Label the left-hand column “Keywords” and the right-hand column “Notes.” Beneath those two columns, mark off a section and label it “Summary.” It should look something like this:

Keywords Notes

During the lecture, write your notes in the “Notes” column. Write notes as you normally would. Again, the goal is to capture meaningful facts and the main points of the lecture.

After the lecture, write keywords in the “Keywords” column. Immediately after the lecture, review your notes in the “Notes” column. Try to reduce each line or segment of notes into one keyword. Write down that keyword in the left-hand “Keyword” column. For example, if you had an entire paragraph of notes in the “Note” column about the 1961 Civil Rights Act, next to the section and in the left-hand “Keyword” column, you would write “1961 Civil Rights Act.”

Test your recall using only the “Keyword” column.  Cover the “Notes” column with a sheet of paper, but leave the “Keyword” column visible. Looking at your keywords, try to recall as much of your class notes as possible. Talk out loud if you want or just write down what you remember. When you’re done, uncover your notes section to verify what you said or wrote down. This is to help with remembering the information.

Write a brief summary. When you’re done doing the recall exercise, write a brief summary of the day’s notes in the “Summary” section.

If you take notes using a computer, you can download templates for Cornell Style Notes. Just Google “Cornell Notes template” and pick one that you like. Here’s a pretty good one for MS Word.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a visual form of note-taking. Instead of typing or writing sentences in a linear format, with mind mapping you draw your notes. Advocates of mind mapping argue that the non-linear, visual format of mind maps allow students to find connections they’d otherwise miss when using traditional note-taking strategies. Also, because mind mapping is a somewhat creative activity, by engaging both the left and right spheres of your brain, learning retention is supposed to improve (a claim that some brain researchers dispute).

To mind map a lecture, you simply write the main topic of the day’s lecture at the center of a piece of paper. As the professor makes new points, write those around the central topic. Draw lines connecting different ideas. Feel free to draw images instead of writing words. Mind mapping is a visual activity after all.

Here’s a colorful example of a mind map drawn by Philip Chambers:

I know people who swear by mind mapping. I tried it a few times during my academic career, but never found it very helpful for recording lecture notes. I’d always end up missing important details because I was too caught up with drawing and connecting ideas. Also, the non-linear format makes organizing your notes difficult.

For more info on mind mapping, see The Mind Map Book.

Charting Method

If your professor’s lecture will be focused on comparing and contrasting two or more ideas, you might consider using the charting method. Create a table in the note-taking program you’re using. Make as many columns as there are categories that you’re comparing and contrasting. Label each column with a category. As you listen to the lecture, record the notes under the appropriate category.

There you have my tips for note-taking success. I’d love to hear more note-taking strategies from the gentlemen scholars out there!

{ 89 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chicago Ted January 27, 2012 at 1:28 am

I stealth record the lectures while I take notes.
It’s very helpful, being able to listen to the entire thing later, if I wrote too slow or couldn’t hear the first time .

2 Smartass January 27, 2012 at 2:22 am

Taking notes is highly overrated. I never write down anything, and I get A and B only. Most of the A grade students in my classes does not take notes. Coincidence?

For real courses like math, physics and engineering you need to practice, understand and then practice more.

Of course, if you study something useless like liberal arts, social science, history and the likes you might wanna take notes.

3 Nick January 27, 2012 at 5:24 am

Great suggestions. To create a Numbered List, try Ctrl+Alt+L.

Also, you don’t even need a text extender for OneNote if you also have MS Word. You can add to Word’s AutoCorrect function. For example, I have it set up so that when I type “d\” it turns into a delta symbol (short-hand for defendant) and “p\” for pi, which is plaintiff. Also “s\” for the section symbol. And tons more.

4 Jack January 27, 2012 at 5:27 am

I assume smartass is just trying to troll, but I found it was normally the other way around.

Sciences needed more memorization and more notes. Arts required more conceptual understanding, and maybe note-taking in your own time.

A students don’t take notes because they’re already smart and can get away with it. Other students might benefit from learning how to take notes.

5 Matt January 27, 2012 at 5:58 am

Not really a notetaking tool per se, but one of my profs introduced me to Anki (http://www.ankisrs.net/) and I love it. It’s a digital flash card program based on spaced repetition – you review the information the day you learn it, the day after, three days after, etc. I used to think using flash cards to remember things was stupid, but it works so well that I only have to do a few 15 minute review sessions to get all the important information. Definitely recommend checking it out.

6 JRWinkler January 27, 2012 at 6:23 am

Brett-good post. University professor here, and you have hit the best points. I have banned laptops for note taking -in class- but strongly encourage the students to retune their notes after class for retention. More and more of my colleagues are banning the laptops because the students (Harvard or hardly-important U) are just surfing during lecture. Real men write with a fountain pen and good paper, to prepare for writing during the exam.

