Practical Strategies for Taking Notes

by | Aug 20, 2019

Whether we do it on an app, in a planner, or with good old-fashioned pen and paper, taking notes is a task many of us in and around academia do nearly every day.

Jotting down what you’re thinking about, brainstorming, or planning seems simple enough, but there are ways to approach the process that ensure you capture and organize the information you really need to hold on to.

If you want to make the most of your notes, consider both how you take them and what you do with them later.

Go with the flow

When you’re actively in the process of taking notes, try not to get too bogged down in process or formatting as you write or record. Although notes are inherently informal writing, it can help to think of raw notes as a first draft, one that you can approach with an open mind. After all, you’re not sure yet what pieces of information will be most important for you to go back to and incorporate into your manuscript.

As you take your initial notes, capture the key words, concepts, phrases, references, or ideas that stick out to you, but don’t focus too much on organizing, editing, or spelling. If you’re unsure whether you’ve gotten a detail right, use a simple system of stars or question marks to indicate what you need to go back to, but try not to interrupt your flow. 

Edit, edit, edit!

Approaching your initial notes as a first draft should be coupled with setting aside some time to re-read and organize your notes into a more careful, second draft.

This editing process is an opportunity to both reinforce what you learned, and connect any dots you may have missed.

Take the time to group like concepts together; confirm the correct spelling of references, names, and other details; and streamline the overall flow of the information you’ve captured.

Find your own structure

If a professor or a presenter makes them available, consider printing out and bringing the slide deck to the class and taking notes on each slide as they are presented. In PowerPoint, you can print up the deck in note form by selecting the Notes Page or 3 Slides options under print settings.

That said, you don’t need to follow the structure given to you by a professor, speaker, or author—you can create your own. When we’re taking notes, we’re often in a receptive position—trying to understand what others are sharing with us. While we all want to capture the lecture, presentation, or reading accurately, that doesn’t (always) mean our notes should follow its same organizational flow.

Your first pass may well be to take down each piece of information as you receive it, but as you’re going through and making your edits, don’t be afraid to reframe what you’ve gathered in a way that is legible to you.

For instance, if you are going through a mountain of books and articles in preparation for qualifying exams, try creating a template for yourself in Word or Google Docs to help you easily record the information you’ll need from each text—from the author and title to a short summary and key quotes.

Try writing by hand

Even in our digital age, writing by hand can sometimes can connect you more closely to the information you’re taking in. It can also give you room to move and play on the page in unexpected ways, using visual and graphic cues to connect the concepts you are exploring.

If writing by hand is too cumbersome or otherwise doesn’t work for you, consider trying a more feature-rich note-taking tool to get things going such as Notion or OneNote (included with Microsoft Office), both of which let you move your content around on the (digital) page. Similarly, Notebook (from Zoho) and Evernote offer color-coded notes as well as the ability to bring in images, audio, and links.

Record what you hear

Writing by hand can be a great approach for some, but recording a lecture, talk, or meeting may be a better approach for you. Apps like Rec Lite are free and easy to use, turning your notes into m4a or mp3 files you can then export or share directly from the app and play on iTunes.

Popular tools like OneNote or Evernote let you record audio directly within the app, but won’t transcribe what you’ve captured—for that, you can set up dictation and speech recognition on both Mac and Windows computers. If you do plan on recording someone, just make sure to ask for consent before you begin.

Sometimes, the best approach to taking notes is not to do it—at least for a little while. We’ve all had that moment of confusion in class, at work, or when grappling with a text that stops us in our tracks. When that sense of disorientation hits, step back and simplify. Rather than trying to read, listen, or observe and take notes all at the same time, simply be present with what’s in front of you and return to your notes when you’ve caught up.

Use visual cues

Arrows, circles, stars, and other visual cues can help you highlight important, unique, or confusing concepts without interrupting your first-draft flow. They are a way for you to signal what you want to come back to without losing your train of thought.

For this approach to work successfully, try to utilize a consistent system; while it can be customized to you and evolve over time, it should ideally be an operational shorthand for your thoughts to avoid any future confusion.

Keep refining

Good notes are a foundational learning tool at any stage in your academic and professional journey. Taking notes is a simple task at its surface, but like any other skill, with some effort and ingenuity you can make your notes work better for you.

What note taking tips and tricks have you tried?

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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