How to Take Notes Like a Pro: Upgrade Your Skills
It was the last class on a Friday afternoon. It was hot in the classroom and smelled like freshmen boy. You know, sweat with a layer of Axe body spray over it? Let the whining begin. “Why do we have to write this down? It would be easier if you just printed this out for us.”
I have heard this a million times from kids. While it would be faster if I just printed out notes, they would learn less. My goal is for them to learn as much as possible, so handwritten notes it is. Research is on my side on this one. Handwriting notes is part of the learning process.Handwriting notes is part of the learning process.Click To Tweet
In fact, recent studies have shown that handwriting notes, instead of typing, is more beneficial for students. Not even typing notes? You will remember very little, if at all.
Why? (Break out your nerd glasses ‘cause we are about to get brainy!) When you handwrite notes, you can’t write down every word the teacher (or professor) says. You have to make decisions about what to write down and what to ignore. Having to figure out what the teacher means increases your retention and understanding in the short and long term.
Also, the actual act of writing (which involves your ears, eyes, and hands,) helps you to remember. Ever left the grocery list at home, but you were able to remember what was on the list anyway? The physical act of writing helped your brain remember the list.
Few schools teach students how to take notes today. When left to their own devices, kids make some interesting choices. (Related: students who don’t know how to study.) When I was teaching in the classroom, some kids didn’t take any notes. Or they wrote “stream of consciousness” notes, writing down whatever they wanted, with no regard to the information’s relative importance or relationship with other details. To make your notes an effective study tool (which is what we want them to be), you need to create some sort of order.
So let’s dig into note-taking strategies. Grab the FREE checklist I created for you! Print it out and place in your notebook for reference before, during, and after classes!
Select a style of note taking and stick to that style. Consistency is key; using the same style over and over makes it easier for you to find information in your notes. That means that your notes will be more useful to study from.
Create a highlighting color code. You aren’t highlighting yet, but, again, consistency is key. Use the same colors to highlight over and over. Eventually, you will be able to scan notes for certain details (“What is the name of that theory? I’m looking for green highlighting . . .”) quickly. Your code might look like this:
At the beginning of class, write the date and topic at the top of the paper. Make it easy on yourself to find these notes later.
Listen to the teacher/ professor! This seems obvious, but a lot of students tune teachers out. If you find that you are losing your focus, use a small squeeze ball, give yourself a small shake, or get up for a quick turn around the room (if allowed.)
Don’t write everything down! Pick out the most important information and paraphrase what the teacher says. This takes some practice and will feel weird in the beginning, but you are more likely to actually recall this new information later.
To make your life easier, use abbreviations. This will allow you to write faster! There are standard abbreviations, but you will also probably create your own.
Listen and watch for clues from the teacher to write information down. Spoken clues might include, “So, the big idea is,” “First, second, third,” “Most significant,” “Cause/ effect,” “You definitely need to know,” “This will be on the test.” If the teacher writes a term or name on the board or draws a visual, you should write or draw it as well!
Note taking doesn’t stop when the teacher stops talking. Good note taking continues later that day. Research shows that if you review new information within 24 hours of learning it, your retention increases 60%!
When you get home, you need to review and “refresh” those notes. That means sometimes re-writing notes. Most of the time, you can get away with simply adding things to your notes.
- Start highlighting using the color code you already created.
- Add small drawings or doodles to your notes that help explain the information.
- Annotate your notes (write in the margins) with review questions, connections to other classes, or questions you have for the teacher.
- Write a short summary at the end. Write 2-4 sentences that explain the “big idea” you can take away from these notes.
As with all new practices, this takes time to become a habit. Print out the Note Taking Strategies checklist (click below!) and keep it in your notebook. As you take notes and go over your notes in the evening, check off the steps on the checklist.