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Aug 09 2016
by Catherine Cheng

A Comprehensive Guide to Effective and Efficient Note Taking

By Catherine Cheng - Aug 09 2016
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Note taking is an important skill for all students to have, but it can also be a painful experiance. Hopefully, this guide will help you find your own style of note taking and make it a little less tortuous.

Note Taking Systems

1. Cornell Method

This method is definitely the one your teachers pushed for in middle school and/or high school and you probably hated it. It boils down to leaving margin space on the left where you label each point or idea with a key word. On the right side, you take your notes and skip down a few lines each time a new idea begins. 

I used to look down on this method a lot, but if you boil it down, it is essentially just making a two column chart for your notes. In the left column, write the section title, and in the right column, write your content. It's simple, succinct and creates a minimalistic visual effect.

Catherine Cheng

Advantages: effortless, easy reviewing by covering up the right column
Disadvantages: dividing page may be tedious for some

2. Outline Method

This is traditionally my favorite way of taking notes since I prefer taking notes on the computer. Put simply, you divide your notes into levels of importance and indent each time you go deeper in the levels. For example, section one might have the topic heading, section two a concept and section three a detail. 

Outlining is a common method and is used due to how it organizes information in an easy to read manner. Most of us find ourselves naturally indenting and sectioning notes off in the first place.

Catherine Cheng

Advantages: well-organized, establishes relationships between notes
Disadvantages: requires more effort when taking, may become disorganized quickly

3. Mapping Method

This method is a throwback to elementary school where you drew webs and maps all the time. To take notes in this manner, start with the big idea and then make connections to each individual point that follows. For example, you might write "biology" as your big title and then write "botany," "zoology," "microbiology" and "genetics" underneath it, each in its own separate space before connection them back to biology. 

Catherine Cheng

Advantages: visually organized, consise
Disadvantages: may suffer from brevity of infomation, hard to edit

4. Charting Method

This method is organization heavy and requires you to set your paper up into columns with appropriate labels. After you divide your paper up, record your notes down in the relevant column. It is incredibly useful for content heavy courses like history where there are lots of ways to subdivide out infomation (date, people, event, significance, etc.) and a need for maximum organization.

Catherine Cheng

Advantages: systematic, pulls out most relevant infomation, easy review for fact memorization
Disadvantages: tricky to set up, need to know content covered beforehand 

5. Sentence Method

This is perhaps the simplest method on this list and involves writing each new thought on separate lines and number the thoughts as you go. It works much like the outline method but without the level division. 

Catherine Cheng

Advantages: simplistic, records most infomation
Disadvantages: hard to distinguish major/minor points, difficult to edit and review

Tips and Tricks

1. Colors

Personally, I find switching pens and highlighters distracting, but this is a popular method because it does work for a lot of people. Color coordinate your notes by assigning a particular color to important terms, concepts, definitions, etc. These colors catch your eye and help you key out important notes when you are studying. 

Alternatively, if you aren't about color coordination, you can still try switching up the pens and colors you use when note taking. Sometimes introducing a new pen into your routine can make taking notes more exciting and fun.

2. Writing "BIG" Questions

A good way to summarize your notes and pave the way for later review sessions is to group your notes by questions. Think of one or two key questions for each set of infomation and write them down. 

When you're reviewing, instead of starting with rereading your notes, see if you can answer the questions you wrote down. This method will help focus your review sessions and point out which areas you need to spend more time on.

3. Graph and Unlined Paper

You are NOT limited to college ruled paper. If you find yourself constricted by the rigidity of the lines or bound by the structure of the paper, try a different type of paper. For example, math doesn't translate well to lines. Try graph paper instead or unlined paper and you might find you enjoy the experiance a lot more and your notes may also become more organized as a result. Personally, I'm a fan of using unlined paper when taking notes because it makes me feel like I have more control of the style of note taking I choose since I am no longer bound by lines or margin spaces.

4. Index Cards

Using index cards is my favorite trick. There are quite a few ways you can employ index cards, I'll talk about two of them.

First, you can take notes on index cards. Using different sized paper to take your notes can change the way you take notes. In limiting the space you suddenly have for note taking, you are forced to parse down infomation and only write down what is necessary and important. This is a good trick is you tend to write too much. It also makes you feel accomplished. There is nothing I like more than holding a large stack of filled out index cards. 

Second, you can use index cards as study hacks. Something I like to do when I'm studying is write down all the important things I have to know for an exam, basically creating an brief (emphasis on brief) outline of key points. Since index cards are small, you can take them with you everywhere and review right up till the exam and since you have already filtered the infomation down, you will have a easier time reviewing the key points multiple times. This will make studying a lot more digestible.

