Note Taking Tips for College Students

If a professor uses PowerPoint, ask them to make it available for download.

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The transition to college is hard to undersell. Academically, college is much more demanding than anything high school has to offer. Students are responsible for their own schedules and time management for the first time. In college, no one will look over your shoulder to make sure you turn in your work and study for your tests.

College classes tend to be lecture based, and your professor probably won’t hand out study guides or graphic organizers. If you didn’t develop good note-taking skills during high school, your college courses will throw you into the deep end, so you’ll have to learn quickly. With that in mind, we’re here to offer some note taking tips for college.

Be Mindful of the Assessment Style for the Class

We certainly hope that everyone approaches their college education as an opportunity to learn new skills and acquire knowledge, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the grade. Your professor will outline the grading procedure on day one when you receive the syllabus. The type of assessment can help push you in the direction of the most effective note-taking strategy for that class.

If it’s a writing-based class, where your grade is based on papers and subjective assignments, don’t waste your note-taking energy on copying facts your professor recites. You can look those up later when you need to cite them in your paper.

In fact, if a professor uses PowerPoint, ask them to make it available for download. If the professor uses prepared lecture notes, ask for a copy. Your professor will notice whether you are actively engaged in class, so don’t worry that this request will make it look like you don’t want to do the work.

Concentrate instead on connections to other material, comparisons and critical evaluation. It’s more important to understand how Andrew Jackson’s Bank War contributed to the strength of his political opposition than it is to remember what year it all happened. Remember, if you are writing a paper you can look up that detail later.

One suggestion: While the professor is telling the story, make your notes a stream-of-conscious commentary on the material. Write down what comes to mind as the story unfolds. Write down questions, opinions, connections, and anything else that came to mind as you listened to the lecture. When you read your notes later, answer those questions, either by looking them up on your own or asking the professor after class or during office hours.

Reading notes that are based on your own thought process will help convert the material from rote academic recall into experiential recall. It’s a lot easier to remember what you were doing last Tuesday than it is to remember the name of the loser of the Election of 1832, but if you can incorporate this information into your experience, it will stick that much more easily.

In contrast, few college classes are based on rote, objective assessments these days. After all, the purpose of a college education is to learn skills and acquire knowledge. So you may run across a 100-level course or two where multiple-choice tests are still taken on ScanTrons, but a note-taking style that requires higher-level thinking will serve you better over the course of your academic career.

Understand Your Learning Style

There are three main types of learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. However, individuals are far too complex to shove into a single box. We are all capable of using each of the three styles of learning, and we will probably find different subjects better suited for different learning styles.

For example, kinesthetic learner is only useful in a music appreciation class if you are actually a musician capable of reproducing the music you are discussing. Likewise, you can’t expect to be very successful learning how to play volleyball by sitting in a classroom and listening to a coach explain the techniques involved.

You should decide which learning style is the best option both for you and the material you are covering. If it is a situation where auditory learning makes the most sense, you might want to arrive at class with an empty notebook and an open mind.

If the material is more visually oriented or if you are a visual learner, it would make sense to bring the lecture notes or PowerPoint to class with you, so you have a visual reference for the material. If you are a kinesthetic learner with a lot of classroom-based coursework, consider another learning opportunity: adaptability.

Be Prepared

Arrive to class with enough time to prepare before the lecture starts. Don’t interrupt class by walking in late or rustling around in your bag and setting up your materials. Respect your classmates and professor, and avoid starting a class session by playing catch-up.

Also, make sure you have enough materials to make it through class. Having enough paper, pens, pencils, and an adequate laptop battery charge will serve you well. You can always ask someone else for notes, and sitting there and listening is always an option, but chances are good that running out of your own materials will take your mind off the lecture, which is bad.

You may see a pattern developing in this section: minimize distractions. If you can focus on the task at hand, you can maximize your learning experience.

Clear Your Mind

College life is complicated, and you will reach points in your academic career where you feel overwhelmed by your workload. This is normal, and dealing with this anxiety is one of the many valuable life lessons you will learn in your college career. But do yourself a favor when you sit down for class: be mentally present and concentrate on the material presented.

Try to clear your mind so you can concentrate on the information the first time it is presented to you. Note taking is nice for later study and knowledge reinforcement, but the whole point of attending class is to engage with new information under the guidance of a professor. If you aren’t actively engaged in class, you’ll spend the whole semester playing catch up.

As you may have noticed, the act of taking quality, helpful notes has a lot to do with mental preparedness. After all, your brain does all the work. The notes can’t write the paper for you. Good notes are the product of a good mental approach to class.

Now let’s take a look at some note taking strategies and tools that will help you establish effective habits.

