How to Take A+ Notes

The art of effective note-taking is a craft that is worth it for all college students to master. Note-taking is the foundation to our lives as students, so it is not a matter to be taken lightly. A little bit of habit-formation now will help you in the long run - not only will you be able to take your notes faster and cleaner, but perfecting your note-taking strategy will also help you get more out of your classes—which equals less time studying!

Having been a college student for the past four years now, I can confidently say that I have learned the best and the worst ways to take notes. Read on for some personal tips to consider in creating your note-taking style… I promise, you will be a changed student overnight, just like that:

Write, Don’t Type

Scientific studies have proven that students who hand-write their notes retain more information from the lecture then students who type their notes. This is because when you type your notes, your brain needs to do far less active listening then when you have to hand-write them. You may be able to write more words in a less amount of time, but you will be retaining much less… learning is more than simple recitation of material. Plus, your laptop is distraction central!

Create Your Own Signature Style

The best part about note-taking is that there is million and a half different ways to do it. Your notes should be a creation that you are proud of by the time you finish them at the end of each class. Okay, maybe that is going a little too deep… but there is some truth to it. You want your notes to be something that you are happy to look at when you are studying. This means, write neatly. Decide how you like to write your titles, how much spacing you like, what type of bullet points to use. It sounds petty, but trust me, all these little details add up in the long run when you are trying to review your notes.

Cornell note method. Photo courtesy of The College Juice

The Cornell Method

This method of note-taking, created at Cornell University, has been proven to help you organize and retain information from lectures more effectively. Also, because of it’s clear layout, this method of note-taking also helps your brain process the information better during review/study sessions. This is the only way I take notes, and the biggest advantage I have found from using it is that instead of linking terms to definitions in and downward format (where the term is listed like a title: on top of the definition), this method helps you link terms to their definitions in a left-to-right motion. Like the way we read books. There are numerous advantages to this system—it is easy to read and easy to write, it allows you to skip terms and come back later to add more information, and also gives you extra space in the left margin to add extra details and examples. I have also found it effective when studying because you can cover up the definitions on the right column while looking at the term on the left column and quiz your memory. Try it, I promise, this method won’t let you down.

Be Consistent, But Not Too Rigid

Once you find your style, you need to stay faithful to it. But this does not mean you can’t alter the way you write. The reality is that notes for each of your classes will need to be tailored the specific way that the professor teaches the material in that class. Notes for a content-heavy, classes will look different than the classes that require more critical and creative thinking. In the first case, make sure you develop a way to write quickly… for instance I like to have a certain style of labeling my titles, a certain method to create bullet points and sub-points, as well as a specific symbol for examples and extra notes that the professor adds. In terms of taking notes for the more analytical classes (such as many philosophy and religion classes I have taken, make sure to write down your thoughts as they come up, as well as short sentences that sum up the direction of the conversation that day. In this case, I like to have symbols that represent things that the professor says, and symbols for personal questions or ties to other information that come up in my head.

Don’t Overdo Color

Color is great, but more color will not help you remember more. If anything, it will just slow you down in your note-taking process, and also create more distraction when you are trying to study the notes. I like to stick to 3 colors - black for the main part of my notes, blue for writing the date and main title, and red for extra thoughts/questions for the material or important notes that the professor adds. Then, when reviewing the notes, I like to use a yellow highlighter to highlight just the top 2 or 3 most important concepts from the day.

… But Do Have a Nice “Note-Taking” Pen

Nice pens are great. I am a sucker for Sharpie pens (although I know some people don’t particularly care for them), but find what makes writing most comfortable for you. Weather it’s a pen that is pretty to look at, comfortable to hold, or writes the most clearly (like sharpie pens!), using the same type of pen is part of your own unique note-taking style.

Don’t be Afraid to Re-Write

I wouldn’t recommend making this a habit for all of your classes, but the truth is that some classes will require this (especially the most content-heavy classes). This is a good thing, because repetition is good for the brain, and writing your notes the second time will give you time to organize all the material in your head. Plus, if your professor posts their lecture slides, you can look at the slides while you do this step and add more information that you may have missed during class. Clarity is the foundation to comprehension, so do what you have to do to make things as clear as possible.

Learning how to take good notes is a skill that will benefit you in more areas of your life than just your college years. Mastering the art of note-taking means mastering how to exercise your brain, and strengthening the way in which it processes information… and no matter what you do after college, life will be a journey of continually learning new things, of constantly taking in life lessons and finding meaning in them.