7 JRWinkler January 27, 2012 at 6:25 am

Brett-good post. University professor here, and you have hit the best points. I have banned laptops for note taking -in class- but strongly encourage the students to retune their notes after class for retention. More and more of my colleagues are banning the laptops because the students (Harvard or hardly-important U) are just surfing during lecture. Real men write with a fountain pen and good paper.

8 Derek January 27, 2012 at 7:26 am

For notebooks, I always liked using 1″ or 1.5″ three ring binders. That way if you need to re-write a page of notes or insert something you actually have a way to do it (unlike a spiral bound notebook). Invest in a 3 hole punch and you can put tests, quizzes, handouts, syllabus, etc all in one place and keep yourself organized.

9 TallPaul January 27, 2012 at 7:28 am

Brilliant post, as a university drop out I can definitely say that these are the exact methods that I didn’t use, and look where I am now… struggling to figure out what I can do with the dregs of my life…

10 Felipe January 27, 2012 at 8:08 am

I’m a one-notebook man. I can’t be bothered to carry more than one at a time, but I keep things organized. I just use some paper clips to divide the notebook into the classes I actually need to write something.

On taking notes, I just write down pretty much all the points made by the professor and when the test comes, I make some sort of indication on certain ideas that I find important so when I study, I focus on those.

11 Jeremy January 27, 2012 at 8:17 am

1) Favorite Line: “Write clearly. If you’re going to handwrite your notes, make sure you can read them later. PenMANship. It’s got the word “man” in it, so it’s manly.”

2) I much prefer to hand-write my notes (I’m a junior in college studying Anthropology), because then I can make maps and webs (just words, no pictures); whenever I try to take electronic notes (and I try a few times every semester when my notebooks start filling up), I don’t write as much, they’re incredibly bland, and much harder for me to read and understand.

3) Much kudos and karma to the multiple reddit inferences

4) I just saw the Cornell Style Method being taught to a history class of 8th graders, and was thoroughly impressed with the extent to which they understood the purpose and use of each section of the chart.

12 David January 27, 2012 at 8:21 am


I’m in second year correspondence course BSc degree.

Any suggestions for how to do correspondence course work?

13 Jeremy January 27, 2012 at 8:40 am

Agreed: “Write clearly. If you’re going to handwrite your notes, make sure you can read them later. PenMANship. It’s got the word “man” in it, so it’s manly.”

Great article!

14 CodyC January 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

Petroleum Engineering senior here. The biggest thing about note-taking in engineering is writing down equations. One professor tells us that it goes from the paper, up through the pencil and up into your brain. But it really does help. I find that I can remember equations by saying them with a rhythym too. Kinda like how they teach the quadratic equation with “pop goes the weasel.”

15 Shane January 27, 2012 at 8:55 am

@ Matt. Thank you very much for the anki recommendation. I have been trying to learn a language for a year now, using flasch cards for vocabulary. However, the program I am using does not have spaced repetition and that is precisely what I was looking for. I feel like typing all caps followed by a row of exclamation points, but that would be annoying and ungentlemanly. Thanks again!

@ Brett
Great article, I graduated from college two years ago, and was really only skimming, feeling that there wasn’t too much here for me, but still found some great tips here. Love this site.

16 Ron January 27, 2012 at 8:55 am

For an efficient way of formatting your text (as an alternative to using keyboard shortcuts) I recommend the Markdown syntax.

**This is a bold text.**

- This is a bullet point.

# This is a heading

17 Jade January 27, 2012 at 9:23 am

Great post! Good note-taking is definitely a skill worth developing. I personally prefer pen & paper because it gives me more freedom to draw arrows and graphs quickly, and I’m very visual.

As a former TA, however, the biggest thing I saw with my students was that the ones who least needed notes (and still performed well) were not smarter, per se, but had well-developed auditory skills. We live in such a visual world, being able to just listen to someone speak and see the structure of their speech is difficult for a lot of people. I would actually recommend, for those who are more visual or hands-on learners, to develop their auditory skills by listening to news talk radio (like NPR) or books on tape. This might help them learn to evaluate AS they’re listening, to make it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff.

18 Fern Miller January 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

Remember – note taking is for important business meetings, too. We, for example, need to keep track of EXACTLY what clients want in their software. We can’t afford to rely on memory (ours or theirs) when making estimates or deciding when software is done, due to deadly ‘project creep’ issues that can lead to never getting paid (since the project eternally expands thus never is ‘totally finished’.)

What we use for note taking is Whizfolders. We can then expand the notes into an online lab notebook on what problems were found while working, work arounds for problems, etc. All needed for new projects so we can more easily find and apply info on known problems with (with microprocessors or Windows software) and our fixes for them.

19 Richard January 27, 2012 at 9:51 am

I use Evernote, coupled with a Livescribe pen. The live scribe pen let s me capture my handwritten notes and the audio of the conversation / lecture. When needed I add audio, video, and photographs to the notes, all kept in a searchable Evernote notebook. Data collection tools http://6sproductivitycomcom.fatcow.com/?p=712 and How to Document http://6sproductivitycomcom.fatcow.com/?p=709 .

