If my two-and-a-half years of college have taught me anything, it’s that good note-taking is tantamount to success. The difference between average and high grades is not always a result of the work you submit, but rather how well you listen.
There are many different ways to take notes, and most decisions are made from personal preference. However, here are a few questions that are helpful to “decoding” the best form of notetaking for you!
Will the lecture slides be put online later?
If the answer is yes, ask yourself whether you believe it would be more beneficial to focus on sitting and listening in class without writing the slides, to write notes down but not verbatim from the slides, or to write down the slides. It can often be difficult to listen to the lecture and write at the same time so be sure you are aware of your own ability.
Am I able to use a computer in this class?
If the answer is yes, it is important to be honest regarding whether you believe that will help you or potentially distract you. If the latter is true, you can either refrain from taking notes on your computer or use a free app like SelfControl that blocks potentially distracting websites and applications on your computer.
Is this class lecture or discussion-based?
If the class is a lecture and you are able to use a computer in a way that is not distracting to you, this is often the best option. It allows you to take down all the information and then sort through it later. However, if the class is discussion-based, whether you are able to use a computer or not, often having a device in front of you creates a barrier between you and others in the classroom. In this situation, taking notes by hand may be your best option.
Does this class have a lot of diagrams and equations?
In my experience, most science and math classes are best recorded on paper. It takes a long time to format your page to write certain equations and draw diagrams in a way that flows with the rest of the information you are given. On the contrary, many history and humanities courses are best typed as there is often a large influx of detailed information that may be difficult to write down in a timely and comprehensive fashion.
And now that you’ve decided how to take your notes, here are a few tips to help you navigate what to take notes on!
Make a mess of your textbooks:
Depending on your situation, this may not apply to you. However, if you are able to write in your textbooks and novels I have found this is often the best way to critically read and take notes. Highlight and underline important points in the text, and write your analysis and thoughts in the margins. This allows for a deeper level of understanding and retainment of the text you have been assigned.
Make note of potential exam questions:
Most often, the professor will be very clear about the information he or she believes in most important. This may be in the form of a simple “this will be on the exam”, a concept they spend a long time teaching, or a highlighted point on a slide. I often put a “*” next to these points in my notes so I can spend extra time on them when I go back and study.
Use bullet points:
Instead of writing long, drawn-out sentences, simplify the concepts you’ve been given with the use of bullet points. This allows you to put ideas, concepts, philosophies, events, etc. into your own words in a way that again, you can understand and retain.
Being a visual learner, I’ve found that using color in my notes whether it be highlighting important dates in pink, or even just writing my headers in red helps me to compartmentalize information in my brain in a way that I can visually recall.
Create study guides separate from your notes:
When it comes to putting your notes to use whether it be for the outline of a paper or an upcoming exam, refashion them into a study guide. This forces you to go through your notes critically, being sure to only write down the most important information.
Experiment with different methods:
There have been times where I’ve had a typed study guide, a written study guide, physical flashcards and a Quizlet. While I’m not suggesting the need to go to this extreme, often times note-taking and studying is trail-and-error. We can’t know what will and won’t work best until we try!