Next to studying, if there is one task that you’ve been doing a lot of throughout your school life, it would be NOTE TAKING. Primary School, High School…you have been taking notes from a large number of teachers.
The BIG QUESTION is this: “Have you been taking notes effectively?”
I know for a fact that I sure haven’t.
From personal experience, I can trace my inefficient note taking skills to “terror” teachers in High School whose every word you need to commit to paper unless you end up missing important facts that may come out in future tests. Turned out this verbatim note taking was unnecessary because my teachers memorised or were reading most of the text straight out of the textbook. Perhaps, if I had made this discovery a lot sooner, I would’ve concentrated more on doing pre-reading of assigned texts than acting as a harassed transcriptionist. Maybe I would’ve gotten more A’s than B’s or C’s.
Well, having taken to heart these lessons from the past, let me introduce to you six methods of taking notes in university that will improve your note taking skills.
But before we get to these six methods, let us begin with…
Pre-Note Taking Preparations
Your preparations for note taking should not just include making sure that you have enough pens and pencils, notebooks, highlighters, your textbooks, sticky notes, and your laptop (more on your computer later).
Here are some pre-note taking preparation advice that you should keep in mind…
1) Always make sure that you have read or skimmed through (at the very least) pre-assigned readings before going to class.
Even if your teacher has not assigned anything, keep track of future topics through your syllabus. Doing so will enable you to know what to expect from your teacher’s lessons.
In a 2004 study conducted by Spies and Wilkin, they divided a group of law students into two. One group was required to read the assigned legal case before going to class. In the other group, the students were not expected to read the case and prepare before class. Their findings showed that the group of students that did read the case showed higher levels of understanding than the other group that did not.
2) Eat energy foods.
Before going to school, make sure that you eat a complete breakfast. In between classes, opt for complete, energy giving snacks that are balanced with carbs, protein, and fat. Great energy snack foods include crackers and cheese, apples and peanut butter, or energy bars. If you have the energy, you won’t feel sleepy, distracted, or hungry while listening to a lesson.
3) Keep yourself hydrated.
Refresh yourself in class by bringing a water bottle filled with cool water. Another healthy option is fruit juice. Avoid drinking colas and other carbonated drinks as these contain caffeine which may impair your focus in class.
4) Develop a mindset for learning.
Let’s face it. We all suck at certain subjects. In my case, I’ve had a serious dread for all my math subjects that it was enough for me to get a passing grade. But when I was told that I needed to get enough credits so I can take the course I wanted to take in uni, I had to change my mindset about math.
Rather than let my fear of math get the better of me, I developed a positive attitude. Instead of just being content with a passing grade, I studied harder. If there’s something I didn’t understand in a lesson, I would rather ask the teacher in class at once or request clarification between classes. I made friends with classmates who are doing great in math and study with them. Pretty soon, I found myself getting more B grades.
5) Always remember that your laptop is a tool for learning.
Many students are bringing their laptops to class to make note taking easier for them. However, laptops may not be as effective as you thought, especially if you don’t know how to use them properly in class.
For one, using laptops may turn you into a more efficient transcriptionist, but in truth impairs your learning functions. In a 2014 study, it showed that laptops caused students to just copy what their teachers are lecturing word for word. Their learning is impaired because their brains are only doing a shallow processing of the information as they type fast rather than absorbing and condensing facts while writing them down. As a result, students who used laptops did badly on conceptual tests compared to those who did their note taking by hand.
Secondly, a 2010 study showed that students who bring their laptops to class are only concentrated on learning at just 58 percent of their time. The remaining 42 percent is spent surfing, working on other assignments, or playing video games.
If laptops are that bad, should you go back to taking down notes longhand? Not at all…for as long as you remember that your laptop is meant to be a tool for learning. If you possess the self-discipline, you stand to benefit from laptop usage by taking verbatim lesson notes for later study. This way, you won’t miss important or emphasised facts that the teacher made. In some cases, laptop use is encouraged in certain classes so that you and your teacher can do quick online fact checks or Google for more information to better contribute in discussions.
6) Consider downloading helpful note taking apps.
Keeping and replacing actual notebooks can be a costly and study space-consuming affair. If you’re the type of person that takes a lot of notes and often misplaces them, you might want to consider downloading note taking apps like Rocketbook into your smartphone. These apps allow you to take pictures of your class notes and store them into Google Drive or other cloud servers. You not only have ready access to all your notes in various subjects; you can also easily delete notes that you no longer need.
The Six Best Note Taking Methods
Now, let’s get to the nitty gritty of our article, namely the six best methods for taking notes. You can try out these methods and choose which one is the most effective for learning and reviewing. You can also incorporate elements from one method into another.
