Take better notes on what you learn in class (or what you read in a text) – this will not only provide you with effective material to study later but will help you actively engage with the material and learn more from it.
Repeated studies have found that taking better notes leads to improved academic achievement 1Salame and Thompson, “Student’s Views on Strategic Note-Taking and Its Impact on Performance, Achievement, and Learning” (2020) https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1249102
So, here are some tips to help you write better notes:
Use your own words
While it is easy to write down what the teacher says verbatim or copy passages out, you will engage your brain more, and learn more, if you use your own words.
Quality over Quantity
Don’t write too much – stick to what is important. Note-taking is an active process that involves understanding, evaluating, and sorting information before writing it down.
Writing too much probably means that you are not taking the time to separate out what is important. You will end up with more detail than you need when studying later.
When taking notes in class, it is important to spend time really listening and thinking about what the teacher is saying and participating in any class discussions or activities. Remember – as long as you provide some scaffolding in your notes, you can add more detail after class.
Listen out for repetition
Anything that the teacher repeats or emphasizes is an important point that you are going to need later. Write it down! Use a different color.
Include specific examples
Noting down specific examples will help your learning by encouraging you to think about how what you are learning relates to the real world and will help jog your memory later. You don’t have to write down the full detail – just enough to remind yourself later.
Take advantage of your Visual learning style
If you have a Visual learning style (find out here) include drawings and symbols in your notes. Use color coding to organize your material. Make each page look unique! This will help you remember the information later.
Make the most of your Aural learning style
If you have an Aural learning style it will be important to focus on listening in class and participating in discussions. This can make it difficult to take good notes. Jot down only the main points and leave space to fill in the gaps from memory after class. If you still have gaps in your notes, talk to other students to fill those gaps.
If your teacher has provided notes or slides that you can print out, it is OK to take advantage of them – but don’t limit your note-taking activities to just printing them out! The advantage of having provided notes is that you can focus on what is going on in class, but you do still need to be active in your learning. You can add details or illustrations to the provided notes, highlight important points, note down any questions you have, and make the most of the time you have in class by joining in on discussions.
It is vital that you take time after class to summarize the provided notes, to ensure that you have processed the information.
Paper or electronic notes?
Some studies have shown that paper notes work best, but the evidence is not conclusive. It is likely that how you take notes, and how you review them, is more significant than whether your use a pen or a laptop.
Keep in mind that electronic devices make it easy to copy material verbatim. If you are going to use a laptop, make sure that you put effort into actively processing the information.
Another significant downside of electronic devices is that they can be distracting. In recent research, Flanigan and Titsworth found that “the presence of digital distraction was particularly disruptive to the quality and quantity of laptop users’ lecture notes relative to longhand note takers” 2“The impact of digital distraction on lecture note taking and student learning” (2020). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11251-020-09517-2
Your note-taking is not finished when class is over. Now is the time to review and complete your notes.
Read through your notes while remembering what happened in class. Did you capture all the important points? Use your textbook, the Internet, or discussions with other students to fill in any gaps. This is particularly important for those with an Aural learning style.
If you have a Visual learning style, take the time to draw a diagram to represent all the important points covered in the class.
Think about how what you are learning relates to other parts of your course and to other things you know. Note down any relevant links with other class material and to your own experiences. A mind map may be helpful.
If there is significant material to memorize, create flashcards and review them.
Studying from your notes
When it comes time to study for a test or exam, your notes are your most important resource.
Read through your notes, focusing on the points that are likely to be important for the exam, and taking notice of anything that seems unclear. Find out more about anything important that you are confused about.
Reduce your notes by summarizing them so that they focus on the main points with additional words or phrases that prompt you to recall the extra detail.
Recreate your summarized notes from memory.
Look through your notes and make up possible exam questions. Practice answering those questions.