I have found the Livescribe pen to be a great tool I use it for all meetings and classes…even those I am teaching.

20 Moss January 27, 2012 at 10:06 am

Great article. Wish you were writing on these academic subjects when I was in law school a couple years ago.

I was one of the few that did all handwritten notes. Same for bar review. I had a particular legal pad and pen that I always used. I would also label the pad at the top with the date and subject. I have carried this tradition on into my legal practice.

Now I have stacks upon stacks of yellow legal pads from my grad school and law school days neatly filed away in my office. They look great and are awfully handy when I want a quick refresher on an unfamiliar topic.

This is an effective and traditional way of taking notes. Who knows, maybe my grandson will get a kick out of looking through them when he is studying the law one day.

21 EP January 27, 2012 at 10:16 am

You have wrongly maligned OneNote. It’s syncing capabilities are every bit as good as EverNotes. Notebooks can be stored in the cloud, access using OneNote in Office, or via the free online web app, or via any of the free apps for mobile phones. It also has tremendous integrating power with the other elements of the Office suite. If you can get office cheaply through your school, it’s a much better route to go than EverNote.

22 Anthony January 27, 2012 at 10:21 am

When I was in undergrad (1998-2002) laptops were only just becoming popular. I had one, but didn’t seriously consider taking it to class: it’s too heavy to carry around all day, and I think that would be true of the lighter ones today, too. Remember you’re carrying at least a couple of heavy books, too.

When hand-writing notes, I found I can easily cross something out if the professor realizes he made a mistake. Or, even better, if something that seemed important turns out to be a tangent and is really connected to something three points up, it’s easy to draw an arrow and not so easy on a keyboard.

I preferred the rough outline: you want to get it down fast so you can keep up with the lecture and have a little time to think about it, not be completely consumed with note-taking.

For those who say they’re smart enough to not need notes, you are probably right, but the lectures will catch up with you eventually, when they get challenging enough that even the very smart students need to pay close attention. And if you’re just then learning to take notes, you’ll struggle compared to the B students who have been taking notes all along.

23 Andrew January 27, 2012 at 10:42 am

I think you should include an INCREDIBLY useful keyboard shortcut, even though it’s not directly related to note-taking:

Alt-tab to swap windows.

A lot of people don’t know about it. It’s not a note-taking shortcut, but it just saves an obscene amount of time generally on a computer. I can’t imagine living without it.

24 Daniel January 27, 2012 at 10:52 am

Nice article overall, but I disagree on one item:

“Your professor will likely go off on tangents during the lecture and spout off stuff that won’t be on the exam. You don’t want to waste your time writing down and studying info that you won’t even be tested on.”

Of course, the basic/most immediate goal of any class is to pass, and so I understand the importance of knowing what’s going to be on the test. However, the overall purpose of any course should be to learn. I’ve often learned more from professors’ soap box tangents than I have from the scheduled lecture material. Just because something isn’t going to be “on the test” doesn’t mean it’s not important, meaningful, or worth learning for one’s own edification and growth.

I suggest using one color and/or font to write down everything that’s going to be “on the test” (regular course material) and using a separate color/font for interesting tangents, fun facts, etc. Write it all down – just make sure it’s organized so you know what’s most important to study for the test.

25 Justin Davis January 27, 2012 at 11:12 am

Evernote also has an app for Android phones, and iPhones as well (I believe) – the app will regularly sync up with your Evernote account, so you can study your notes on the go when need be.

26 Robert Stump January 27, 2012 at 11:28 am

Excellent article. The differing note-taking styles are appealing. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has used the Cornell system with success.

One suggestion I would make: when taking a course that is particularly dense (philosophy and theology courses are coming to mind) it can be helpful to make a very quick rough outline of the reading. This can help prepare the structure of the material in you mind so that as new information and details come out in the lecture, your mind will be putting it together pre-organized.

I also started working on my PenMANship recently and now only write in cursive. My handwriting has improved greatly, and I can now write quickly without looking at the page to keep straight lines or consider the letters.


27 Stephen January 27, 2012 at 11:30 am

If you’re on a Mac I’d recommend OmniOutliner all day long. The template support is particularly useful. The pro version even includes an option to record audio right into the text outline.

I think lectures are best typed up for ease of reading your notes afterwards but if you’re in a seminar or tutorial (I think by far a better environment for learning) a little half height notepad and a pen is much less of a barrier between you and the rest of the group.

The real value is going back afterwards and familiarising yourself with the reading. Flashcards are absolutely with the effort.

28 Stephen January 27, 2012 at 11:32 am

Sorry, autocorrect got me, “Flashcards are absolutely *worth* the effort.”