Here are your six best note taking methods…
The Outline: Structured Note Taking
Outlines are the simplest and most commonly used for taking notes. You begin by identifying the key points or headings in the lesson. Beneath each of these points/headings, list down the sub-notes/facts as they are presented by your teacher.
If you have studied the class material beforehand, you can already prepare the initial outline, leaving enough space for the sub-notes to follow during the actual lesson. Even if the teacher presents the subject matter in a different order as what you have made in your initial outline, label or number the topics accordingly, so that your notes will be easy to review later.
The drawback to the outline method is that you may find yourself with a lot of notes to review. Rather than re-read the entire outline, you can read each main point and summarise what you have learned inside your head without turning too often to your notes. This will enable you to determine how much you have actually learned during class.
The Cornell Method: Review-Driven Note Taking
The Cornell Method is my personal favorite for taking notes because of the ease of reviewing what you have learned during a lesson.
In this method, you divide a page of your notebook into three columns: Notes, Cues, and Summary. The widest middle column is the Notes Section. This is where you take down the facts as they are being taught during class. The Cues Section contains the main points emphasised during the lesson. This will help you to identify certain items or topics that may resurface in future lessons or exams. You can fill up the Cues Section during or after class. The Summary Section is filled up immediately after class. Summarise the lesson in your own words.
Both the Cues and Summary Sections should be written down as simple as possible. Keep all text references, page number reminders, diagrams, and doodles within the Notes Section.
The Mind Map Method: In-Depth Note Taking
The Mind Map Method is intended for taking notes from lessons with complex, abstract ideas or have interlocking topics. Subjects wherein you can use the Mind Map Method include History, Philosophy, and Chemistry.
Let me give you this example. Let’s start with a central topic or node, in this case, the 18th century explorations of Australia. Draw a circle or a cloud in the center of your page and write down “18th century Australia explorations.” As the lesson progresses, your teacher will be introducing the names of the explorers, their ships, the years they landed in Australia, and their accomplishments. Draw smaller circles around your central node with the name of the explorer/ship. From your central node, draw arrows pointing to the smaller circles. Beneath each of the small circles, list down the facts. If certain explorations/expeditions are linked, you can put arrows in between the small circles to show that they are related.
This method will give you a visual diagram that is easier to reviews than a whole bunch of notes.
Flow Notes: Holistic Note Taking
The great thing about flow notes is that it’s main purpose is to allow you to do ACTIVE learning inside the classroom rather than just let you become a transcriptionist.
Flow notes can be described as “free-for-all”, “anything goes” method of note taking. You can take down short notes, draw diagrams, charts and doodles. This allows you to become actively engaged with the lesson. Visual and auditory learners find it easier to learn using flow notes.
The only problem with flow notes is that you may find yourself with a lot of messy notes and drawings. During your free time, you can clean up your flow notes with additional notations and/or arrows to make review easier. Flow notes can be incorporated in the Notes Section of the Cornell Method.
PowerPoint Slides: Easiest Note Taking
PowerPoint Slides is the easiest form of note taking because you are NOT taking notes at all. The great thing about PowerPoint (and other slide making apps), you can listen through the lesson without having to worry about keeping up with the teacher.
After class, you can approach your teacher and ask if you can download their files onto laptops or flash drives and have them printed out. If you study directly from your laptop or computer, you don’t even have to get the slides printed on hard copy.
Make it a point to add your own notes, observations, comments, and questions onto the slides.
Bullet Journaling: Visual Note Taking
Bullet Journaling is essentially the Outline Method (or more aptly “Bullet Listing”) with a dash of Flow Notes and Mind Maps. This is note taking with an artistic, personal touch.
In this method, you are not just jotting down facts in the form of bullet lists. You are supplementing these facts with doodles, diagrams, cartoons, etc. Basically, Bullet Journaling is a reflection of your thought process during class.
While it is the intention of bullet journaling to have a journal that is organised, informative, and visually attractive, you obviously cannot doodle when you’re trying to jot down notes fast before your teacher moves to the next topic.
To have a great bullet journal, start with the bullet list or outline first. Outside of class, organise your outline and then add the artistic touches.
Tips on Maximising Your Notes
Let’s say you’ve chosen the note taking method that’s right for you. Now, you have a bunch of notes in your hands. What do you do next?
Here are some handy tips on maximizing your notes…
1) Within the first 24 hours after a class, make it a point to always review your notes. This helps you to retain what you have learned inside your brain.
2) Always review your notes daily so that not only will the things you’ve learned stick inside your head, you can recall them fast too. If you still have any lingering questions, always seek clarification with your teacher. Never cram before tests.
3) Whether you are doing further reading or research or listening to another lesson from your teacher, always your notes handy. Be quick to catch repetitions. If your teacher tends to repeat and emphasise points in the lesson, it’s guaranteed that it will be included in the test.
Take notes effectively, catch repetitions, and review…these are the key points to better learning!