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The Ultimate College Note-Taking Guide

Proficient note-taking and stellar organization are must-have skills in graduate school. There are ways to improve these skills over time with the help of specific note-taking strategies and resources. In this guide we will share some best tips for note-taking and organization as well as resources to help you create a system that works for you.

Author: Blake Huggins

Editor: Staff Editor

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A woman sits at a desk, writing in a notebook with a pen. a laptop, smartphone, and small potted plant are also on the desk. only her torso and arms are visible.

Proficient note-taking skills and organizational habits are essential for excelling in graduate school. Taking useful, informative notes and organizing them for easy, intuitive access not only saves you time when you study but also helps you better retain and recall content, whether for an exam, a group presentation, or an independent research project.

Note-taking and organizational skills develop with time and practice, and there are many ways to improve both. This guide details some of the most effective and popular approaches to note-taking, discusses how to organize your notes, and offers tips for better comprehension. It also lists key resources and expert advice for note-takers. Read on to discover how you can work smarter instead of harder by optimizing your note-taking and organizational skills.

The 6 Best Note-Taking Methods

Below are some of the most effective note-taking methods used by successful students and professionals. Start by selecting a method that works for you and mirrors how you process data and comprehend new information. Developing a method that becomes a habit takes time, but don’t force it. If one approach doesn’t work for you, try another until you find the one that best suits your learning and study style.

Cornell Method

Developed by faculty and study experts at Cornell University, this method offers a highly organized and systematic way of recording notes. With the Cornell note-taking method, you prepare sheets of paper beforehand by creating columns and easily identifiable spaces for key information. A completed page includes a left-hand column where you write cues, headings, or potential questions and another column where you write more detailed notes on the content. At the bottom of the page, you create summary notes that synthesize the content and point to areas needing clarification.

Mind-Mapping Method

Mind-mapping often works well for visual learners because it presents notes spatially as a diagram. Mind maps link key ideas and chart relationships by using a series of words, images, and even colors in some cases. You start with a central image or idea, then build a tree structure containing branches for each theme or sub-topic. The University of Adelaide and 3M, the company responsible for Post-It Notes, both provide good examples of what mind maps look like and what they can do for you.

Outlining Method

One of the oldest and most popular note-taking methods, outlining results in an ordered list based on your reception of information as it is delivered. You create a tree structure like mind-mapping but focus on establishing hierarchical connections between key points and ideas. Alphanumeric outlines use a combination of Roman and Arabic numbers as their base structure. Other approaches include simple arrows, bullet points, or other labeling conventions. The outlining method works well for taking notes on assigned readings as well as during lectures and talks.

Charting Method

With the charting method, you create a grid like with the Cornell method but build it out in more detail. Your notes will look a lot like a spreadsheet or table when you finish with columns and rows that categorize the material. The charting method is especially useful for exam preparation, but it also helps in organizing factual or statistical content or detailed subjects and dates. This method may be a little difficult for fast-paced, live lectures unless you prepare your grid in advance.

Sentence Method

The sentence method is probably the simplest and most versatile approach. Ideal for fast-paced speeches or lectures, the notes you produce with the sentence method won’t contain connections between ideas or display relationships between topics, but they will potentially record more content than other methods. Note-takers using this method simply create a numbered or bullet-point list of sentences covering the material, and spacing and line breaks are used to signal a new thought, concept, or idea. Some opt to combine the sentence method with outlining, using indentation to indicate sub-points when needed.

Boxing Method

If you find the grid layout of charting appealing but too inflexible, the boxing method is another option because it essentially combines elements from mind-mapping and charting. With the boxing method, you create individual boxes and record similar thoughts, ideas, and concepts within each one. Boxing is especially effective if you plan to use a digital device, like a tablet or a stylus, to record your notes. When you’re done taking notes, you can easily manipulate the boxes by moving them around and indicating key connections or relationships among the content.

Best Ways to Organize Your Notes

Having a note-taking system only works well for you if you also have a solid approach for organizing your notes. The notes you take are meant to serve as quick and handy guides you can return to as needed. Messy or cluttered notes negate that purpose and force you to spend precious study time sifting through material to find the notes you need. Avoid problems caused by messy notes by adopting best practices for organization, which begins with deciding your medium for capturing your notes.