29 Colin Braun January 27, 2012 at 11:38 am

Great post! The best way I found to keep your paper notes organized was to keep a folder for each class. Get the kind with one pocket on each side. They come in enough colours you can code your classes, and there is no need for a hole-punch. just slip everything in. Handouts on the left, your notes on the right, with the date on the top and keep it in order. Then get a folding clipboard for blank paper. I always had to commute by train and bus and this way I could keep all my notes with me without packing around bulky binders.

30 Eric January 27, 2012 at 11:48 am

I second the Livescribe pen comment above. I can’t believe there was no mention in the article.

The Livescribe pen is a real game changer (as long as you remember to keep it charged and carry extra ink). The product came out a short while after I started graduate school. My retention rate for class material went way up immediately; when reviewing my notes, I was able to re-listen to the lectures at places where my notes breakdown, or when things weren’t clear after the fact, without having to fast forward or rewind like one might with a typical recorder.

I am a HUGE fan. Absolutely love the product and it’s been around long enough now that they probably have worked out the kinks.

31 jeff January 27, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I am long out of school, but I have to update information constantly and active note taking is a key to memorization, and finally application of information. One thing I do is to record notes on a composition style notebook in graphic layout. On one side of the opened book I record all lecture like notes, on the opposite side I record reading notes. After about the third review of notes I mark the point between the two sets of notes that have similar information. Sometimes this is just a connecting line that is written in a different color than the two notes set, which are in black and blue ink, with red used to show corrections and edits. I also match questions I generate at the bottom of each page of both sets of notes.
Matching the two notes is also a great way to have a clearer definition for any vocabulary or formula that comes up.

32 Rob January 27, 2012 at 12:24 pm

A big point to students. Increasingly professors share their slideshows on their course site (blackboard, desire2learn, etc). Many students see this as either a way to get out of taking notes or a way to get out of going to class.

The reason I still share my slides for lecture classes is because I want studnets focusing on the substance of my lecture and not in furiously copying my slides,

If your instructor posts slides print them out (or if you are a laptop user) save as a file that can be edited (attatching notes to pdfs, using the notes section in ppt) and take your class notes on the slides. This allows you to concentrate on the spirit, implications, and finepoints of the material and also have the basics down on paper before you even walk into the class.

33 Ryan January 27, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Anything tech-related requires a different touch. In engineering, for example, it’s practice that makes perfect. Now into my junior year, I haven’t had a single professor use a powerpoint, or “lecture.” Instead, we discuss problems and the best ways to solve them. Much more interactive. If I had to sit through a boring lecture-type class, I’d fall asleep.

34 Chris January 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I’m an MBA student as well as a full time IT desktop support tech at my university and I have to agree with EP and Nick about OneNote.

First, most educational institutions are able to offer full versions of Microsoft Office, including OneNote, to their students, staff, and faculty for personal use at high discounts, usually around $20 depending on their agreement with Microsoft. OneNote also ties in closely with Word, Excel, Outlook, etc. so you can easily send emails and other Office documents to OneNote by clicking the Send to OneNote button in the toolbar.

Plus, with a free live.com account you get 25GB of free storage on Microsoft’s SkyDrive. You can easily move your OneNote Notebooks to your SkyDrive for seamless and instant syncing of notebooks even if you keep OneNote running simultaneously on multiple PCs, e.g. at home, in your office, on your laptop, etc. These notebooks are accessable via your web browser as well as on mobile devices using the OneNote app for the iPad and iPhone as well as third party apps like Mobile Noter SE for Android.

I realize that Evernote has a lot of these same features, but consider the fact that Microsoft Office is already widely used and so many people already have OneNote and don’t even know it, and OneNote is already seamlessly integrated into Office and Windows. Not to mention that while SkyDrive offers free storage of your notebooks up to 25GB, Evernote puts a 60MB/month data cap on free accounts and charges you $5/month for up to 1,000MB (~1GB)/month.

I realize a lot of times these things come down to preference, but given the tighter Office integration and seamless syncing via free SkyDrive storage, I’m a strong OneNote proponent over Evernote and I recommend it to my users as well as my classmates at any chance I get.

35 Tim Hardy January 27, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Too late for a leatherworker I think but a great article with some really useful links I will use to better myself. Wish I’d known this stuff when I was still in education but rest assured my children will get to use this advice – many thanks. Tim

36 Baradoch January 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm

MS Word has a “phrase extender” built in. It’s called “Autocorrect”, and to define shortcuts (in 2010), go to File, Options, Proofing, and click the Autocorrect Options button.

37 Mary January 27, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I am a note taker. Thank you for some new ideas on note taking.
My style is I take notes the old fashion way and that is pencil and paper then I go type them up as if it was a study sheet.

38 Jason January 27, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I think the same thing is on Lifehacker today. Common source for the bullet list of professor cues?

39 Mark January 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm

I think that you might want to reevaluate OneNote over Evernote. With the Skydrive syncing ability and mobile apps it has become indispensible for me. I like it better than Evernote by far because of its integration also with Outlook and Word.

