Note-able guidelines

Graphic by Quinn Sherer | Mercury Staff

Six ways to adapt notetaking habits to college

When you wake up, what you eat and how you study are all habits you probably formed as a student in high school — but as you enter college, those routines may change. Though you have fewer classes, they’re often more rigorous. As you acclimate to the new environment, note-taking is a habit that may need to be tweaked.

Handwritten vs. Digital:

In high school, chances are you learned via fill-in-the blank handouts or copying information from PowerPoints. In college, you aren’t always restricted to pen and paper. You could take notes on your laptop, iPad or other smart devices, with apps and software such as Google Docs, Microsoft OneNote, GoodNote and Evernote.

However, digital note taking has its drawbacks. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” a 2014 study published in Psychological Science, found that participants who took notes via laptop were more likely to type notes verbatim than their peers who took handwritten notes, and thus engage in shallow learning and processing. The researchers claimed that while taking more notes was helpful, transcription was not, and taking notes on a laptop makes this process much more likely. However, this doesn’t mean taking notes on a laptop is bad for you, but keep in mind how you’re taking notes during class. No matter how you take notes, practice restating concepts in your own words, abbreviating and making up your own metaphors to explain ideas.

Another way you could utilize digital platforms is by creating group notes with a few classmates. Create a document or presentation on Google Docs or Office 365, share it with your study buddies and have everyone add information to the page. This way you can see the material from different perspectives, and pick up on details you may have missed.

Annotating PowerPoints:

Many professors lecture via PowerPoint, and there are different ways to approach that information. One way is by annotating on the PowerPoints themselves. If the lecture slides are available in advance, you could print them out and annotate the slides. Alternatively, you could download the slides and use One Note or another app to write on them. Annotate for information that the professor says but isn’t on the slides, such as simplified definitions of key ideas, diagrams and models, example problems, questions you have and the instructor’s answers to other students’ questions. 


Color code keywords, main points and subtopics with highlighters and pens. For example, underline a key concept in orange, and then highlight the most important and relevant phrases to that concept in yellow. Learn to abbreviate to keep up with the instructor by shortening words, eliminating vowels, using only the first letters for multi-word concepts, and incorporating symbols. For example, international could be ‘intl’, because is b/c, and an up arrow means increase.

An alternative to linear note-taking, such as bullet points or an outline, is mind-mapping. The basic idea is that you take a topic, write it in the center of your page, and add information around it in short phrases. There are other ways to arrange the information, but this is the most basic method. This forces you to condense the information and form connections between concepts. This method may not work for every subject, but it can be less restrictive than taking notes linearly.

Prepare in Advance:

If the professor assigns reading, complete it prior to class. This introduces you to the information so you have a foundation to build on during lecture. If you understand some of the concepts, you are in a better place to understand where you have gaps in knowledge. This doesn’t necessarily mean reading every word in a textbook chapter or journal article. Learn to skim for key concepts and relevant information so you don’t waste time in nitty gritty details that ultimately aren’t pertinent. For textbooks, before you start, flip through the chapter and take in the major sections and subsections so you know what to expect and where to focus on. Pay closer attention to the first and last paragraphs of a section because they contain the main ideas. For journal articles, pay attention to the abstract, the main argument, the data analysis and the conclusion.

Avoid Zoning Out:

In high school, usually there were barriers to getting distracted: classes were smaller and excessive phone usage was prohibited. However, many lower-level courses in college are made up of hundreds of students and the professor won’t monitor your engagement with the lecture. It’s easy to sit in the back and lose yourself in your phone or laptop. Not paying attention and telling yourself you’ll study the material later can snowball into falling behind. Two ways to avoid this are choosing a seat in the front and limiting your device usage. Turn off your phone and put it in your bag. Use apps such as Forest, LeechBlock and Freedom to block websites on your laptop, so you can’t access them during class. If you feel your mind wandering, write down whatever you were thinking about in a little book or piece of paper, and then refocus. Sometimes writing down what’s distracting you can act as a release. Peer pressure might actually be helpful by choosing to sit with people who are actively listening and taking notes. Form a study group where every member has to teach one concept at each meeting. That’s one of many incentives to pay attention in class and spend less time outside of it playing catch-up.

Reviewing Notes:

Rereading your notes as you study is one way to learn material. However, there are more active methods as well. One example is creating one-page review sheets. Rewriting the information makes you more familiar with it: you are forced to be concise, and you can refer to one sheet for a particular chapter or topic. Another way to study your notes is the Feynman Technique, which consists of breaking down a topic until you are able to explain it simply. Each time you stumble in your explanation, you’ve identified a gap in your understanding. 

Learning to take good notes is a skill that comes with practice. Find your weakness in this skill, whether it be transcribing material or getting distracted, and practice them with each lecture in each class. Soon you’ll be taking notes in a way that’s efficient for you, and these will be incredibly useful for you when it is time for the exam.

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