(Photo: Shutterstock / BongkarnGraphic, Microsoft)
I grew up taking school notes by pen or pencil in physical notebooks and enjoyed the manual process, but there’s no doubt that more modern digital note-taking solutions offer clear advantages over the old analog methods. For example, traditional notebooks are susceptible to damage and loss, make it difficult to find specific notes, and have a finite and fixed number of pages. A digital note-taking app doesn’t suffer from any of these constraints.
Why Choose OneNote for a Paper Notebook Replacement?
I picked OneNote—specifically the OneNote for Windows 10 app, which requires a Microsoft 365 account—for this guide because it’s cross-platform, flexible, supports many input types (such as touch, handwriting, and stylus), and syncs to an excellent cloud storage service (OneDrive). Note that you can download a free version of OneNote that does not require a Microsoft subscription, but that app lacks some features of the for-pay version.
Whether you use an old or different version of OneNote; a different note-taking app, such as Evernote or Bear; or whatever solution your office suite provides, you can apply many of the same organization strategies I discuss below. Parents can follow these same guidelines to organize notes for children too young to do so themselves.
One feature I don’t cover is OneNote’s Class Notebook tools. These capabilities are certainly education-focused, but they require coordination with the instructor. For more general note-taking advice, check out our tips for managing your notes. After all, other areas of your life can benefit from effective note-taking skills, too.
Settle on a Structure for Your Notes
OneNote’s hierarchical structure is simple. At the top level are notebooks, which break down into sections, and then pages. You can also create dedicated section groups within a section and subpages under a page. Think of a notebook as the largest collective organizational group, and move down one level from there with each step.
For example, you could start by giving a notebook your school’s name or level (such as elementary school, middle school, high school, or college). You can use your year or grade level as a section name and then create section groups for each quarter or semester for that year. Then, create a section for each of your classes and use individual pages for notes. If your classes don’t change each semester or quarter, you don’t need to create section groups.
Alternatively, since there is no practical limit to page sizes in OneNote, you could just endlessly update one page with related information. For example, you could use one page to create checklists for each day’s homework assignment, one for taking notes, and one for brainstorming project ideas.
That setup will get messy quickly, though, so we recommend settling on a strategy that falls somewhere in the middle. Keep the organization structure but add specific ongoing pages for homework assignments and project brainstorms. Just preface the name of these sections with a numeral to make sure it’s always at the top of the list (assuming you are sorting OneNote pages alphabetically). You can also sort pages chronologically, which is likely an easier way to find notes from different points in the school year. If you do can’t find a note, OneNote’s search feature can help you find matching text at any level.
Here’s an example of what a OneNote hierarchy may look like for a high school student:
Notebook: High School Notes
Sections: 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade
Section Groups (High School Notes > 10th Grade): Fall Semester, Spring Semester
Sections (High School Notes > 10th Grade > Fall Semester): Astrophysics, Tax Law, AI Architecture
Pages (High School Notes > 10th Grade > Fall Semester > Astrophysics): Homework Assignments, Project Brainstorms, Week 1: Interplanetary Travel
Subpages (High School Notes > 10th Grade > Fall Semester > Astrophysics > Project Brainstorms): Possible Routes from Earth to Proxima Centauri b
You can change the color of each Notebook and Section to help you visually distinguish each one. You can also move, delete, or rename notebooks, sections, or pages whenever you want. This makes it easy to adopt a new structure without having to start from scratch, as you would with a physical notebook.
Keep in mind that you may find a to-do list app, such as Todoist, helpful for managing daily assignments. Task management apps, like Asana, or even kanban apps, such as Trello, might be more useful for keeping track of ongoing assignments.
Formatting a OneNote Page for Note-Taking
Pages in OneNote can be intimidating. Unlike Word documents, OneNote pages have few rules of structure. You can just click anywhere and start typing. This makes it easy to jot down notes quickly, but a collage of random notes isn’t helpful when you need to study or find information.
One layout tip I’ve found useful is to enable Rule lines. Click the View Tab > Rule Lines > Narrow Ruled. I recommend using the Narrow Ruled setting since those guidelines match up best with the default font size in OneNote. If you prefer a larger font size, try to match it with one of the other line-spacing options. These rule lines also help you ensure that you are typing in the left-most space on a page. Just click to the left of the red vertical line, and your cursor moves to the left-most position on a rule line automatically. After that, you can just start typing.
Another practical benefit of enabling the Rule Line view is that the page looks more like a physical piece of lined paper. Depending on your preference, you can even switch the background of each page (light or dark), with a variety of page colors to choose from in each mode. The lines are not a permanent part of your document, so if you copy and paste text or graphics from a page, they won’t show up in the destination.
Another problem you might run into when writing notes is that all your text boxes may not be the same size. Unfortunately, there are no tools for quickly aligning them or resizing them to the same width. One workaround is to just create one box at the top of the page and continually type your notes in there for the entire page.
Alternatively, if you need to interrupt the text box with a graphic, copy and paste the existing text box into the desired location. So long as there is enough horizontal space on the page, the resulting text box will be the same width as the original. You can then use the Rule Lines to align the text boxes, since they snap to incremental horizontal and vertical positions.
You can try enabling the Grid Line view for a precise visual guide. Know, however, that the edges of a text box do not align with the edge of the text; text boxes have a bit of padding. If a text box takes up too much vertical space, you need to delete the extra lines at the bottom of it, since there is no vertical resize handle.
