Effective Note-Taking 101: How to Take Better Notes in College

Close up of student girl hands taking notes on laptop at night sitting on a desk
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All students know that they should probably take notes in class, but that doesn’t mean you know effective note-taking methods—that is why it is important you take the initiative to learn how to take better notes in college.

To take better notes in college, students should listen actively, write in their own words, and focus on the main ideas, new information, examples, vocab, and key points. They should keep their notes short and add visuals. After class, they need to review, add onto, and edit their notes for clarity.

Keep reading to learn why effective note-taking is important and get more in-depth tips on how to take better notes in college.

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What are notes?

Notes are short summaries of information and key facts to help you understand and remember a topic.

Notes can be typed on a laptop, written or typed on an iPad or tablet, or handwritten.

Students can take notes on their professor’s lecture, class discussions, or the readings (such as the textbook).

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Why are notes important?

Taking notes helps students:

  • Be more focused in class
  • Listen more carefully
  • Retain the information that is being discussed

Notes help you process and understand the information.

Good notes also make studying much easier and help students do better on tests.

Handwritten vs. iPad vs. laptop

A big question about note-taking is which form is the best: handwritten, using an iPad or tablet, or on a laptop.

ResearchOpens in a new tab. has shown that handwritten notes are better for learning because when students type, they transcribe the lecture more instead of focusing on the main idea and reframing them to write in their notes.

Writing your notes by hand also makes it easier to create visuals and prevents the distractions that are possible when using a device (hello, social media).

However, typing your notes is often faster, and with online notes, you can search them, send them or collaborate on them with peers, and back them up. It is also much easier to edit and add onto typed notes.

Typing notes can work well for some people so long as you make sure that you are not just transcribing a lecture but writing the main points and details, and you can avoid distractions.

An iPad or tablet can be a best-of-both-worlds solution. You can use a stylus and a note-taking app (there are many different ones) to take notes by hand on your iPad. That way, you get the benefits of taking notes by hand, but they can also be saved to the cloud and easily searched.

Try taking notes by hand, on an iPad or tablet, and laptop. Experiment and see which one you think works best for you.

Try different note-taking methods

In addition to experimenting with which way you best like to take notes, you should also experiment with different note-taking methods.

Find a method that works for you and the way your mind works.

Outline method

The outline method is probably the most tried and true note-taking method. This is the method that I use.

You write your title about the topic. Then, you use roman numerals to write your main topic. Below that, you indent and use letters and write sub-topics. Beneath that, you can further indent and use numbers to write about details.

Take notes on the PowerPoint slides

If your professor gives you access to their PowerPoint, you can either print them or upload them as a pdf to your iPad and take notes directly on them.

This saves some time and makes it easy to follow along during the lecture.

Mind mapping

With mind mapping, you write your main topic in the center and then draw lines out from there to subtopics. From each subtopic, you draw further lines to the details and examples.

This method is good for visual learners or for classes with professors that don’t follow a logical order in their lectures.

Cornell method

For the Cornell method, you have 3 sections.

A smaller cues column on the left has the most important information, headings, and key topics. Fill this in after class. Include vocab and any questions you have. These are your cues to remember the topic.

On the right, you have your larger notes column to take notes during class.

At the bottom, you write a summary of your notes.

Three-column method

In the three-column method, you divide your paper into three columns.

You write headings and main points in the first column on the left. In the second middle column, you write definitions and explanations. In the third column on the right, you write details.

Chart method

The chart method is similar, but you write your main point at the top of the column and then include all the details underneath. Create a new column for a new main point.

Sentence method

In the sentence method, you jot down the main points in individual sentences. Start a new sentence for each new point or detail.

Bullet Journal

Using a bullet journalOpens in a new tab. to take notes is for those that are visual learners and want notes that are aesthetically pleasing.

However, making pretty notes during a lecture is hard, so they require much more time outside of class.

Flow notes

Flow notes are the least structured method—you simply write down notes however you want or makes sense to you during the lecture.

