7 Tips to Take Better Notes in Class

By Madison White on February 20, 2019

You may be a great listener and participant in class, but if you aren’t a great note taker, you may not be achieving the grades that you want. Being an effective note taker is an essential tool for college success. Because you will have many different types of professors and classes, you can’t always count on the professor to hand you all of the information. You have to take a much larger portion of responsibility in ensuring your academic success.

Taking organized and effective notes during class is the first step to retaining information later on. Many people believe that you remember things better when you write (or type) them down. However, good note taking isn’t as simple as just writing everything down. You will need to be strategic in what you write down, when, and where. A great student knows the difference between writing down too much and not enough. 

1. Be prepared

This Uloop article, 6 Ways to Prepare for Effective Note Taking, discusses in depth the importance of being prepared to take notes in class. Having an idea of what is to come in the upcoming lecture will help you mentally categorize what you’ll need to note down. Having a working knowledge of the topic or subject discussed will help you not feel flustered and confused by new material, and also make sure that you aren’t writing down obvious information that you should already know.

You should also have all your materials prepared for class. This means you should have a notebook, with adequate blank pages, the textbook, and different colored pens (if you’re color coding) ready before class starts. If you are taking digital notes, you should have a new document, or continuation of other note documents, up and ready to go on your laptop before class begins.

2. Use titles, headers, and sub-headers

Sometimes taking better notes doesn’t mean writing things down, it simply means making information easier to find. If you write everything in a large chunk of text with no separation, it will be very difficult to study and retain information.

A great way to make your information easier to find, and much easier to study, is to utilize page titles, headers, and sub-headers. At the top of each page of notes, you should have the overall topic of what your notes are on. This could be something specific to your class like “Chapter 7 Notes” or something about what exact information is covered like “1920’s US History.”

Headers and sub-headers can be used to separate that information even further so that if you’re looking for the note you took on when women earned the right to vote, you would be able to find it under a header like “Political Events” or “Legislation.”

3. Use color

For many, their notes are not effective because crucial information is lost in a sea of black scrawl. When you’re searching for one particular section or piece of information, you can easily flip right past it because it looks just like all your other notes.

A great way to solve this problem is to use different color coding techniques. One technique is to put different colored sticky notes at the start of each new section. For example, put a blue sticky note at the start of the 1920’s History section and a yellow note at the start of Great Depression section. You should use whichever colors make the most sense to you, or even use colors that bring you joy.

You can also utilize color coding by highlighting section titles or highlighting the tops of pages to be different colors. Be wary though, using dark colored highlighters like blue and purple may completely obscure the words you are highlighting. By using this method, if you were looking for a fact on 1920’s history, you would just have to flip to the blue pages, rather than flip through everything.

Color coding makes finding your information much easier which can be half the battle of studying.

Infographic by Madison White

 4. Use key words and short phrases

One of the most common difficulties of trying to take notes in class is that when you don’t have enough time to write down everything the teacher has said. Of course, people talk a lot faster than they write.

Often times, people have difficulty with writing things down because they are trying to write down too much. Rather than writing down every word the teacher says, you should only be writing down key words and short phrases.

For example, if the teacher says “It wasn’t until the year 1920 that women were finally granted the right to vote in the United States,” you should not write down that entire sentence. Instead, take out the filler words and implied information. Write down something along the lines of “1920: Women Right to Vote.” This is much shorter and will be easier to review because it has all the key information you need.

Another way to parse out unnecessary words is to look at the teacher’s Powerpoints, if they have them. When teachers present with a Powerpoint, the slides usually only include key words and themes that they then expand on. You can use what is on the Powerpoint as a guide to what you should write down in your notes. If they upload these Powerpoints digitally after class, you can also cross-reference your notes with them to see if you missed any information.

If you’re still not quite sure what you should be writing down in class, read this article that details ways to determine what to note down.

5. Use bullet points or “chunking”

In a similar vein to using key words and phrases, you should also be using bullet points or other chunking methods. Doing this will help to make sure that your notes don’t become one giant block of text that is impossible to study or make sense of.