Note-Taking Formats

An outline is the most common note-taking format, because it is the easiest way to structure information on the fly. You can connect ideas in sequence and hierarchy. Use the empty space to record thoughts and questions, and add information when you review your notes later. Here are two of the best strategies:

  • The Cornell Method. This method involves creating a separate column for key words to the left of the main section, which contains your more detailed notes. During the lecture, take your notes as normal. Immediately after class, identify the key terms and write them in the left column. At the bottom of the page, create a brief summary. If you list the key words separately, you can prepare for a test later by covering up the notes and testing your recall on the key words.
  • Mind Mapping. This is a free-form style of note taking, where you organize ideas in terms of their connections to other ideas. A mind map can be great for associating ideas, but it can be tough to keep track of chronology and order of events.

Try a few different note taking styles, and you’ll probably find yourself gravitating toward one particular note taking method. Once you find what works for you, your strategy will naturally improve over time.

Note-Taking Tools: Laptop vs. Notebook

It seems that we spend all of our waking hours staring at screens, and it’s no surprise that laptops have invaded the college classroom. But is it the best way to take notes in college? Let’s examine some of the pros and cons of using a laptop, and compare it to the old-fashioned pen and paper.

Here are some pros to taking notes on a laptop:

  • Laptops offer potential for much richer note taking. You can add web links to additional resources, internal links to other sections of notes, audio and video clips, and everything else out there on the World Wide Web.
  • With a laptop, you could also integrate an audio recording of your professor’s lecture. Be sure to get your professor’s permission first, though.
  • If you use a cloud platform, your notes are automatically backed up. You don’t have to worry about misplacing your notebook and losing an entire semester’s worth of notes. It is easy to share notes with classmates in the event of missed classes, study group sessions, and project collaboration.

Here are some cons to using a laptop:

  • The distraction potential will be omnipresent. Do you have the self-discipline to stay off the internet and stay focused on the lecture? To stay focused during class time, either turn off your wireless card or use an internet blocking program. Even if you use a cloud platform, it likely has offline support. You should be able to save your work locally until you reconnect to the internet and it can sync to the cloud.
  • It’s wise to remember that technology isn’t foolproof. What happens if your computer stops working during class? And this isn’t generally a problem with newer classrooms, but are you sure you’ll have access to power if your laptop’s battery can’t handle a long day of classes? Paper notebooks don’t have batteries.

Here are the pros to taking notes with a regular, old-fashioned notepad and pen:

  • A notebook is a blank canvas, and you have complete control over what goes where. Technological frustration is real, and you won’t become frustrated when technology won’t cooperate or fails you.
  • The act of writing is a tremendous boost to memory and information retention. The act of typing notes isn’t quite the same. Recent studies have suggested that typing notes leads to “mindless processing,” which hinders learning. While you may be able to accumulate more notes with a laptop, the ultimate goal is for you to internalize the information. There is no natural law that says more notes will better help you achieve this goal.

Note-Taking Programs

If you decide to use a laptop for the bulk of your note taking, it’s wise to learn as much as you can about the best programs for keeping your notes organized and making sure they’re ready when you need them.

Here are the most popular programs:

  • Word. Microsoft Word is the most robust option for computer-based note taking. On one hand, you will ignore bells and whistles while you are in the heat of the note-taking moment. You don’t need such a robust application to pour your thoughts onto a virtual paper.

But on the other hand, Word will most likely be your platform of choice when it comes time to write papers and other written assignments. In this sense, having your notes in Word will make it easier for you to incorporate them into your assignments.

  • Evernote. Evernote is a purpose-built note-taking program. When used properly, Evernote can be a powerful organizational tool to help you keep your notes sorted, organized, and connected together. Since Evernote is an “app” born out of the world of mobile computing, it is entirely cloud-based, so it takes care of saving your work.

As long as you have an internet connection in your classroom, you won’t have to worry about losing your notes. However, it’s your responsibility to transport your notes into a word processor when it’s time to write academic papers for your classes.

  • Google Docs. Compared to Word and Evernote, consider Google Docs the best of both worlds. What’s nice about Google Docs is that it has the versatility to provide more platforms than a simple word processor, and cloud storage ensures that you won’t lose your work.

Google also makes sharing and collaboration extremely simple. Whether you need to share missed class notes or begin working on a group project or study session, putting all of the information into Google Doc format can take the hassle out of sharing your work.

Put the Pen to the Paper (or the Finger to the Key)

Proper note taking may or may not be a skill that follows you into your professional career, but it is arguably the most important academic skill for being successful in your academic career. It is a skill that is worth practicing, and worth thinking about as you begin to navigate through your college years. As Chuck Knox once said, “Always have a plan and believe in it. Nothing good happens by accident.”