College is full of all sorts of new experiences and challenges. For many students, one of these challenges is getting used to open-ended lecture-style courses. Taking good notes in college isn’t as simple as it was in high school, and there’s a much higher expectation of individual initiative and discipline.
How to Take Good Notes in College
Use the tips below to learn how to take good notes in college. With a little effort up front, you can simplify and organize the notetaking process to set yourself up for greater success.
Sit at the Front of the Class
Many students seem to have an aversion to sitting at the front of the class, but it’s the best place to stay attentive. You might feel exposed or that your instructor will be able to tell if you’re not paying attention. But if your goal is to take better notes, that’s not such a bad thing, right?
Would you rather be in the front row at a concert or in the back of the balcony? Treat class the same way. For the most immersive experience, choose the front of the class.
Decide on the Best Strategy (Paper or Digital)
Taking effective notes in college well requires a strategy. The two best ways to take notes in college are on paper with pencil or pens, or digital, and we’ll talk more in depth about both strategies in later points. First, though, you need to select the system that works better for you, your approach to learning, and the classes that you’re taking this semester.
Most people can type faster than they can write, but some class formats might require a more visual approach to notetaking. If you’re using a laptop, drawing even simple illustrations on the fly can be really tough to do.
There’s also research that shows people retain information better when they handwrite it than when they type it. If the goal is to remember what you’ve learned—and isn’t it?—then you might want to give taking notes by hand another try.
Keep Your Notes Short
It’s tempting to try and capture every detail the lecturer says, but this is actually counterproductive. If you’re an exceptionally fast typist, you might be able to capture nearly everything. But should you? Do you really want to head into an exam with six pages of typed notes from each lecture day?
It’s better to keep your notes to a short summary, focusing on what seems to be the most important. You also don’t need to write down stuff you already know. Focus on the information that’s new. Make sure you get that down, and don’t sweat the rest.
If you choose to handwrite your notes, make sure you can read what you’re writing. Write as neatly as you can so that you don’t have to spend a bunch of time decoding yourself later.
Of course, many people struggle to do this, whether merely due to questionable penmanship or a physical limitation or injury. When writing quickly, if you can’t write neatly enough to easily read your notes later, then you might need to consider switching to another notetaking method.
Disorganized notes can be a nightmare when it comes time to study. Whether you’re writing by hand or typing into a laptop or tablet, set up a system before you begin. Microsoft OneNote is an excellent app that most college students already have access to. This notetaking app allows you to organize your notes into virtual notebooks and tabs.
If you’re handwriting your notes, consider having notebooks for each class or a three-ring binder with tabs for each course. Within a course, you might further organize your notes by unit or discipline.
We can’t tell you which plan is right for you, but we can tell you that it’s essential to have an organizational plan before you get started.
We live in an information-saturated age, and we all love to think we can multitask like a pro. There’s just one problem with this theory: We can’t. Both psychology and neuroscience have clearly shown that multitasking is a myth. When we attempt to multitask, all we really do is switch quickly from one task to another. And every time your brain does this, there’s a loss in performance as the brain recalibrates.
What does this mean for taking notes in college and preparing for exams? Simple: Every momentary glance over to social media is a second (or 30) that you aren’t actually listening. The same goes for every email, chat message, or even distracted glances at someone else in the room.
If you’re taking notes on a device, turn off notifications from all but the most essential apps. You can’t afford the distractions if you want to take good notes.
Develop a System
One of our favorite notetaking tips for college is to develop a system. Your brain craves routine, so finding a good one for notetaking will set you up for success.
For example, don’t wait until the lecture starts to get your orienting information (date, class, topic, etc.) down. Take some time before the week begins to set up your notetaking space for the coming week so that when you get to class, you’re ready to start taking notes as soon as the lecturer starts.
There’s more to developing a system, of course. We’ll cover those aspects in some of the other points.
Use Space Meaningfully
There’s nothing so daunting at exam time as a notebook crammed wall to wall with tiny text that all looks the same. Whether you’re handwriting or taking notes digitally, it’s important to use space meaningfully.
Write the main points larger than the rest (or use built-in heading levels in OneNote, Word, or wherever you’re taking your digital notes). Leave margin space for “rabbit trails” or asides that seem important.
Allow yourself space for a quick illustration or diagram, if that makes sense for your discipline. You can also highlight key terms to draw your attention back to them. (This works just as well digitally as on paper, by the way.)
Abbreviations are everywhere and for good reason. They save time and can even work as memory aids. Whether you’re typing or writing by hand, you simply don’t need to write out everything. Find a way to abbreviate your course name, for example. (History of Civilization already gets cut down to History of Civ. But for your handwriting purposes, why not cut it down to HCiv?)
