Academic Gains through Improved Learning Effectiveness (AGILE)

A photo of notes taken in class.

Taking Effective Notes

As a college student, you’re likely familiar with the habit of taking notes while in the classroom. Understanding the why and how of effective note-taking will help you attend class with purpose, and to make your note-taking a meaningful part of your learning efforts! 

Why Take Notes?

We learn through receiving information, participating in discussions, and making connections between new information and what we have previously learned, experienced, or understood. This is an active, complex process. Trying to just “keep it our our heads” can become overwhelming in the moment, and is ineffective from a longer-term learning perspective. Taking notes contributes to learning by:

  • Keeping you focused on what is happening in the moment, since learning starts with paying attention
  • Capturing a record of the information without the pressure of trying to memorize it in the moment
  • Providing a way to document your thoughts as they arise, since ideas that “pop” into your head often fade quickly if not tended to
  • Creating your own personalized resource for continuing the learning process

Notice how the list above does not include the words “in class”. Note-taking is not just a classroom activity. Taking notes while reading, watching an assigned video, reviewing a PowerPoint provided by the professor, or participating in a group study session all contribute to the learning process and help you maximize your academic “time-on-task”!

How Do I Take Effective Notes?

At some point in college, many students find that their note-taking is “not working”. It may be related to the process of taking notes; in other words, the format and content of the notes. It also may be related to what the student is doing with the notes after initially written. The good news is that there are multiple ways to take notes effectively. For notes to be effective, both the note-taking process and the use of notes need to be active.

Note-taking is a habit, so using a different approach consistently for at least three weeks will be necessary for it to become the “new normal”. You can review some different ways to take notes, along with some step-by-step descriptions and ways to connect your note-taking to other learning strategies. Examples include:

Using Your Notes Effectively

The important term here is “using”. Many learners take notes, but don’t use them. Just like any other tool, notes have the most value when they are put to use. Below are strategies for using your notes after their initial creation:

  • Review the notes again as soon as possible, typically within 24 hours. Note review is a form of spaced practice, which moves the learner from interrupting the forgetting to actually understanding and remember the information long term.
  • Mind the gaps. It can be hard to keep up with incoming information when in a learning situation. Go back and “fill in the blanks”, which may involve referring back to the textbook or other information source. If you recognize big gaps or areas of confusion, meet with your professor during office hours as soon as possible.
  • Add other ideas that come to mind. During your review, your brain will say, “That reminds me of…”. Document these connections in your notes.
  • Compare your notes with those of your peers. This creates an opportunity to fill in some of the blanks, discuss different interpretations of concepts, and teach each other concepts based upon the notes. Comparing notes can be a great addition to other group study strategies.
  • Generate possible exam questions. Start a separate document of likely exam questions, and revisit that document each time you take notes to prepare your exam study guide.
  • Make flashcards for information that needs to be memorized. While most of the content and concepts you learn in college need to be understood and applied, sometimes there will be information you need to commit to memory. This may include names, dates, or frequently-used equations. Trying to memorize this information directly from your notes is inefficient and even overwhelming, as much of what is in the notes does not need to be memorized. Creating and using flashcards can help you memorize efficiently.
  • Create a mind map or other visual summary of the information. Instead of rewriting your notes (which usually does not add much value to your learning), organize the information and draw connections between concepts via a mind map or other visual organizer.