Better notes, better grades
7 methods for taking notes in class
Do you dream of doing better on tests and getting better grades? According to a recent study by Salame and Thompson (2020) part of the way to make your dreams a reality could depend on how you take notes during class. In the study, the authors found a correlation between better note-taking and a higher grade point average. Successful students questioned in the study also felt that note-taking improved their recall of course material. How can that be? When you take notes, you are engaging in active learning rather than passively listening to your instructor. Active learning can help you better remember information you hear long-term.
Although note-taking seems easy on its surface, to take good notes, you’ll need to be able to multitask. You’ll have to first understand what’s being said and then quickly formulate it in your own words while still listening to your instructor’s next point. Instead of writing out exactly what your professor says, you’ll want to take the long complicated sentences you hear and boil them down to their essence in your own words in a summary. This summary should contain the most important points on the topic and any new information that you learned. You should then later be able to bring these new insights together with your own ideas and previous knowledge.
Below we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of digital and handwritten notes and then we’ll examine seven different methods you can try.
Should I type or write out my notes by hand?
Whether you’re sitting in a lecture hall or taking part in an online course, you’ll see that your peers take notes in many different ways. Some might have their laptop on the table and type every word that the professor says. Others are bent over their notebooks writing up a storm. Others use a digital stylus and tablet. Whichever method you choose, I recommend consistently working with the same technique for all of your courses. Otherwise, if some of your notes are in a notebook and some are saved on your computer, you’ll need to spend time looking for which notes are where.
My preferred method during my own studies was to write out my notes by hand. Just by luck, I apparently hit upon the most effective approach, since a 2009 study by Smoker, Murphy and Rockwell found that writing notes by hand helped participants better remember the course material.
Other advantages of handwritten notes compared to typed notes are:
- Images and formulas are easier to recreate.
- Your notebook will never run out of batteries.
- A notebook and pencil are much cheaper than a laptop or tablet.
- You won’t be distracted by other applications on your device.
Of course, there are also disadvantages to taking notes by hand:
- They can’t be easily searched.
- They can be lost more easily and it’s less likely you’ll have a copy of them.
- Sometimes you might not be able to read your own writing.
- You might end up having to carry around a lot of paper with you.
To take advantage of the best of both worlds, my suggestion is to combine the two approaches. During your courses, write your notes by hand. Later on that day, digitize them. Directly after your course, you’ll be better able to reconstruct any notes that are illegible, and you will remember any abbreviations that you used. Although this combined approach means more work upfront, it’s worth it later on when preparing for an exam, since you’ll be able to more easily search, read, and understand your notes.
Ideally, you’ll use a system that directly transfers your notes into a digital format so that you don’t need to re-type or scan them. However, the text recognition capabilities of your smart pen or tablet depend on how legible your handwriting is, so do take that into consideration before shelling out a lot of money on a fancy new device.
Before we talk more about digitization, let’s go back to step 1: taking notes during class. How can you best keep track of the course material in your own words?
You can of course just start writing the most important information on the next empty page in your notebook. But the danger is that you’ll think everything is important and end up writing too much. Or the opposite can happen: you’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and still have a blank piece of paper in front of you at the end of class.
Instead of concentrating on the quantity of notes, try to focus instead on their quality. Don’t write what you hear word-for-word, but instead keep an ear out for key terms, concepts, dates, or other information and jot them down in short phrases or bullet points. In this way you can keep up with what you’re hearing and acquire and process new information at the same time. Make use of abbreviations and symbols, for example exclamation marks, to mark especially important points that may be tested later on. If you get a copy of the course slides before class, you can print them out with a wider margin so that you have enough space for your notes. This makes it easier to link your notes with their source, and the limited amount of space will also force you to keep your notes succinct. If you prefer to take notes in a notebook or a sheet of paper, enter important information you’ll need later on, such as the date of the course, the main topic, and any additional resources to consult later.
Beyond these general guidelines, you can optimize your note taking by following one of the seven tried-and-true methods described below:
- The Cornell method
In this popular note-taking approach, a piece of paper is folded lengthwise, with a wider area on the right side and a narrower area on the left side. During class, you take notes as normal on the right side. On the left side you keep track of which concepts are most important, which words are key terms, and which questions you have. These notes on the left will help you better remember the concepts you’re learning about. When class is over, you can draw a horizontal line below your notes and formulate a summary of your notes.
Instead of folding a piece of paper, you can also use Cornell templates, as in this example posted on Twitter.
- The outline method
In this approach, you create a hierarchical outline. The overarching topic of the class is placed at the top level. Sub-topics appear underneath and are indented. The advantage of this method is that the relationship of different concepts to each other is quickly apparent. Relative importance is also easy to judge; the closer a sub-topic is to the main topic, the more important it is.
This approach does take some practice, since you have the extra task of building a hierarchial structure while also taking notes and listening. It also may not be well-suited to lectures or topics that are less well-structured.
Mind maps are great for documenting relationships between ideas without the rigidity of a hierarchical category structure. Each idea or piece of information is entered in its own circle. Related ideas are then connected to each other with lines. Mind maps are especially good for visual thinkers; as you connect pieces of information on the page, your brain will better remember these connections.
For highly structured topics with lots of facts, for example, a lecture covering historical events, it can make sense to write your notes in table format. You can add individual notes to category rows or columns. The table doesn’t have to be perfectly drawn with a ruler – it just needs to help you maintain an overview of your information.
With this approach, every piece of information is re-formulated as a sentence containing all key information. Each sentence is numbered and written on a line of its own and additional sentences follow in ascending numerical order. In order to make sentences fit on one line, it can make sense to use abbreviations.
As you take notes, re-write them as a question and answer pair. This approach is especially helpful when it comes time to prepare for an exam.
- Color coding
Use different color markers to designate importance or for distinguishing between different types of notes (definition, key concept, opposing viewpoint, etc.). This method can be combined with all the others above or employed when reviewing your notes later on.
Digitize your notes
Now that you know how to take notes by hand, it’s time for the next step: saving them in digital format. If you used one of the techniques above and want to save your notes exactly as you originally recorded them, you can simply re-type or scan your notes. If you used the outline, sentence or question methods, you can simply save them in whatever word processor you’re using. Cornell notes can be saved in Word with this template from the Australian National University. For digital mind maps there are a number of programs and apps to choose from. Facts in tables should be saved in a spreadsheet program.
Save your digitized notes together with all of the additional handouts, syllabi, slides, and readings from your courses in your personal search engine for your courses. When it comes time to prepare for an upcoming exam, you’ll easily be able to find what you need to prepare, and hopefully the test will then go as you always dreamed.
Which note-taking method works best for you? Do you take notes digitally, by hand, or both? Share your thoughts with us and other blog readers directly under the Facebook post for this blog post or by sending us as email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further reading:
California Polytechnic State University. (2020). Note Taking Systems. https://asc.calpoly.edu/ssl/notetakingsystems
Salame, I. I., & Thompson, A. (2020). Students’ Views on Strategic Note-taking and its Impact on Performance, Achievement, and Learning. International Journal of Instruction, 13(2), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.29333/iji.2020.1321a
Smoker, T. J., Murphy, C. E., & Rockwell, A. K. (2009). Comparing Memory for Handwriting versus Typing. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 53(22), 1744–1747. https://doi.org/10.1177/154193120905302218