Physical Copies

A tried-and-true method, creating physical copies of notes has existed since the beginning of writing and taking notes. Physical copies of your notes take up space, but you’ll never have to worry about access, data storage, or accidental deletion. There are several ways to keep your physical notes organized. You can use individual notebooks, one for each class or subject, or a few three-ring binders. Binders offer the ability to remove and reorder sheets of paper and make inserting a table of contents or re-organizing your notes on the fly much easier. Most binders also come with folder pockets in the front and back for loose-leaf paper.

Digital Notes or Apps

If physical copies feel cumbersome, you can take notes digitally instead. There is an abundance of apps and tools available for creating and organizing digital notes, many with features like creating multiple notebooks, tags, and other useful metadata specifically designed for students. One of the biggest advantages of digital note-taking is searchability. Each app handles this function differently, but they all offer options to quickly search your notes. This means you can easily find information when you need it, saving you a lot of time and frustration.

Both

Combining physical and digital note-taking gives you the best of both worlds. You can digitize hand-written notes using resources like Evernote, which allow you to quickly scan in your notes using the camera on your phone. Many of them also use powerful, robust text recognition tools, which means you’ll still be able to benefit from enhanced searchability. Transcribing your physical notes into a word processing program is another option. It requires an extra step, but you’ll have additional copies of your notes to use as a backup. Plus, the act of transcribing gives you another opportunity to review your notes.

Note-Taking Tips for Better Comprehension

While a solid note-taking method and system of organization are essential, you’ll need to consider the act of note-taking itself to make the process as effective as possible. The content you transcribe is certainly crucial, but it’s important to step back and consider the process more holistically to help you improve. The tips below help you create meaningful, accurate, and informative notes in conjunction with the method and system of organization that work best for you.

Be Prepared

Effective note-taking requires advanced preparation for class, which means completing any homework, required reading, or other assigned tasks ahead of time. Doing so puts you in a good position to participate in class and, especially, to recognize noteworthy material. Another important element of preparation is making sure you have all the materials (e.g., paper, pens, pencils, chargers for electronic devices, etc.) you plan to use.

Choose a Style

Develop a note-taking style that feels comfortable and supports your learning. This will take time, practice, trial, and error, but the effort is worth the reward. Try out the methods discussed above and adapt them as needed. Keep at it until you discover an effective approach. Consider class content, too, and select a method that fits the material. You’ll likely end up using different note-taking styles for each class, so stay flexible and willing to adapt as the material and situation dictate.

Create Your Own Process

The note-taking methods discussed in this guide provide established best practices used by countless students and professionals. Each person comprehends new material differently, though, and you’ll have to find a process that works for you. Selecting a note-taking style and method takes time and effort. As you develop your process, pay attention to what works well and what can be modified or improved. Watch how others take notes and be willing to adapt when a better approach presents itself.

Review Your Notes

Make time to review your notes shortly after class while your memory is still fresh. When you review, make sure the content makes sense to you. If not, make some additional notes and flag them for follow-up during the next class. If everything appears understandable, work to commit the material to memory by closely studying it. Return to the notes for further review when necessary.

Ask Questions

Having questions means you’ve actively processed the material and are ready to deepen your knowledge of it. Keep track of the questions that emerge and seek clear answers. If questions come up during reading or other assignments, write them down. If questions arise during class or a lecture, take initiative and voice them. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class, use the professor’s office hours or email to get the answers you need. Connect with other students, too, since they may have answers to some of your questions and you to theirs.

Handwrite Notes First Then Transcribe to Digital

Creating digital notes alone may be faster and easier, but research shows that it can result in shallower processing and limited comprehension. Don’t completely abandon digital note-taking, though, but consider a hybrid method instead. Take handwritten notes during class and transcribe them digitally later. This takes extra time, but this additional exposure to the material can help solidify your understanding.

Use a Note-Taking App

Note-taking apps, like the ones featured in the resource list below, can enhance and enliven your entire process. These tools offer powerful functions that make it easy for you to take or transcribe notes, and most also have intuitive features for categorizing and organizing notes for easy access during study or class sessions. Many apps also have functions that enable collaborative note-taking too, which could help during group study sessions.