40 Wyndeborne January 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm

As a current MSc student I really like these articles about study methods! A huge help, and hoping to see one on essays soon :)

Personally i prefer mind-maps, and there’s a few great apps for that on the iPad, luckily, so all I bring to class is that :D

41 Alexis January 27, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I can’t find the research to back me up but years ago I read a study that suggested that ~80% of people learn by writing. That literally the process of writing something down helps to ensure it’s retention. However this added brain boost doesn’t work with typing.

Speaking of personal experience – and as someone who spent gradschool in a room full of clicking laptops while taking pen/paper notes – it’s definitely true for me. If I write it down, it’s remembered. Typing, texting, any digital capture doesn’t work. So personally I’m a big advocate for the less cool but probably more effective note taking method.

42 Jim M. January 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Great info Brett.

I agree with Richard that the Livescribe pen works great when a laptop is unavailable. It works well with Evernote and can stealthily record the lecture also.

43 Douglas Aldrich January 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I guess @Smartass needed to take notes in English. He could sure use some help… Great post. I’m going back to school next month and this is coming out just in time.

44 Imqer January 27, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I use for note-taking Aml Pages. Here: http://www.amlpages.com/about.shtml

45 Drew January 27, 2012 at 6:50 pm

One time in college, a guest professor came to speak to us and he said one of the most important things that I’ve taken to heart and continue to this day:

“Write down everything because you don’t know what will be important in the future.”

46 Thadryan January 28, 2012 at 8:18 am

What I am finding directly increases my grade using my notes: Pay close attention to the begging and end of topics of the lecture, where a paragraph would be if it was an essay, and mark them with a star or what have you and give it a title (the professor will probably have written a header). When it comes time to study, get some blank paper and write down the title of each section, and you basically have a practice test (stay one step ahead of your “opponent”), which will help you drastically. When writing out the practice test, try to think of how you professor would ask a question such that the paragraph of notes you took would be the answer. This works well for classes in which the students must accurately convey ideas and explain complicated processes, such as Human Biology (my field) and anything with paragraph responses. Repeat as needed, and you should get a good idea of how prepared you are.

47 James January 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Thanks for a great article I found it very interesting reading. I myself am one of those people who want to write everything down and end up behind and in a muddle. I have experimented with using OneNote after class, and I think it is a brilliant and underrated tool for jotting and organization, and it’s nice that you can move stuff around so it makes more sense. (I’ve never tried EverNote) Unfortunately, I study physics and maths, and after tying to enter formulae and diagrams a few times came to the conclusion that pen and paper is the best approach!

48 Edward January 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm

The point about getting to class early to review your notes is great advice; unfortunately, its been my experience that even if you manage to get there five to ten minutes before class the class that preceded yours will probably take a long time to clear out.

49 zeus January 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Thanks for the great advice.

50 Mark Anderson January 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Our lecturers generally provide a digital copy of their PowerPoint slides a week or so before the lecture (on our online portal) which proves fantastic for pre-familiarizing yourself with the content. Can be handy for note taking too. I print them out as outline document with several slides per page and a few lines for notes next to each, and then keep a compiled series of notes in a ring binder. It is a very efficient way of taking notes, though I am not sure it is ideal for retention or uptake. What do you guys think? Would I be better off taking my own notes from scratch?

51 AK January 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm

For those whose professors post PDFs of lecture notes – Jarnal is invaluable as you can type directly onto the sheet, consolidating your profs notes and your own in one document. Plus, it’s free! Worked during med school.

52 Roach January 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Using a laptop was one of the main reasons I started failing courses and was eventually dismissed (I managed to get my self together and come back and graduate, at least).

Maybe there’s people who can take notes on a laptop, but I just don’t see it as a good idea for two reasons.

First, it’s far too easy to get distracted. Even if you’re able to keep yourself from checking Facebook during class, you might try going to wikipedia to get a little more information on something the professor mentioned. Then you get caught in the trap of reading that article and a second and before long you’re reading up on something completely unrelated to the class.

The second is that the act of writing is far more involved than typing. I (and I’m sure most computer-savvy people these days) can transcribe things into a keyboard while paying just the slightest amount of attention. Words can come in my ear and go straight to my fingers without me thinking about them. If I’m writing, I spend a lot more time thinking about them and remember things much better.

I was also a science major, which meant a lot of figures and equations and other things that can’t be typed easily. But whatever your focus, I’d always recommend handwritten notes over typed.

53 h January 29, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Many professors here compile a set of lecture notes that people can print out and bring with them to class. It does several things. You can prepare for the lecture and get an outline before you even enter the class, you can concentrate on the lecture instead of taking notes and it’s less of a hassle if you miss a class.

54 DMD January 29, 2012 at 11:49 pm

My most difficult area of note taking is my absolutely horrible penmanship. What is the use of notes if the process of deciphering them is nigh impossible. Are there any good ways/methods in which to improve penmanship, yet retain a relatively decent speed of writing?

