Taking good notes when in the classroom is a fundamental skill. It plays a key role in helping you to understand and remember what you’re learning, which in turn drives your ability to do well in exams. It’s pretty simple – if you’re good at taking notes, you’re much more likely to get the results you want than if you’re not.
But note-taking isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone. Sometimes you might feel too pressured to keep up with everything your teacher is saying, or you might not be sure about how to organise your notes, and as a result you miss things and leave gaps in your knowledge.
Read on for five of the tips that we at EduExperts like to teach our students for taking notes!
Choose a tool that works for you.
Many students will have a few options for how to take their notes. These might include a laptop, or a tablet, or the old-fashioned way – pen and paper.
There’s really no wrong tool to use for taking notes – the important thing is to find something that works for you. If you prefer writing lots, then you might find a laptop helps you type faster. On the other hand, if you’re a tactile person, you might find you think better with a pen in your hand.
One point of advice, though, is that you should choose a tool that makes it easy to store all of your notes in the same location. If you’re a fan of pen and paper, then this probably looks like an exercise book (rather than individual pieces of paper which will inevitably end up crushed at the bottom of your bag in a week’s time!). Likewise, if you use your laptop for notes, put some time into creating a good organisational structure so you don’t end up taking scattered notes on individual files around your desktop. Applications such as OneNote or Evernote are good at organising notes on a laptop or tablet.
Summarise – don’t copy word-for-word.
When your teacher is talking, it can be tempting to copy down everything they say word-for-word – particularly if you’re using a laptop and you’re a reasonably fast typist.
However, it’s useful to remember that when your teacher is introducing a concept for the first time, they will likely be using a number of examples, explanations, and stories so that it makes sense in your mind. Not all of this is necessary to write down – in fact, concentrating on writing it all down will probably mean that you’re missing out on the opportunity to process it in your own mind.
Instead of blindly copying everything they say, take a moment to listen. Try and draw out the main points, and take note of these in summary form when necessary. Of course, if there’s an example or analogy you particularly like, by all means jot it down! However, you’ll find you can process and remember a lot more when you take the time to let a point sink in before writing it in your notes.
Don’t stress too much about making them neat.
There’s a lot to be said for neat, well-organised notes. Taking a bit of care to ensure that your notes are in the correct place, and making sure that they’re legible, will save you plenty of time later on down the track.
However, it’s definitely possible to go too far with trying to make sure that everything you write is as neat and standardised as possible. If, when you’re in class, you find yourself paying more attention to whether your notes are neat rather than whether you actually understand what you’re learning, it’s probably time to think about relaxing your standards for notes. You can always summarise your notes and make them neat later (more on this soon!), but your job in class is to take down everything that you need to remember the content you’ve learnt.
Like many things, making your notes as neat as possible tends to follow the “80-20 rule” – in other words, you get 80% of the benefit from doing 20% of the work. This “20% of the work” might look like making sure all your notes for a subject are in one place, and that you’re able to read whatever you write down. Anything on top of this – things like using different colours for all of your headings, or using complicated bullet point structures – might add a little bit of value, but is likely to require much more effort, and to come at the expense of actually understanding what you’re learning!
Whenever you’re learning a new concept, you need to create new connections in your brain between areas which may not previously have been linked. Visual diagrams are a great way to train your mind to make these new connections.
As humans, we are very visual creatures – that’s the main way we make sense of the world around us. What that means is that when you’re learning something for the first time, it’s helpful to display this in a diagram.
For a book that you’re reading in English, this could look like a diagram showing the relationships between all the characters – how they feel about each other, what their motivations are, and so on. For Science subjects, you might find that a diagram setting out all of the different events and causes in a process helps you to understand what’s really going on in that process.
So, if you’re able to, integrate as many diagrams as you can into your notes. If you’re using a pen and paper to take notes, that’s easy enough to do. If you’re on a laptop, applications such as OneNote are useful for switching between text and diagrams. You’re likely to find that things make much more sense than if you’re trying to explain everything using words alone.
Rinse and repeat – and make them shorter.
When revising for a test or exam, the volume of notes you have can often be overwhelming. If you’re looking back at pages and pages of content, it’s difficult to immediately understand what the important parts you need to pull out and remember are.
A helpful exercise to avoid this is to condense your notes into shorter summaries. If your set of notes for a particular topic is twenty pages long, for example, try creating a five-page version. As you go through, you’ll naturally take out some of the less important content, leaving yourself with only the important parts to remember.
Before you get to a test or exam, you might want to create another iteration, making your notes even shorter – summarising your five pages into only one, for example (remember to use diagrams!). This gives you a single source of truth for everything you need to remember going into the exam, and is much less overwhelming than skimming through a full twenty-page set of notes before you go in.
At EduExperts, our support for students covers both help with learning content, as well as study strategies like note-taking. Want to know more? Get in touch with your local centre here: eduexperts.co.nz/en/centres/list