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4 Effective Note Taking Strategies to Implement in College

A young woman with light skin and brown hair takes notes in a notebook.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

As a college student, it is almost always a requirement to take notes during class. Of course, there are many ways to take notes, and there is not one correct way.

One question I found myself asking and one that I found many other students were wondering was: what is the best method to take notes?

As I considered this question, I took into account two main aspects: the note taking method and the vehicle I would use to take notes. There are four main strategies to take notes and many different things to take them on. 

I will help you discover the method that is best suited to you and your situation.

In all strategies listed below, the most important thing to remember is that you must review your notes. Getting the information down is not enough! Take the time after class or a few days later to review the information you learned and make sure you understand it. 

4 Main Strategies

Lists

This is the most basic of the strategies and is exactly what it sounds like. Taking notes in a list format is likely the “default” note taking method. In this strategy, you simply jot down the information as it is presented.

While this strategy is simple to understand and execute, it lacks in organization and learning. When you use the list method, you are likely more focused on getting down the information than actually processing what is being presented.

Lists are not a good note-taking method compared to the other strategies mentioned below, so if this is the method you currently use, it might be time for an upgrade. Especially if you are heading off to college, the professor will likely be teaching you much harder material at a much quicker pace. 

If you insist on taking notes in a list format, you may want to consider rewriting them at a later time into a more legible and easy-to-study format.

Outlines

In this note taking method, you will organize the information as it is being presented. This may mean that you are including headers, subheader, roman numerals, or numbers to categorize your notes. 

In this way, you will be able to practice organizing and prioritizing the information being presented. Additionally, since your notes will be neatly organized, it will be easier to find information and study them at a later time.

This method often does not take much effort to learn as it is essentially a more detailed bullet point system. If you are typing your notes using the outline method, many devices and software can even provide you with a template.

This method is particularly effective if your professor is also presenting their information in an organized manner. If they tend to jump around, it may be difficult to jump around in your respective outline, especially if you are hand writing notes.

In general, outlines are a great and easy upgrade from lists that are easier to study from.

Brain Webs or Concept Maps

The brain web or concept map strategy is when you write the information in consecutive bubbles around the main idea. To do this method, you start by writing the central idea in the middle of the page. As the information is being presented, you can create different branches with corresponding information.

This strategy might work for you if you are more of a visual learner. Because everything is categorized and organized in a web format, it is easier to see the relationship between topics and ideas. 

At the same time, this method might be beneficial if your professor likes to jump around between topics. In this method, it is easy to switch between ideas and add extra information as it is being presented.

If you like to see the relationships between ideas or your professor moves around through their material, the concept map method might be the best strategy for you.

Cornell Method

You may have heard of this famous note-taking method developed at Cornell University. The reason it is so well known is because of its impeccable promotion of learning and understanding. The Cornell method can also be customized to suit your tastes!

In this strategy, you will divide your paper into four sections. You will include the header at the top of the page. The largest section will be for your notes.

The subsequent column on the left-hand side of your paper will be for keywords to remember or questions you may have about the content. At the bottom of the page, you will leave room for a summary of the information.

The note-taking section is where you have the ability to customize your Cornell notes. Here, you can jot down the information in the way that works the best for you (ie. the concept map or outline method mentioned above).

As you are taking your notes, if you have any questions about the material, write them in the left column. You can also write down any key words or main ideas in this section.

The left column can and should also be used during your review session. While reviewing information, you can continue to add questions, clarifications, or other notes.

Then, after class or a few days after the lecture, fill out the summary section of your notes. Here, you should rewrite a basic summary of the information in your own words. This will help promote your understanding of the information and refresh it in your mind.

5 Effective Ways To Study

Vehicles for Note Taking

Now that we’ve discussed the note taking strategies, it is equally important to cover the many ways you can take notes. Some vehicles may lend themselves better to one strategy over the other, so it is important to consider not only the type of information you must learn, but also the speed with which you record information and your priorities. 

Handwriting

Starting with the “old-fashioned” method, handwritten notes. While there are pros and cons to handwriting, this vehicle stands out the most due to its ability to promote understanding, processing, and learning of the information.  

Handwriting notes is slower, but that is precisely why it promotes more learning. Because you can not transcribe the lecture word for word like you would if you were typing, you actively have to process the information being said to put it in a short but understandable format. That is why, even though handwriting might leave you with hand cramps, it is worth it in the end. 

Additionally, handwriting notes allows you to easily draw diagrams, charts, and special figures. This is especially important in math or science based classes.

It is so much easier for you to draw the figures you need compared to painstakingly finding the digital version. If you were typing out your notes, you would likely have a much harder time creating the visuals needed.

Handwriting also allows you to do any of the aforementioned note taking methods. In that sense, it is very flexible! If you are unsure of what to take notes on, you can never go wrong with pen and paper.

Typing

I have found that most of the students in my classes prefer to type their notes. For most people, they type significantly faster than they write, which means they can transcribe everything in the lecture word for word.

But, as I revealed earlier, copying the information word-for-word actually hinders your understanding of the material. Sometimes, it is important to get the information down exactly, in which case, typing your notes would be the best option.

