Taking effective notes is essential to becoming a top student, but with so many note-taking strategies out there, it can be overwhelming to decide which ones to use. Here are some tips and techniques to help you take better notes this year.
Writing vs Typing
The first thing to consider is whether to handwrite or type your notes. Although some people will tell you that one approach is inherently better than the other, the answer isn’t black and white.
Much of the research concerning handwritten vs typed notes is observational, meaning the researchers ask students how they take notes and compare it to their performance on tests or other examinations. They use this data to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of each note-taking strategy.
The problem is that there are numerous variables that go into academic performance beyond handwriting or typing your notes that need to be controlled for. Your specific note-taking strategies, how you review your notes, and the other study strategies you employ, among others. Of the studies that use experimental designs, the consensus seems to be that there is no significant difference between handwritten vs typed note-taking strategies.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Whether you should write or type your notes will depend on many factors, so let’s discuss some of the pros and cons of each method.
On the one hand, handwriting your notes forces you to slow down and focus on what you’re writing. It is estimated that the average person writes at a speed of approximately 20 words per minute whereas the average teacher talks at about 170 words per minute. There’s simply not enough time to write down every single word.
Instead, you have to filter out the most important details and consolidate the information being presented to you. This process of taking in information, condensing it, and physically writing it down takes more mental energy than copying notes verbatim. This means you’re often more engaged in the lecture and spend more time critically thinking about the material.
Handwriting notes also lets you be more creative with the organization. You can make quick sketches or diagrams, draw arrows to connect ideas, and write comments in the margins. You have full control over the layout.
As we’ve said before on this channel, sometimes the best learning is messy. Handwriting your notes provides fewer restraints and less structure, allowing you to write your notes in a way that makes sense to you.
In contrast, the biggest advantage to typing your notes is speed. Whereas the average person writes at a speed of about 20 words per minute, the average person can type at a speed of 40 words per minute with some people exceeding 100-150 words per minute. That’s anywhere from 2 to 8 times the speed of writing notes by hand. For this reason, simply switching to typing your notes can save you a substantial amount of time.
This speed does come with some downsides, however. Typing quickly comes with the risk of mindlessly copying notes verbatim rather than paying attention to the content, processing the information, and summarizing it into more concise notes.
In addition to handwriting and typing your notes, there are hybrid forms of note-taking such as writing your notes on a tablet or handwriting your notes on slides. These strategies have many of the benefits of both handwriting and typing your notes; however, they also have their own downsides.
On the one hand, you gain the benefits of physically writing your notes and having to think more critically about what you write. On the other hand, because much of the information is already present on the slides, you may be more likely to get distracted and lose interest.
Which note-taking strategy you choose will depend on a few factors. For instance, if you type substantially faster than you write, it may be a good idea to type your notes and use the time you save to do more active methods of studying. But if you type almost as slowly as you write, it may be more beneficial to handwrite your notes as it may help you retain information better in the long term given the more active mental processing required for writing over typing.
The note-taking strategy you should use will also depend on your professor. If you have an instructor that goes through their notes quickly without giving you time to write things down, typing your notes may be more effective. If you’re taking a class that is more concept-heavy and moves at a slower pace, writing notes may allow you to better organize the information in a way that lets you see the big picture and understand those concepts at a deeper level.
Another factor to consider is whether you’re attending lectures in person or virtually. The time spent at in-person lectures is fixed, meaning your goal should be to cram the most amount of learning into that period of time. In contrast, your time spent going through virtual lectures is not fixed, meaning you can go through them at 1.5 or 2x speed and spend the remainder of your time using active forms of studying.
There are two general types of note-taking: linear and non-linear. In linear note-taking, you move in sequential order, from the start of the topic to the end of the topic. This is typically how university lectures are structured. In contrast, the goal of non-linear note-taking is to create connections between pieces of related information. By challenging yourself to make connections, you end up with a better understanding of how concepts and information relates to each other which often leads to a much deeper level of understanding.
Linear methods of note-taking, such as the outline method and the Cornell method, are what most people are familiar with.
As a refresher, in the Cornell method, you divide your page into parts. On the left side, you write down keywords or questions that you then use to quiz yourself later. On the right side, you take your notes in a traditional nested outline format. Then, once you’re done with your notes, you write a summary of the information at the bottom of the page.
In contrast, in the outline method, you start with a main topic or idea. Then you create sub-topics related to that idea and nest it with an indent. Any supporting facts of that sub-topic are then nested a point further. This allows for a clean, organized, and straightforward way to compile the information from class.
Mind mapping is another technique that you can use to take notes. To mind map, you identify the main concepts of the topic you’re trying to study, plot them on the page, and group them in a way that fits together logically. You should think about how the key terms relate and what kind of relationship they have. Can you compare and contrast them? Are they related via cause and effect? Or are they both parts of a greater idea or process?
Forming a mind map about everything related to a topic on one canvas can help you organize your topic into a two-dimensional structure and can help with both memorization and understanding. Instead of having to read through several paragraphs of information, mindmaps organize the most important information on one page. They provide you with a broad overview of the topic and help you make connections between different ideas and information – and making connections is integral to learning.
Which technique you should use will depend on the type of information you’re trying to learn and how you’ll be assessed. Experiment and find what works best for you.
Aesthetic vs Messy Notes
You’ll often see social media influencers with perfect organization, immaculate handwriting, and precise color themes on their notes without a stray mark. But is there value in doing this?
On the one hand, creating organized and aesthetically pleasing notes can aid in learning. Using colors has been shown to improve memory by increasing attention and arousal. Color coding your notes can also provide you with a clear system to group together similar topics and ideas which can further improve memory.
Slowing down the pace of your note-taking and including detailed visuals can also be valuable. For certain subjects, especially those that are more concept or process-heavy, drawing diagrams can be an incredibly useful tool to help you understand the material.
The biggest drawback of making visually appealing notes, however, is time. Instead of spending that time on note-taking, which is often a more passive form of learning, you could spend it on active learning techniques such as flashcards and practice questions which are more effective.
In addition, if you’re more concerned with the appearance of your notes than the content itself, you may not be actively listening to and engaging with the content as much as you would otherwise.
Keep It Simple
Lastly, keep your note-taking simple and to the point. When you’re starting your note-taking journey and researching the various techniques you can use, it can start to feel overwhelming. You may be tempted to use every technique and rewrite your notes in multiple different ways. But using too many techniques can actually be counterproductive.
If you spend all of your time trying to reformat your notes in different ways, you risk becoming so focused on the organization and aesthetics of your notes that don’t pay attention to the content.
Instead, consider the subject, professor, and your learning preference and choose a note-taking strategy that works well for that given situation. Note-taking is a skill that takes time to develop and everyone learns differently, so you need to discover what techniques are right for you.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Why You’re Not a Straight-A Student (& How to Become One).