Arrive Early to Class

Arriving early gives you extra time to find an ideal seat that supports your learning and note-taking methods. You can also use that extra time to review your notes from the previous class or reading to jog your memory and deepen your comprehension. It also puts you in a mindset to establish continuity and pick things up where you left off. Arriving early also gives you the opportunity to connect with other students, perhaps to ask questions or set up study sessions.

Use Abbreviations

Using abbreviations, standard ones or those you develop, can help you take notes more efficiently and enable you to keep up with fast-paced lectures or discussions. You don’t need to go as far as learning an entire shorthand system, though go for it if it’s right for you, but knowing some common abbreviations will certainly improve your note-taking skills and save you some time. Keep a key to any abbreviations you use so you can reference them later and make sure you’re interpreting your notes consistently and correctly.

Practice Active Listening

Active listening means you give a speaker your entire focus and undivided attention. This is a learned skill that requires effort, but developing effective listening habits ensures that you get the most out of class. Active listening is a key transferable skill too, one that you’ll likely use in professional or interpersonal contexts as well.

Resources and Apps for Effective Note-Taking

With a ton of note-taking resources and apps available and new ones being developed every day, knowing which fits your system and style might take some time. The list below discusses some of the most popular apps designed to help you take better notes and organize them with ease. It includes web-based tools and apps available for most devices.

Agenda

Agenda provides a date-based approach to digital note-taking. It extends tools for documenting and planning projects or assignments and uses cloud-based storage and organization. It’s available on Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

Apple Notes

If you want a no-frills tool and aren’t interested in downloading a new app, consider Apple’s native note-taking tool. It effortlessly syncs your notes across devices and makes folder-based organization easy and intuitive.

Bear

Designed for Apple devices, Bear is a flexible platform for crafting and organizing markdown notes. It includes multiple themes and export options, smart data recognition, cross-note linking functions, and a focus mode that hides distractions when you need a minimalist environment.

CollaNote

A multi-function application, CollaNote is equal parts PDF reader, journal, and digital notebook. It supports a dark mode for low-lit environments and offers a real-time collaboration function to allow you to edit notes with classmates on the fly.

Dropbox Paper

This tool uses the well-known and powerful cloud functions of Dropbox. If you’re already familiar with Dropbox, this useful option offers a workspace for writing, editing, and brainstorming alongside peers and classmates.

Evernote

One of the most popular tools available, Evernote’s note-taking app makes it easy to organize content by class or project across all your devices. In addition to digital notes, you can also create tasks and custom schedules all within this intuitive program.

GoodNotes 5

GoodNotes uses Apple’s iCloud service to help you sync and keep track of notes across all your devices. Powered by robust text recognition technology, it also extends the ability to search within all your notes, including those handwritten with a stylus.

Google Docs

Google Docs offers a word-processor-based platform for digital notetaking. It includes features for collaborating and commenting on shared notes and integrates seamlessly with other Google Suite tools like Sheets and Slides.

Joplin

Joplin allows you to create and access multimedia notes in an open-source, cloud-based environment. It also includes unique features like the ability to save web pages as notes along with customized plugins and themes.

Liquid Text

A cross-platform tool, Liquid Text harnesses the full power of digital technology by going beyond text or paper-based note-taking alone. You can highlight, search, create sticky notes, develop charts and maps, and so on. It also offers collaborative functions and additional tools for organization.

MarginNote 3

Compatible on Mac, iPad, and iPhone, MarginNote acts as both an e-reader and a digital note-taking tool. It integrates annotation and reading note functions with the ability to create flashcards, mind maps, and other materials to help channel your study efforts.

MindMeister

For visual note-takers, MindMeister offers a collaborative environment for creating mind maps and other spatially focused notes. Users can create up to three mind maps for free or select a subscription tier to meet their needs.

Nebo

Nebo replicates the traditional note-taking experience with the benefits of digitization. It focuses on handwritten notes and includes features for PDF markup, highlighting, and freehand drawing. It also includes a smart diagram feature for visual learners.

Notability

Notability, exclusively for Apple devices, offers powerful note-taking features like handwriting recognition, presentation tools, and audio capture and playback functions. It also contains quite a few templates that make it easy to try out different note-taking methods.

