Here's how to take notes that will actually improve your studying

Amy O'Neill

Wave goodbye to that unintelligible chicken-scratch, here's how you should be taking lecture notes this semester.

Taking notes is an essential, but arduous, part of being a student. Most of us write down a few slides each lecture to look like we're actually doing something - and then never look at them ever again. But if you've decided to really get a handle on your studies and want to upgrade your note-taking skills, or if you’re realising you’ve never properly learned how to take useful lecture notes, then here's your quick guide to help you fill up those notebooks:

a female student sits at a table, she's writing in a notebook in front of her open laptop. A coffee cup and other desk decorations are just out-of-focus in the foreground

1. Take your notes with a pen

We know it's 2021, and everyone and their granny has some sort of electronic device in their hand. But there is a case to be made for the good, old-fashioned handwritten notes. For one, writing notes by hand is a powerful tool for encrypting embodied cognition and help support the brain’s capacity for retrieving information when you need it. Secondly, you're much more likely to write down information in your own words - meaning you're better equipped to understand and remember each lesson.

There's lots of studies out there that show that students who simply type their notes up on a laptop are prone to just copying what their teacher is saying verbatim, and since your brain is just focused on replicating the words with their keyboard, the information actually gets processed much slower, which prevents you from committing it to memory and blocks your learning.

Science, amirite?


2. Grid paper can be your best friend

If you struggle to keep your notes looking tidy and organised, or your words start to slope off to one side after a while, then using grid paper cna be a nice little trick to keep your writing legible. There are grid notebooks which you can use to perfectly plot our your notes, and include any diagrams, keys, or other additions without the whole page becoming a cluttered mess. 


3. Break up the monotony

If you're writing your notes out by hand - and yes, you should be - then it can get a little monotonous. To break up the pages, get a little creative with your supplies and make use of your space. You should take a new page for each new topic, write up a clear heading (underlined) and give yourself a wide margin on the left-hand side to avoid your words looking cramped.

Make good use of bullet points, tables, headings and sub-headings to break down information and make it easier to remember. Colour-coding will also help to stimulate your brain in different ways and create a link between a colour and specific information so that you can better commit it to memory. 


4. Focus on the essential info

No one wants to write up absolutely everything that comes our of your lecturer's mouth (oh, the hand cramp), so instead, focus on essential information that's going to help you in your assignments. 

Narrowing in on important keywords and concepts will not only make note-taking easier, but it'll also make you a better and more active learner. You'll soon learn how to quickly sift through contextual information and pick out the most useful data. A good rule of thumb is to write down any words or key sentences that are most relevant to the topic and eliminate all the filler words. Remember, you're taking notes to actually learn from them later, not to just relive your 9am lecture. 


5. Write up a summary of each lecture

While we're on the topic of making your notes simpler, quicker, and easier to revisit, try writing up a summary of each lecture or topic at the bottom of the page. This should include the main lesson objective, key concepts and takeaways of the discussion, and any additional information that improves your understanding. 

Later, when it comes time to revise, you'll have a quick, ready-made summary of the lesson to jog your memory and make studying for your exams or assignments that little bit easier. 


6. Read your notes that night

We know it's tempting to just toss your bag to the floor as soon as you make it home and forget about responsibilities until the next day, but taking as little as 10 to 15 minutes that night to go over your notes and fill in any additional bits of information that'll help you broaden your understanding can make all the difference when revising.

It's better to re-read your notes while the lesson is still fresh in your mind. Don't put it off until the weekend thinking you'll just remember, because trust us - you won't. 



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