While this can be effective for some people, I would not recommend this method as it makes it harder to review later.

Organize your notes

Organizing your notes is an important step, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. If you are using your device, keep folders and different documents for class. Use subheadings. Make sure you label and back up everything (I like the Seagate Opens in a new tab.external drives to back up my schoolwork).

If you are taking notes by hand, use a specific binderOpens in a new tab. or notebookOpens in a new tab. for each class.

I personally like binders more because they allow you to add extra pages of notes or handouts (including any printed PowerPoint slides), but notebooks are tried and true too.

Label notes

Another key part of organizing your notes is labeling them when you take them. This means including the date and class.

If using a binder, number your note pages.

If taking notes from a reading, include the page numbers.

Important tip: Always leave space in your notes so you can add more information or questions later.

13 tips to take better notes in college

Let’s look at some effective note-taking tips to help you develop this skill.

1. Listen actively and participate

Active Listening Skills

The first step to taking good notes is to listen actively in class. You have to pay attention to the lecture or discussion if you are going to take notes on it.

Don’t zone out and write what is being said without thinking about it.

It is also helpful to participate in the discussion so you can test your understanding and conclusions, be challenged, and gain a deeper understanding of the topic.

2. Focus on main ideas and vocabulary

You want to avoid transcribing the lecture and trying to write down everything they say. Instead, you want to focus on the main ideas, examples, and new information.

Write down what your professor writes down or what they say is important. Look for points or terms that they repeat or emphasize.

3. Make connections

As you take your notes, make connections between ideas and show how topics relate to each other. This will help you get a broader understanding of the topic.

You can use arrows to show the ideas are connected.

4. Write in your own words

It also helps you understand the topic better if you write your notes in your own words. Rephrase things and summarize. Write down examples that help you understand it and your own conclusions.

5. Keep your notes short

Writing down only the important information helps keep your notes short.

Another way to keep your notes short is to use abbreviations. They make it easier to write faster and save space.

Learn some common shorthand and abbreviations, such as:

  • b/c
  • @
  • &
  • w/o

You can also use common texting abbreviations. While in college, you normally want to avoid texting language at all costs. However, note-taking is a time when you can use that style to help you write faster.

You can also create your own. If it makes sense to you and will help you write faster and later understand when you are studying, that is all that matters.

Make sure that whatever abbreviations you use, you use them consistently or create a key, so you can refer back to it if you forget what something means.

6. Add visuals

Depending on the course, visuals can be a big asset to help you understand the concept. Try to add diagrams, charts, or timelines to your notes.

7. Include sources

If your professor mentions sources, include that information in your notes so you can reference it later if needed.

8. Write down questions

As you are taking your notes and when reviewing your notes, write down any questions you have. Do not just skip over information that you don’t understand.

9. Take notes about more than one medium

While students often recognize the importance of taking notes in lectures, they skip over taking notes on discussions or assigned readings (including their textbook).

Taking notes on multiple mediums can help you get a wider viewpoint of the topic and make it more likely that you will understand and retain the information.

10. Rewrite notes

This is a step that is often skipped, but rewriting your notes is important to good note-taking. It makes them easier to read and understand.

Take the time to go through them and add on any information you learned later or had to rush past. Get rid of repeating information.

Use highlightersOpens in a new tab. to highlight information or use different colored pensOpens in a new tab. to show different types of information and key points.

You can even handwrite them to begin with and then type them later.

Once you have clear notes, you can use them to create study guides, flashcards, and summaries.

11. Review your notes regularly

You need to review your notes regularly, or you will forget the information.

Make it a habit to review your notes daily (which can only take a few minutes) and before and after class.

12. Compare notes

While developing your note-taking skill, it can be helpful to compare notes with classmates. This gives you a chance to see their style and what other students found important or key points to include.

13. Get help

Finally, if you need more help on how to take better notes in college, you can ask your professors or the TA for advice. You can also ask your peers for feedback.

Now you know how to take better notes in college. Share with your friends that could use some help improving their note-taking skills too.

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