Duly Noted: Practical Note Taking Tips From The Pros

One of the most important skills that successful college students develop is the ability to take good notes during lectures. While lecture notes can supplement and explain passages in a textbook, the general purpose of taking notes is to refresh one’s recollection of the lecture at a later time, while studying for an exam or while working on an assignment.

Why is proper note taking important? According to Utah State University, information recorded in lecture notes has a 34 percent chance of being recalled later, whereas information not contained in notes is only recalled at a 5 percent rate. To improve note taking proficiency, try some or all of the following tips:

#1 Apply basic standards. Skim the previous day’s notes before class starts, and at the start of each lecture, use and date a fresh piece of paper. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling—just keep going and correct errors later. Dartmouth University recommends writing down words and phrases that can be reviewed regularly, recited aloud, and reflected upon with extrinsic materials like readings from assigned texts. Colorado State University suggests developing a system of abbreviations to save time, using only one side of the paper, and leaving large spaces between sections so additional thoughts ideas can be added later.

#2 Consider adopting the Cornell method. Cornell University pioneered a note taking system which, while quite rigorous, has been beneficial to legions of college students. Each piece of paper used for notes is divided into sections, with a large vertical margin on the left hand side of the sheet that is reserved for recording “cues”; a horizontal column across the top of the page for dates, titles, and the like; and another horizontal column across the bottom of the page where a lecture summary is written. The rest of the page is devoted to a systematic method for note taking. A sample page, which contains the method and the page layout, can be seen here. Many office supply outlets sell special notebooks and paper geared to the Cornell method.

#3 Embrace technology. Technology can be a great aid in the battle of taking quality notes. Tech products like Echo Smartpen allows students to record audio of lectures while taking notes. The Smartpen also creates a digital record of handwritten notes which can be manipulated and reorganized later. There are also a number of apps and browser extensions that help create and organize notes. Extensions like Evernote work across various Smartphone, tablet, and computer platforms.

#4 Make it fun. The University of Hawaii recommends using note taking techniques that are fresh and enjoyable to the student, because the human brain responds best to new stimuli. That’s good logic, because not only do newer things “stick” in one’s mind, but one is more likely to keep doing something that’s enjoyable than something that’s boring or unpleasant. Try doodling pictures and charts or use mnemonic devices to come up with new ways to organize and retain information.

#5 Bring back shorthand. Our parents may have done this decades ago, but shorthand is actually an effective and quick way to write down your thoughts. The technique uses parts of letters to represent the whole letter or groups of letters. More on how to write in shorthand

Note taking styles are as unique as the people using them. Every student’s brain works a little differently, and learning styles vary. The most important thing students can do is persist and continue experimenting until they find the method that works best for them.

About Allison Freeland

Allie Freeland is the Editor-in-Chief of CollegeOnline.org. She has been a professional writer for a decade and received her bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota. She brings a wealth of information about higher education, online degrees, college life, and career advice. Follow her on G+.