The same goes for frequently used terms, especially long or technical ones. Once you know the term, find an abbreviation that you’ll remember. Save your fingers and your brain a little time.
Focus on Main Points
When it comes to taking good notes in college, you’ll never capture everything—not effectively, anyway. It’s far better to focus on the main points. Many lecturers are working from an outline, and even if they aren’t, their main points may naturally follow one.
Note the topic of the lecture, then form the points into outlines. Not only will this help you avoid trying to write down absolutely everything, but it will also bring a structure to your notes that should greatly increase the quality of both your learning and recall.
Think While You Write
We mentioned above how mindlessly typing every word you hear doesn’t tend to be very helpful. The same is true even if you’re writing by hand. Make sure you keep your brain engaged and think while you write.
Think about more than the words your instructor is saying. Think instead about why your instructor is saying them and what the important themes are that you need to glean from what the lecturer is saying.
Good notetaking involves writing down your own conclusions from what’s being said, not just writing down every word.
Use Visual Elements
Taking notes tends to be a pretty text-based affair. But with a little creativity and imagination, you can enhance your notes with visual elements. Some aspects of learning are far easier to sketch in a diagram or illustration form than they are to write out verbatim. If you have the ability, consider illustrating certain visual elements rather than just writing words about them.
Snapping photos can be another great tactic to enhance your notetaking. Now, some lecturers may be leery of this, so you may need to explain your intentions. But snapping a quick photo of a particularly text-heavy PowerPoint slide can save you a lot of mindless writing and help you focus on what you’re hearing instead.
If you’re using a notetaking app, you’ll be able to drop these photos directly into your notes. Make sure to do so the same day, though, so you’re not scrambling later on trying to figure out which photo goes with which section.
Highlight Key Points
Earlier, we recommended creating an outline in your notes and making the main points of the outline larger. But very often, there will be other standalone conclusions or takeaways that your professor mentions. These may not be the main outline points, but often it’s clear from the presentation that they are important.
These are the sorts of conclusions that find their way onto exams, but they can trip up some students since they aren’t top-level outline points. You’ll want to distinguish these in some way from other subpoints or notes.
We recommend to underline or highlight key points like this in a specific color. If you’re using yellow for important terms, perhaps use blue for these critical points.
Usually, college students are advised to cite their sources only when a paper or research project is in view. Of course, we agree that you should do that, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Part of taking good notes in college is citing any sources that the lecturer cites. You never know when you might need to go deeper into the source material, such as for a paper that has not yet been assigned. You’ll be in better shape than your peers if you know exactly which sources your professor has already tacitly recommended.
Number Your Pages
This tip is exclusively for those who take notes by hand. If you’re taking notes in a three-ring binder, we can’t stress enough how important it is to number your pages. You’re just one binder drop away from having no idea what’s chapter one and what’s chapter six, and you have better things to do with your time than painstakingly piece your notes back together.
Write Down Questions
Another way to keep your brain in gear as you take notes is to write down questions as you think of them. Some traditional lecturers may not field questions until the end of the lecture, and it’s tough to remember that point from five minutes in that you wanted clarification about.
Writing down questions as you have them is a great way to stay engaged, and it also provides you a resource for following up either in class or outside of class with your professor. Following this piece of advice will help you learn better, and it will also help you look better with your professor. And that can’t hurt, right?
Handwrite, Then Type Later
We mentioned earlier the research that shows the value of handwriting your notes in terms of memory and recall. There are some downsides to handwritten notes, though. One of the biggest is that they are not easily searchable.
When you have a big exam looming, wouldn’t it be nice to easily search all your notes for the entire course for a specific term? It certainly sounds better than flipping through pages upon pages of chicken scratch, looking for what’s relevant.
If you want the best of both worlds, build some time into your routine each evening to convert your handwritten notes into organized, typed notes. Yes, this takes a little more time. But you gain much from it: The initial handwriting is valuable, and the process of re-typing it is your first level of review.
You’ll naturally start to categorize and synthesize the information during this process, and you’ll have a searchable database at your fingertips.
Consider Notetaking Apps
If you’re taking notes digitally, be sure you’re using a quality notetaking tool. We’ve already mentioned Microsoft OneNote as a powerful option. Many students swear by Evernote, especially those using an iPad for their notetaking. If you’re a more visual person, you might appreciate Milanote even more.
Review Your Notes
Yes, this seems obvious, but don’t forget to review your notes periodically—not just at exam time. Review your notes periodically to keep the content fresh in your mind so you’re not cramming just before exams.
Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a complete list of our programs on our website or reach out directly!