5. Digital Notes

There have been many studious showing the memory retention benefits of writing things by hand, however, hand-writing notes simply does not work for everyone. If you are someone who enjoys the organizational, backup, versatility and proofreading functions of a computer, definitely consider taking digital notes instead of analog ones. This is especially true if you have a hard time reading your own handwriting, type faster than you write and/or get caught up in alignment or organization details when taking notes by hand.

Here are some great software for digital note taking and their advantages:

Google Docs: collaboration, syncing across devices

Microsoft Word: huge selection of tools for text editting and proofreading, perfect for lecture notes

Microsoft OneNote: creation of a digital "journal," organizing thoughts, to-do lists, projects

Evernote: clipping web pages, recording audio, taking expansive notes

Notepad: minimal distractions, simplistic

If you do decide to take digital notes, here are some DOs and DON'Ts:

DO backup and sync your files to your multiple devices or flashdrive.

DON'T separate notes for the same lecture into different files.

DO work on your typing speed and accuracy.

DON'T type down everything you hear.

DO use a printer and make hard copies of your notes for studying.

DON'T focus solely on digital study methods.

DO use visual cues such as bold, italic, underline and font size.

DON'T get caught up in making everything look perfect.

DO check with your professor to see if using a computer is okay.

DON'T get distracted in class by the digital world.

6. Post It Notes

Post it notes are either your best friend or your worst enemy. Some people really like the organized clutter effect post it notes produces, others are extremely turned off by it. Regardless, you can use post it notes for spontaneous to-do lists, reminders and covering up portions of your notes with guiding concepts, questions and more notes! 

7. Abbreviations and Symbols

This hack is self-explanatory. Develop your own shorthand so you are able to take notes more quickly and efficiently. However, don't create weird keywords for everything or else you might find the process of rereading and studying your notes challenging. 

It's also a good idea to find organizational symbols you enjoy. Some people don't like bullets, for example, and prefer crosses or plus signs. A large part of note taking is organization so find what you like early so you don't have to fret about it when you're actually taking notes.

Last Minute Advice

1. Don't get caught up in fads, find what works for you.

No, bullet journaling is not the answer to all of your problems. It's easy to make excuses for yourself such as "I just haven't found the right system yet," but unless you're willing to actually sit down and try to write notes, you're never going to find the right system.

2. Sticking to a method is more important than finding one.

It may be difficult to comprehend your notes later if you take notes using a different system each day. Find a system you like early on and stick to it, this will make you a master at using it and pay off in terms of time saved.

3. Work on your handwriting if taking notes bothers you because of it.

Improving your handwriting is a big investment, but it may be worth it if you can't read your own handwriting or if you write incredibly slowly.

4. Actually use your notes, why take them if you aren't going to?

If you don't actually study from your notes, you're going to discourage yourself from taking notes in the future. Even if you read over your notes just once, that's better than not reading over them at all. SKIMMING is okay!

5. Title your notes with at least a subject and date.

This is especially true if you're going to use loose leaf paper for note taking. If you don't date your pages, you may have a hard time figuring out how to sort things later. Titling your notes will also help you locate material during study sessions.

6. Leave space for points you missed and fill them out later.

This is more important for important concepts than small details. Either way, don't get caught up on filling in the missing infomation during the lecture, since it'll cause you to miss later infomation. Fill it in after class instead.

7. Buy stationery you like, you'll be more excited to use them.

Of course, don't buy five journals you'll never use because they're just really cute, but it's definitely okay to splurge a little on stationary you are drawn to.

8. Print class materials so you can take notes on top of them.

Many professors will post their slides or notes on their website. Why you shouldn't solely rely on these materials, you should definitely take advantage of them. Printing them out will save you a lot of time writing and you'll be less likely to miss infomation that's not on the slide or handout.

9. Record a lecture (with permission) if it's especially confusing and listen to it again after class.

You can also have a friend record a lecture for you if you're out sick that day. Of course, make sure it's alright with your professor before you record anything. Don't let this become a replacement for note taking though, because you won't want to listen to hours of lectures again when you're studying. Instead, use this as a tool to fill in holes in your notes.

10. Forgive yourself for grammar and spelling errors.

This is especially true if you are listening to a fast lecture or take notes slowly. Correcting every mistake will only slow you down and cause you to miss important infomation. Make sure your notes are readable, but don't get caught up on little details. 

Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list of tips and tricks, go out and test things yourself. You never know what might work and not work for you until you try. Happy note taking!

Lead Image Credit: Jazmin Quaynor via Unsplash

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Catherine Cheng - The University of Texas at Austin

Catherine Cheng is a freshman at the University of Texas – Austin majoring in Business and hopefully picking up a certificate in Computer Science. She enjoys casually binge watching TV shows, drinking iced tea, and overusing Sriracha. In her free time, she can be found writing prose and musing about contemporary poetry books.

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