55 bill January 30, 2012 at 4:20 am

What I use is as the first commenter recommended. I just record the whole thing with a mobile recorder and later write out the important information, without any hassle.

Not taking notes allows you to actually listen to what the professor is saying and think about it, not just to think what to write down or not.

56 Wayne Irving January 30, 2012 at 8:26 am

Please write more articles about school life this really helps! Thank you.

57 bbcamp January 30, 2012 at 9:22 am

This is good advice. (I teach this stuff!)
Most people remember handwritten notes better, but keeping the notes on the computer makes them more easily accessible. The solution? Get a convertible tablet computer with a real (active) digitizer. (Example, Lenovo x220T). This lets you take ‘handwritten’ notes on the screen with a stylus. Using OneNote, you can save the notes as digital “ink”, or else convert them to printed text (if your handwriting is legible…).

This is something a recommend highly. The downside: convertible tablets are a bit heavier than normal laptops, they have slightly shorter battery life, and worst of all, they only exist in the PC universe (though you can work around this with a Mac, Windows, and an external digitizer tablet.

Another alternative, take the notes on paper, then scan them into your computer. (Fujitsu and other companies make portable scanners, and most universities have copy machines which also scan to e-mail or a USB key.)

Note: I haven’t tried livescribe….

58 Jim January 30, 2012 at 11:08 am

I was lecturing once and, growing tired of the requests to slow down or repeat, I said, “You don’t have to write everything down verbatim.”
A student raised his hand and said, “How do you spell verbatim?”

59 Jim January 30, 2012 at 11:19 am

The best habit I ever formed in school was taking notes by hand, in a rough outline form with cross-outa and arrows, etc., as described in a post above. The real key to my succes was to unfailingly transcribe those notes into text, greatly expanding them, the same day. I often found myself referring to a text along the way. My understanding went way up and my fellow students begged me for peintouts.

60 Greg Veater January 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Onenote is free online with a live.com account, you can even use your current email. Also it syncs from your windows 7 phone or iphone free to your live.com account. It also synces from office 2007 and 2010 to your live.com account. I would suggest everyone use a live.com account. It gives you 25GB of free space in the cloud, free Microsoft Office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.) Microsoft has had this for the past 5 years free of charge. They have bad marketing and are not as popular as Apple when it comes to things other than Windows and Office. Evernote is a great program that used for over a year, until I was turned on to OneNote.

61 Valerie January 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Another suggestion from a college prof:

Reread the paragraph titled “What to write down.” Many of us share our slides or a handout of some kind to reduce the notes you need to take, but I want you to write down the most important points yourself because I believe it aids retention. Sometimes I even make the class recite something aloud – then you know it is really important.

And also, if your professor offers objectives or goals for the session (something a student will be able to achieve after the successful completion of this lecture/session): READ THEM. PRACTICE THEM. Assessment items (test questions) should be able to be directly tied to objectives.

Great post, Brett. I plan to send the link to my students.

62 Jack H January 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Hmm, useful for lectures, but I was disappointed there wasn’t anything on taking notes from books and journal articles.

I’m currently at Exeter University studying History and while lectures provide outlines on topics, the bulk of my information and work comes from reading texts – either for preparing ahead of a seminar or for reference in an essay.

I also find it impossible to take notes on a laptop much of the time, because so much of my reading is done on a screen – I couldn’t keep switching between programmes to take notes (plus, printing everything would cost a bomb!) I don’t know if anyone here is familiar with JSTOR or some equivalent, but it is an incredibly useful resource (if your institution pays for access) and, for instance, for my essay on the three systems of government in the Venetian Republic, most of the reading I’ve done in preparation has been online, as it’s the easiest way to access (and store) academic journals. Taking notes by hand is therefore necessary, so I was really hoping for some tips in that area.

I’m also surprised at the laptop recommendation. Not because I disagree in theory, although I get on better with handwriting, but because in my lectures, containing at times, two hundred or so, I’ve only seen one person ever use a laptop. We’re all allowed to, yet nobody does. Maybe it’s just like this in Exeter? But I’d imagine I’m not alone in hoping for some ‘by hand’ advice.

63 Jack H January 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm

And Jim, that is hilarious. I’m a fan of fast-paced lecturers – one of the tutors on my course is somewhat notorious for racing through everything and yet still running out of time. But he’s excellent! And I’m not alone – he also has quite the cult following amongst us students…

64 Donald Marshall January 31, 2012 at 2:16 pm

This series on studying and learning has been one of my favourite ever on the site, thanks.

65 Ian February 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Would be great to see a similar post for note taking in business meetings just to see what other people do. I use three simple labels: AP- action point, RP- research point, MP- big point over in the margins (that is what they are there for). That way when I look at my business notes I am able to immediate know what the follow ups are.