If you ever accidentally drag an object too far to the left of the red line in the Rule Line view, your page is not forever ruined. Just move the object back over the red line and then click either the Zoom to 100 or Page Width buttons in the view tab to re-center your view. The scroll bar at the bottom stops at the edge of the red line again.
Here’s a quick summary of layout tips:
Enable Rule Lines to add structure to the page.
Keep text box sizes consistent by using a single one or copying and pasting the original.
Use the red line to align your notes.
Creating and Editing Notes
I won’t go into every feature of OneNote here, but rather highlight tools that can be beneficial for writing school notes. For example, although OneNote’s excellent drawing tools and input support are common knowledge, did you know that every marking and scribble gets a layer and can be moved or deleted after the fact? There’s no need to risk highlighters bleeding through a page or obscuring text in OneNote—everything can be undone.
As for broad organization tools, OneNote allows you to create custom tags for classifying notes. Click on the checkbox icon in the Home tab to get started. You can choose from existing tags such as To Do, Important, or Reminder for Later, or you can create a custom tag. Click anywhere within a text box to add a tag. When you go to search for that tag, you need to add quotes around it for OneNote to recognize it as such.
You probably also want to keep track of when you write certain notes. OneNote makes that easy. Click into a text box, right-click, and then select the last option in the context menu, which should show your name alongside the date and time you first created the text box. OneNote then adds this information at your cursor’s position.
OneNote further benefits from built-in tools for translation and setting an editing language. There’s also a Smart Lookup tool for defining terms or exploring topics. Both of these options open in right-hand panels, so you don’t have to lose your place in your notes.
OneNote has a ton of built-in math tools. Just start typing an equation, and OneNote picks up on the formatting. The Equation and Math menu options offer additional capabilities. For example, you can format complex equations, create embeddable graphs, and get step-by-step instructions for finding the value of a variable.
Recommended by Our Editors
Not all classrooms allow you to keep a digital device out on your desk during class, but that shouldn’t stop you from using OneNote. For example, you could ask your instructor if you can record a lecture, and then insert the audio recording later. One cool feature of OneNote is that you can sync audio recordings to your notes, so that the relevant parts of a recording play at the exact time you wrote down a note. You could even use a transcription service to convert the recording audio into editable text.
You could ask your teacher for a copy of the slides they presented, insert those into OneNote, and then add your in-class notes. You can even scan your handwritten notes using a scanning app, such as Microsoft Lens, insert those pictures into OneNote and copy the text from the picture via the right-click context menu. For those who are learning remotely, you can use this same capability to quickly turn a screenshot into editable text.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students may still be learning from home at least part of the time when the school year begins. That means a good portion of your education will be delivered digitally. With that in mind, check our guide on how and why you should create a separate education-focused account on your PC.
Securing Your Notes
OneNote allows you to password-protect any sections of your notebook, which is helpful if you want to keep your notes from prying eyes, but you must not forget the password you set. It’s not recoverable. If you forget your password, there’s no way to reset access and you will lose all your notes in that section. One solution would be to store this section password in a password manager, which you should be using for school anyway. Even so, I don’t recommend using the password-protect feature, because the risk just seems too great. In addition, locked sections can still be permanently deleted without entering the password.
If you want to secure access to OneNote, a better way is to enable multifactor authentication on the Microsoft account you used to sign in. Microsoft offers several methods for protecting your account, including via its excellent authentication app. That way, you can make sure you are the only one signing in to your account.
Although your OneNote notebooks are all automatically synced to your Microsoft account’s OneDrive storage, you may still want to back up your notes from time to time. Unfortunately, the OneNote for Windows 10 app does not include any manual backup options. The free Office-centric version of the app includes a local storage option, however.
To create backups of your note manually, sign into OneNote on the web and head to your Notebooks page. Right-click on the notebook you want to save, and select Export notebook. Keep these exports in a safe location for emergency access. If you want to add these exports back into OneNote for Windows 10, right-click on the Zip file and select Extract All. Then, right-click on any extracted sections, hover over the Open with option, and select OneNote for Windows 10. OneNote may require you to create a new Quick Notes section before importing that section, but you can move sections and pages around as you wish. These new sections then get synced back to your account’s cloud storage, like any other sections.
Exporting notebooks is also helpful for students who want to share notes. Unfortunately, OneNote only officially supports sharing at the Notebook level. If you export a notebook and extract individual sections, you can just send those files over to a classmate for them to import or copy into their own Notebooks.
If you don’t care about re-adding these sections to your notebook, you can print sections to a PDF format, too. To do so, open the section in OneNote online (on a Windows device), select File > Print > Print > Microsoft Print to PDF. Then, just name the download and select a save location. You can also print sections to a PDF from the desktop app.
Any of the above methods is far more advisable than trying to keep a physical notebook in pristine condition for an entire school year. To recap:
Don’t lock a section if there’s any chance you’ll forget the password.
Set up multifactor authentication on your Microsoft Account.
Head to OneNote online to export your notebooks.
Take Note-Taking to a New Level With OneNote
OneNote for Windows 10 flexibility and quirks can be intimidating, but it is an excellent platform for creating and syncing your notes once you settle on a structure that works for you. Right-clicking to create a new notebook may never be as exciting as traversing out to an office supply store at the start of a school year, but it is extremely convenient. Plus, a digital note-taking app offers you far more versatile formatting and organization tools that don’t involve physically tearing pages out.
Like What You’re Reading?
Sign up for Tips & Tricks newsletter for expert advice to get the most out of your technology.