If you’re still working on developing your perfectly photographic memory, you probably need to take notes in class.
The purpose of notes is two-fold: note taking helps you absorb the information while you’re hearing it, and the notes serve as a place to review the concepts later on (as in, 10 minutes before an exam.)
But what’s the best way to take notes? Here, I’ll summarize what the popular research tells us, as well as what I personally think is the best way to go.
Typing: Quantity over Quality
Typing notes is about as quick as it gets. You’re able to get a lot of information as it comes, even verbatim.
The main benefit for typing notes is that, later on, you can search a keyword and immediately find where it appears. This is a lifesaver for homework and take-home exams.
If you prefer to type notes, I’d recommend using Google Docs; this way, it’s automatically saved to cloud storage, is available on any device, and can do handy things like define words for you.
Another benefit of Google Docs is that you can collaborate with other students during class; simply share one document with a group of friends or with the whole class, and you can all type out notes simultaneously, making sure not to miss a single point.
Of course, make sure to save your own copy in case someone accidentally deletes the whole thing right before a big test.
Microsoft’s answer to Google Docs and Drive is OneNote and OneDrive. OneNote is cool because it provides a bit more freedom in the way of creating drawings and entering other digital media. However, it might be a pain for Mac users to collaborate on a OneNote document.
Google Docs and OneNote are my favorite answers for typed notes, but there are several similar applications you can choose from.
Handwritten: Quality over Quantity
If you prefer to take notes by hand, I have good news for you: For retention purposes, handwriting is ideal.
In a 2014 study published in Psychological Science, it was found that you absorb less of the information when you’re typing words verbatim than if you write them out, even if you end up with more notes while typing.
One reason for this is because we can’t write as fast as we can talk, so taking notes by hand requires that you synthesize and summarize the information as you’re writing. It’s totally possible to type on autopilot, but it’s much more difficult when you’re using a pen and paper.
Handwritten notes aren’t without their drawbacks. You’ll inevitably miss some information, it can be tough to read your own handwriting, and you can’t search for keywords. Paging through coffee-stained loose leaf isn’t exactly the most efficient way to remind yourself of the differences between covalent and ionic bonds. Still, handwriting is one of my favorite methods of note-taking.
Another benefit to taking notes by hand is that it’s simple to design your own method for taking notes.
I like to come up with ways to denote different types of information: concepts that I’m shaky on, main points, points to return to later (i.e., a suggestion to “read this book if you want to learn more on the topic.”)
Highlighting works alright for this, but I was never able to locate more than a single highlighter at a time in college. I was lucky if I could even find a pen. So, I put boxes around words to memorize, underlined main points, starred points to return to later, and circled concepts that remained unclear to me. It was my own type of shorthand and it worked really well because I was writing and absorbing all the information as it came.
Handwriting isn’t all old school. Of course, you can hand-write on a tablet with a stylus (and some programs, like OneNote, can even translate your handwriting into text.)
There are also some products that let you maintain the look and feel of a regular notebook without wasting paper. A reusable notebook like Rocketbook allows you to take advantage of the kinesthetic value of handwriting, but you can upload them to Google Drive or Box after class and use less paper.
The drawback is that it’s only reusable up to about five times with the current technology. I’m looking forward to an infinitely reusable notebook, myself.
Best of both worlds?
I’m not here to suggest you abandon technology and only hand-write your notes from now on, nor do I think you should switch to Google Docs if you’re partial to a physical notebook.
I think there’s a way to get all the benefits without the drawbacks.
- First, you take notes by hand in a way that works for you. This way, you’re taking in the information as it comes rather than mindlessly typing everything you hear.
- Next, talk to your classmates. Organize using a class message board or a platform like Slack, and encourage them to join you in creating a collaborative document for each lecture or class period.
After you have all taken your separate notes, everyone in class can contribute to the digital notes for the whole class. When you enter those notes into the class document, it’s like a mini review period of everything covered in lecture.
- Other students can help fill in the gaps with their own notes and raise comments or questions when something is unclear. I can tell you from experience that Google Docs work great for this, but OneNote and some other platforms might also be effective.
You’ll have your own set of unaltered notes that are unique to you, including which keywords stood out to you, the questions you had, and the starred information you want to return to later.
You’ll also have a complete set of notes without any missing pieces, and you’ll be able to search for keywords and ask questions of your classmates.
Which note-taking strategies are your go-tos?