66 Ian February 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Oh forgot to mention, to anyone who is in school and are writing research papers, I highly recommend checking out Zotero. It is an automated bibliography/note taker that is amazing and free

67 James Petzke February 1, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I recently wrote an article about selecting a school that makes financial sense. This article may help out any of you guys that are going to college soon. http://jamespetzke.com/2012/02/choosing-a-school-that-makes-financial-sense/

68 adanix85 February 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Fantastic article! After completing one degree with pen and paper, I’ll be returning to schoo this fall, armed with some great new note taking strategies and tools. Keep up the good work!

69 Ken February 2, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Great article. Love the images, especially the laptop.
I found that mind-mapping works better for taking notes from books than from lectures. It helps to connect your thoughts better, especially if you’re a visual or kinesthetic learner.

70 Mz. Mack February 3, 2012 at 10:06 am

As a HS ENG teacher, I found that teaching my students how to take notes was time well spent. Most of them try to copy every-single-thing or they simply don’t take any notes. I usually teach them Cornell Notes and I show them how to do so on my whiteboard during my infrequent lectures. Lecturing, while taking notes on your own lecture, is a rather interesting experience; I’d recommend it to every educator. When we are reading (sometimes aloud), I also show my students how to take notes as they read, again on my whiteboard. As almost all of my tests are open book / open notes, my students find Cornell Notes to be the most effective at quickly locating information.

71 dave February 4, 2012 at 7:14 pm

I’m way past school but do attend many seminars doing the year. I often use a combination of notes and sketches so handwritten notes is what I prefer. I find that when I use pictures and words I remember more.
(see how to do sketchnoting here http://daveterry.blogspot.com/search?q=sketchnotes). I actually used it for a one week TESOL class in Atlanta. Worked great and I remembered more than any other note taking approach.

In addition, while traveling and writing blog content, I use a Alpharsmart NEO. It’s light (can carry it all day without feeling any weight), and never needs power. Three batteries last 700 hours. It’s a great tool for writers of a first draft (not much on editing). Loads content to my Mac via USB. (Details here: http://travel.daveterry.net/2011/08/writing-your-travel-journal.html) I wonder if professors would allow a simple electronic keyboard in the class? The NEO2 has no ability to connect to the Internet.

72 daveterry February 9, 2012 at 9:59 am

I wonder if professors would allow a keyboard for taking notes such as the Alphasmart NEO? I use if for travel blogging.

73 Justin Shaw February 12, 2012 at 10:10 am

Great article, should be required reading for any student. I wish I had read this in medical school.

Maybe you can get away without taking notes, but even if you can, if you will be better off in the long run (knowledge and character) if you discipline yourself to take good notes than sliding by on pure talent (even if you can do well on a test this way).

Maybe if Smarta$$ had be taking notes, he would be getting all A’s instead of A’s AND B’s. Just saying. From someone who graduated summa cum laude.

74 Isaac February 14, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I prefer going back to basics. Rather than writing in a notebook or typing on a laptop, I’ll usually write my notes on a piece of rough paper.

Once I’m at home, I will transcribe my notes into the computer. This will force me to review my notes again.

I’m reading philosophy by the way.

75 curmudgeon January 8, 2013 at 4:56 am

I’ve returned to school, and have been shocked by the pervasive reliance on PowerPoint slides. I can’t believe it doesn’t undermine student engagement with the lecture as an experience, and the material, later. Half the time, the slides are pulled straight from the textbook anyway (as are the exams). Students resent extra-text material (which means they actually have to attend) and hold profs to ransom with poor online ratings when they have to do more than memorize the book. I’m not actually sure what the point of the professor is, anymore. All you need to run a course is a publishing sales rep and an internet connection.

76 Nathan January 26, 2013 at 12:55 pm

I’ve been trying to figure out the shortcut for creating a bulleted list for decades. Thank you for the enlightenment good sir.

77 marcus January 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Hey what happened? This morning when I started reading this article it talked about extended skills like master calendar planning, speed reading etc. Now its changed. This article is fine and all but rather rudimentary. How can find the other?

78 caleb January 26, 2013 at 7:35 pm

For many BA I used pencil and paper. A few people had laptops, but it was rare to take them to class. For MA I had have laptop. It was really nice because we sometimes “had” to use programs in class or look something up online. For my MDiv (current) I generally use my laptop. I am one of the few students who always does (but i an the youngest student. Most are in their 50s) Some classes even meet online and prods only take assignments via email. I can guarantee that I constantly look at the notes on my computer. I have maybe looked something up in my handwritten notes once in 8 years.

I can type so much faster than write. I can read it. I can rearrange it. I have even taken some of my notes and made smaller topically arranged documents. Best thing ever.

For me, it is more important to have the material for years later. I am not just there to class a class but to have knowledge to take with me.

79 Erik the Red January 27, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Look, I’m not the best note-taker out there, but I have to say in regards to laptop notes… no. Just no.