OneNote

Powered by Microsoft and easily compatible with its Office suite of applications, OneNote is a cross-functional digital note-taking platform. Users can incorporate mixed media in their notes and easily share notebooks with friends and classmates.

Open Text Summarizer

Also known as OTS, this open-source tool helps you summarize dense or lengthy texts. An ideal resource for non-native English speakers and those looking to refine their editing skills, OTS reads text and determines which sentences contain the most important content.

Penultimate

An Evernote product, Penultimate focuses on digital handwriting using Apple’s iPad. It seamlessly integrates with Evernote’s flagship note-taking app and combines the intuitive experience of drawing or writing with comprehensive search and sync features.

Scrivener

Ideal for complex, long-form, or research-based projects, Scrivener’s note-taking functions include digital scrapbooks, index cards, and ring binders. The app makes it easy to save different document drafts and track revisions across devices using Dropbox or another cloud storage platform.

SimpleNote

True to its name, Simplenote offers a simplified and minimalist environment for taking notes and syncing them across your devices. Available on most platforms and compatible with most devices, this tool is an ideal option for those looking for a streamlined but powerful note-taking tool.

ThinkSpace

ThinkSpace offers a free-range platform for note-taking, brainstorming, and mind-mapping. Users can record text-based notes and augment them with visual diagrams, sticky notes, outlines, and shared whiteboards.

Zoho Notebook

One branch of Zoho’s comprehensive CRM platform, Notebook equips you with the features you need to create the right note(s) for the task at hand. Users can create audio or photo-based notes as well as checklists, sketches, and other interactive content.

A Note-Taking Expert Weighs In

AshleySchuering

Ashley Schuering is the blogger behind Confessions of a Grocery Addict, a food blog designed to share money-saving tricks, time-saving tips, and easy grocery hacks to make being the CFO (Chief Food Officer) of your family a little easier. She is also a full-time freelance writer, food nerd, SEO ninja, and food justice activist. She lives in Nashville, TN with her super awesome husband and two 70-lb lap dogs. 

Q: There’s a large number of tools and apps out there to help note-takers, so many it can be difficult to narrow things down. If you had to pick one or two apps or resources to recommend, what would they be?

A: I’m pretty analog when it comes to taking notes, but I do work with both. I suggest finding a notebook and some pens that work for you. If you like your tools, it’s easier to keep up with whatever system you devise. I personally hate highlighters and would rather underline. I have a color-coding system to help keep me on task for different subjects. Post-it notes are also essential to my thought process. They remind me about big questions I have for a particular topic and are mobile when I’m drafting out something complicated that needs frequent revising.

Q: It can be easy to lose sight of the purpose of note-taking in the rush to accurately record information from a class, talk, or lecture. How can students craft meaningful notes they will actually use later?

A: Tailor your method of note-taking to your particular task. For example, I’d probably want to use my laptop for a humanities lecture because I can type faster than I can write. That said, I’ll still keep a notebook nearby just in case. For math and science where there are lots of strange characters, I’m pencil and paper all the way. I also prefer not having my computer open if the class is more of a discussion rather than a straight lecture. Being behind a screen immediately changes my ability to interact with others. Plus, I find that longhand is better for my creative impulses. I also like to keep separate notebooks for each subject, plus separate Google files for each as well. That makes it easy to find exactly what I’m looking for when it’s time to get down to completing specific tasks.

Q: What are some of the main pros and cons of digital note-taking versus writing longhand with a pen and paper?

A: Digital is faster and easier to share or collaborate. If you have bad penmanship, it can also ensure your notes are legible in the future. It’s also great that digital can be backed up! Longhand seems to “stick” a little better than digital. It could also be better for explaining more difficult concepts since it’s easier to draw associations between thoughts, make complicated characters, and indicate flow.

Q: What tips or advice would you offer to students who take good notes but struggle to organize them effectively?

A: Keep separate notebooks for each subject. I do this along with separate Google files for each as well. That makes it easy to find exactly what I’m looking for when it’s time to get down to completing specific tasks. Consider using a glue stick. I had a wonderful teacher in middle school who had us paste every sheet of paper she passed out into the same notebook that we took notes in. Homework assignments, diagrams, and other study aids all went in the same place. I carried that method with me and later created a personal hybrid approach that then carried me through high school and beyond.