Many professors often upload their slides. This means there is no need to copy the information exactly because you have access to it at a later time. In cases such as this, you may want to consider other alternatives to typing.

Of course, typing your notes also provides you with some flexibility. If you need to go back and add extra information, you can just create more space to do so, instead of writing it in the margins of your notebook. This ensures that your notes stay neat and legible rather than cluttered and messy.

Unfortunately, typing does not necessarily support all of the note taking methods outlined above. While you can likely find a digital Cornell notes outline, other strategies like the concept map strategy are likely harder to do on a laptop.

Overall, typing is a great option if you need to get large volumes of information down quickly. Just keep in mind that while you might save yourself some time while note taking, you are adding more study time to your schedule by typing.

If you are in a situation where you will not have access to the slides or information at a later time and need to get down all of the information, then I would say typing is the way to go for you.

You may also want to consider typing if it does not make sense to handwrite the topic you are studying. As you type, try to process the information and note it in shorthand to promote further understanding of the material.

iPad or Tablet

Personally, I think iPads/tablets are the best of both worlds. They provide the flexibility of digital notes with the learning benefits of handwritten.

Since you are working digitally, you can easily copy diagrams or outside images from the internet. At the same time, you can quickly and easily create tables and fill them in.

It is significantly more efficient to carry around a single iPad than several notebooks. Plus, with a split screen, you can even take notes and look at the textbook or slides at the same time.

Some softwares even allow you to record an audio of the lecture as you take the notes. This means that you can go back, re-listen to certain parts of the lecture, and see what you were writing at that specific time! Features like this are helpful in retracing your steps or clarifying something you are unsure about. 

Tablets also allow you to practice any of the note taking strategies, sometimes in an even more efficient manner! For instance, you could copy and paste a Cornell notes template.

Alternatively, you could create neat and colorful concept maps. Depending on the software you use, you likely have a number of different useful features to take advantage of. 

Overall, I think they are the perfect combination of the handwritten and typing methods. One thing to consider however, is that they have to be charged, just like any other electronic device.

So, if you are someone who is prone to forgetting to charge their devices, the tablet might not be for you since you obviously can not take notes when it is dead.

The only con with a tablet, and the biggest one of course, is the cost. iPads or tablets are not cheap, and if you add the Apple pencil (or the other associated pencil with the device) then you are looking at quite a large sum just for a convenient note-taking experience. 

Should you get a tablet?

If you are considering buying an iPad or tablet for college just for the note taking aspect, then I would suggest holding off. Of course, if you have other reasons for wanting it, including access to Procreate, video editing apps, or other uses, then by all means, purchase it.

However, I do not think wanting a new note taking experience warrants such an expensive purchase, at least, not until you try other alternatives.

This is exactly what I did. The first semester of my freshman year of college, I did not have a newer iPad to be able to take notes on. I was working with my laptop and handwritten notes. This allowed me to experiment and see if other alternatives could work for me.

After I had completed one semester of note taking, I decided that I wanted to get the iPad. I had other things I would use it for besides note taking, but I wanted to see if this method could work for me. As I mentioned above, I like the iPad best out of all the options.

It is so convenient to pick up my iPad and head to class without needing to carry my entire backpack with my laptop, notebooks, and pencil case. That being said, I think you should get a tablet only if you:

  1. Have tried other alternatives prior.
  2. Can afford it.

Having an iPad is nice to take notes on, but it is not such a crazy experience that you should be spending money you do not have on it. If you do have the ability to make an investment and have tried other note taking strategies to no avail, then I would suggest getting an iPad.

The Best Strategy (that worked for me)

As I mentioned above, I completed my first semester of college without an iPad. So for those of you working without one, here’s the best note taking strategy. Keep in mind that for math-based courses, I would recommend handwritten only.

This strategy includes both typing and handwriting in order to gain the benefits of both. The first step is to type notes in class. This will allow you to keep up with the content and catch everything the professor is teaching, both on the slides and verbally. 

Then, a day or so later, sit down and transcribe your typed notes to a notebook. This does a few things:

  • It forces you to review all the material.
  • It forces you to process the material. You should be filtering the information going into the notebook to include only relevant topics.
  • It provides you with the benefits of handwritten notes.

Sure, this method might take you more time. But because you already have completed the “first-draft” of the notes online, you can make sure your handwritten version is neat and legible. 

If this method sounds off-putting to you, just think of the second-draft of your notes as studying. After all, the better you understand the material, the less time you have to spend studying it. 

When I did this method, I found that I was able to better identify topics that I did not fully understand. At the same time, I was able to declutter my notes by eliminating some areas that I fully understood from the hand written version. 

Not only is this method a great way to store information, but it is a wonderful way to review and study for your eventual tests.

In the end, there is no “right” way to take notes. The content of certain classes or majors may be inclined to one note taking method or vehicle over the other. At the end of the day, as long as the method you use allows you to learn the information efficiently, then it is a successful method.

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Author: Sophia

Sophia is a current college freshman at Pennsylvania State University with plans to major in marketing. When she's not studying or in the gym, you can find Sophia watching her favorite Youtube channels or streamers. In the future, she hopes to travel the world while developing her marketing skills and building her network.