For your softer majors, like English, History, Art, maybe even to harder stuff up to and including Biology, sure. This stuff would work well.

For Chemistry, Math, and Physics (Which is ALL I have this semester), no. You can’t type up notes like that fast enough. Any program that would allow you to do so is either obscure and unreliable or heinously expensive. You’ve got formulae to memorize, relationships to prove (yes, PROVE, not rote memorize), and tables to fill out. Until better software becomes more widely available, that has to be done by hand. It NEEDS to be done by hand. You have to figure out how to represent the stuff you learn in a format that you develop yourself, else it won’t make sense to you later.

Templates and plans only go so far before they stop helping and start stifling. Use them wisely.

80 tchr January 28, 2013 at 9:58 am

Hey Smartass:
I like your goodly grammar. :)
The reason we right notes in social studies etc, is because life is not “by rote”. Life does not have one single repetitive answer. You are focused on the answer, we focus on the question.
Further, taking notes by hand uses a different part of the brain than typing does.
Hand writing helps in the storage and retrieval of information.
Good luck to you Smartass, the world needs more robots.

81 heatherr February 5, 2013 at 3:08 am

I write notes in pen using the cornell system and work to listen. I also record the lecture. As soon as class is over, I listen to the audio and read my notes. It’s amazing how much I miss. As I listen and review my notes, I make additional notes in pencil. Then I use a highlighter for the important points.

Advice: If you record, you MUST review the audio right away while the lecture is fresh in your mind. Using audio is very labor intensive, but really pays off in notes you can really use and reinforces important points.

82 Jayantha Senaratne April 29, 2013 at 8:35 pm

It is a very nice piece of writing on note taking.Pre -thinking & pre-studying of the topic you are going to be lectured on will make it easier for you to take your notes.

83 IrritatedPrsn September 19, 2013 at 7:54 am

I am an avid note taker. Always have been, as writing has always been my strongest form of communication and self-expression. Turns out that quirk translates to my ability to learn, synthesize, and analyze information, too. So I take notes WITH the professor during classes, highlighting main ideas and asking questions– Within my notes, of course. I review later. So I love note taking. However, other people have noticed my note taking skills and are trying to leech off of me. I cannot tell you how frustrating that is. I have stopped taking notes because of that, which is a shame, because I can no longer fully engage in lectures through writing. I listen now, and jot down notes specific to myself if I need to. But that’s so irritating to have a leech, just because you happen to take good notes (which, by the way, didn’t happen overnight).

84 Bucolic Buffalo October 4, 2013 at 9:03 pm

When I was in school in the late ’70′s, I used the following method for accounting classes: When the Prof. put a problem on the blackboard, he would change scenarios/variables to illustrate points. Rather than recopying the entire problem, I would use different colored pens and make changes to the right of the original problem. It made keeping track of the changes much simpler.

85 Corey October 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm

Ever heard of Harvard-style notes? Doesn’t really work to keep it in a spiral notebook, but if you use binders it’s great.
Take out a sheet of paper and fold it in half lengthwise. While reading the material for the next lecture, write notes only on the left-hand side of the fold. When you run out of space, unfold, turn the paper over and write on the left half some more.
Then, in lecture, add in the things you didn’t realize were important or weren’t in the text on the right-hand side directly opposite where the topic appears in your text notes. It’s a lot less frantic scribbling in lecture, and it helps keep everything together.

86 ally November 18, 2013 at 1:56 am

it is very useful, when i was a student, i always use pen and paper. i think it is very easy to take notes and i can write it directly on my textbook. but after work and now, i tend to use notes software. bcz it can be edited easily and saved in the same place, not difficult to find the information that i want. the software is efficient notes, you guys can have a try, it has three version, free, for home and for business. i use the version for home. it could almost fulfill my needs. http://www.efficientsoftware.net/notes/

87 Areatha January 21, 2014 at 8:14 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you! :-)

88 Jessy March 12, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Some of the professors do not mind students recording the lecture. I study in the community college where the classes are very small and you can easily record the lecture on your smart phone. That is what I do most of the classes. For the ones that do not allow recording I just use word document on my laptop.

89 Brenan March 17, 2014 at 1:54 am

Although this is time consuming when it comes to the review stage, I’ve found in some of my college classes when the professor is explaining a long central point at a quick pace I try to write down what I can, but I record my lectures and write down the time in the lecture where the professor utters the important point. When I review the lecture, I open up the recording and transcribe in a summary of the important point that I had missed earlier. It helps in classes where the lecture moves from important point to point rather quickly.

Also, I can’t stress enough the importance of periodic review; I was told within 48 hours of a lecture you lose upwards of 60% of material learnt unless periodic review of some sort is done to move the material from short-term memory to long-term memory. Unfortunately for me, the busier I become towards the end of semesters with papers, the less I review and I set myself up for a mountain to climb come exam time.

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