An easy solution is to use bullet points to separate your notes by subject and theme. Placing the key facts about something in a list will make it easier to find and easier to study. It allows some white space on the page so that your brain feels less overwhelmed when looking at it. Remember that when you are using bullet points, do not write with entire sentences. I know this goes against all of those grammar rules you learned in English! Writing in complete sentences usually takes more time, mental effort, and more space on the page that could be otherwise used for more notes.

“Chunking” your bullet points or lists is also a helpful strategy. Chunking means separating different parts of a list so that they are easier to remember. A good example of this is a phone number. Instead of writing 1132546789, we write (113) 254-6798 because it is much easier to remember that way. Chunking your notes or bullet point lists means separating them out by category into much smaller lists. If you are a keen listener and note-taker, you may be able to chunk your notes while writing them during class, but sometimes, you may realize after you’ve taken your notes that you will need to reorganize them.

6. Try out Cornell Notes

Looking for a tried and true method for taking notes? Look no further! Based on the title of this style of note taking, Cornell Notes, developed in the 1940s by a Cornell education professor, are a proven and effective way to organize your notes.

Cornell Notes utilize many of the ideas discussed previously in this article: bullet points, key words, and using headers. One of the key differences is that Cornell Notes also require summaries.

Cornell note taking also requires a certain layout of information. Some features include a column for key information of the left-hand side, the date and page number in the top left, and a summary at the bottom of the page. These features are designed to help students retain all of the important information like key ideas, while also being able to put the information in context through summary.

If you are following this method, it is extra important that you set up your note pages ahead of class, and following up with them soon after class ends. You should make sure to have all the known information and layout on your page before the lectures starts, and it is vital to the process of Cornell notes that you include a summary at the end of your notes page—this may happen after class if your professor chooses to lecture the entire class period.

7. Go digital!

The world is becoming more and more digital and so could your note-taking! Depending on your preferences, and depending on your teacher, you may be able to use a laptop during class. For many of us, we can type a lot faster than we can hand-write something. This article has even more tips for taking great digital notes.

Taking digital notes could be a huge help in organizing your thoughts. Firstly, digital documents are much easier to edit and change after initially writing them. During class, you can simply type out whatever you hear that may be important. It is best to type things in some sort of bulleted list so that you avoid large chunks of text, just as you would avoid them in handwritten notes.

Digital notes work well if you write something down that you are unsure of. You can easily make a phrase stand out by bolding it, making it a different color, or putting a symbol next to it. This may help you remember to look up more information on the topic (and add it later) or remember to look over the topic later.

Digital notes make it much easier to organize your information after writing it down. You can move around notes that fit together under certain topics and easily add headings and subheadings. You can also make different documents that represent different groups of notes so that when you’re looking for something specific, you can easily find which topic and document it will be in.

Digital notes allow for many different types of note organization. You can color code things, bold things, italicize things, and even link to certain texts/videos within your digital notes.

They’re also easy to share with your friends and peers who might be in the same class! Some classes even decide to take notes in a communal Google Document that they can all update, change, and add notes to. Students like doing this because if you miss a key piece of information and don’t write it down, it is likely that someone in your class caught it and added it to the document.

You should always make sure that your notes are safe and easily accessible. Though none of us want our computers to crash, you should be prepared in case it does. Your notes should always be uploaded somewhere outside of your desktop, whether that be in Google Drive or on a USB drive. This way, in the terrible situation that your computer dies, all of your notes are not lost forever.

Though this article details many ways to improve your notes, keep in mind that your notes do not need to be picture perfect. One small error does not mean that you need to rewrite or reorganize an entire document. Remember to always do what is best for you. You should be trying new things that could help you, but if you find that they aren’t working, you should feel comfortable leaving them behind. Some people love color coding, others don’t find it helpful at all.

While great note taking offers many strategies for writing things down, you should always follow your instincts on what needs to be remembered and what doesn’t. Most of the time, your notes are for you and you alone. Figure out what works for you and stick with it!

Madison graduated with her Master's degree in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester (UK), and holds Bachelor's degrees in English and Creative Writing from Wichita State University. She currently teaches English at Wichita State University and works as a freelance writer and blogger on her website Madison White Writes and elsewhere.

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