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Note Taking in College: Finding Your Stride

Laptops, fancy notebooks, iPads. Find what works for you.

Here’s what you need to know about taking efficient notes in college to prepare for a successful semester!
Note Taking in College: Finding Your Stride
For some reason, students are always a bit fearful when the topic of note-taking comes up. There’s the slight apprehension that one style may be more organized than another, or this or that method might lend itself better to memorization. Nevertheless, having taken college courses for the past year and a half—and not once using the Cornell method — I've gathered a few different tips and tricks that make note-taking a much more easygoing process. Though, remember that only you know what works best with your learning style. There’s nothing wrong with typing if you find that to be more efficient and retainable. Or if you’d rather write down all the details than summarize, do that! Below, I'll list the top eight strategies that help me keep up with the college workload by creating concise and well-organized notes.

Handwrite your notes.

While I previously mentioned that typing is fine (and it is), hand-writing your notes does allow for better material retention. Studies show that writing down information sharpens focus and memory, eliminating the distractions that arise with technology. Additionally, as you write down notes, you’re more likely to put down a question or some extra information as well that you might’ve processed while slowly jotting the lecture.
When typing, we’re more apt to transcribe what the professor says word-for-word and forego the critical thinking process. This then leads me to my second point…

Don’t copy the slides down word-for-word.

I admit that I tend to write down everything that’s on the slide, but I also keep my ears open to what the professor is saying. In other words, focus more on what is being said than what is being seen (unless it’s a visual note like a graph, chart, formula, etc., then pay attention to it).
You can usually access the lectures slides before and after the lectures to review any information you need to, so don't stress about listing it all down right away. Nevertheless, if you're like me and want to complete all the notes while in class, I recommend passively noting the information while actively listening to the professor. In other words, write down everything you want to, but keep your ears open and pay closer attention to what the professor is saying. Listen to changes in the professor’s cadence (tone), this way you'll catch the essential information, and jot down any questions or thoughts in the margins while writing your notes.

Highlight! Or used colored pens! Or doodle!

You get the point. Wherever you’re taking your notes, whether inside a novel or textbook, on paper, or typing them out, strive to use varying colors or patterns to emphasize the information that stands out and remain focused during those long lectures. In other words, think as you write.

Review and revise your notes (and not just before the exam).

I recommend revisiting your notes sometime before the next class session to refresh your memory and add any information that you might've missed. You'll slowly be accumulating the information over time (and thus remembering it), instead of having to go back and review everything all over when the exam comes around. Additionally, if you know of an assignment coming up (such as an essay or paper, for instance), try to figure out how your current notes may assist in completing it. In this way, you’ll be reviewing as well as completing homework ahead of time!

Remain organized.

If hand-writing your notes, try to use labels or different notebooks for each course to allow every subject its own section. Nothing’s more frustrating than trying to find that one piece of scratch paper where you’d scribbled down a crucial equation two weeks ago that you now have to memorize for the quiz that’s in two hours. Similarly, if typing, create different folders for each course and try sorting the documents into their respective folders. And speaking of organization, don't forget to record the date—whether hand-writing or typing—in case you have to go back and rewatch a lecture or reread the slides for a specific day.

Be concise… but legible.

I get it. It feels like your professor’s “talking at the speed of light,” and your hand may start cramping a bit near the end. But don’t let your handwriting become so illegible that you can’t read it later; it defeats the entire goal of trying to get everything down. Instead, if you find yourself routinely pressed for time in a certain course, try to have a set of “rough draft notes” that you wrote in class, with the slanting handwriting and half-cursive, and then afterward, create a "final copy of notes," or re-write them as you would normally. This way, you’ll have both the information as well as the organization. Additionally, try using abbreviations when you can to save some time and energy in the long run, especially when hand-writing notes.

Try out the different methods.

If you haven’t yet found a note-taking method that works for you (or never had to take extensive notes previously), then try “taste-testing” a few different outlines to figure out what works best. The Cornell note method is one of the more well-known outlines, emphasizing the main ideas instead of details. It also helps you prepare for an exam ahead of time by distinguishing three key sections: notes, keywords/comments, and a summary. Nevertheless, numerous other methods exist out there, and you’re always free to create your own outline. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not a big fan of the Cornell method, and my own notes focus on both main ideas and details. In this way, I have the peace of mind of knowing I didn't miss any piece of information. Try a few different styles, and then pick the one that feels the most natural.

Lastly, invest in some quality materials and stick to you what you use.

Now you don’t have to go out and buy the pristine leatherback notebook or newest iPad for your Econ 101 course, but do try investing in some solid note-taking apps or a separate composition book/spiral notebook for each course. In other words, don’t try to rely upon scraps of notebook paper here and there, or use Google docs one day and Word the next—that's a recipe for disaster. Again, figure out what works, and stick to it. If you prefer to hand-write, then invest in a quality set of pencils or pens. If typing, figure out which interface poses the least distractions and is most conducive to note-taking. Is there a variety of font options? Can I easily highlight? Is there anything else on the screen that will distract me? While note-taking may initially seem intimidating, once you figure out what you're comfortable with, you'll find yourself enjoying your course more and with less stress! Try the different methods, remain organized, and stay focused during the lectures for efficient and concise notes that'll help you stay on track!

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