Take notes

Use active note-taking habits and systems to learn better and enjoy your work. Think of yourself a note-maker, not just a note-taker. This approach to taking notes in college and university can help you accelerate your learning and feel more calm as you work.

Here’s a mind map, just one example of how you can make something useful from lectures and readings in your notes:

Mind map in various colours
Mind maps can help you process & reorganise ideas

There are many ways to do this, so try a few and see what works best for you. But two key strategies will help:

  1. Translate, don’t just copy. Instead of automatically copying everything down (which is exhausting), be selective. Look for the key points and supporting ideas. Look for the central stuff that will help you use the ideas later.
  2. Make something of the ideas and information. For example: Visualise. Organise. Paraphrase. Summarise. Inquire. And when you are done, don’t leave your notes just lying in a book—do something with them

If you translate and make something of your notes you will feel more engaged and focused. But you’ll also find you remember better and that you create notes that are easier to go back to later. Remember, you’ll be using these notes to help you do assignments and exams. So the more you can make the readable and practical, the better.

Put question marks next to anything you don’t understand. Find the answer within a day or so. Ask the lecturer in class, wait until after lecture, go to office hours, go on the course discussion board, but find the answer soon and clarify your notes accordingly.

Space out your practice: Review and test your recall of your notes on a regular basis. This approach, spaced practice, has been shown to be much more effective than cramming.

Find your own solution: There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to making notes that work. Digital or paper can both work (some studies show that paper is more effective, but this is not fully understood). Visual or textual can both work. There are different approaches, and you may have to use more than one, depending on the subject and your aim.

So: experiment, practice, and don’t be discouraged if at first it feels strange or doesn’t work perfectly. 

Here are a couple of examples of student strategies for note-making:


The Cornell method is a popular systematic approach. It divides the page into four main parts:

  • key concepts, terms, and names
  • details, examples, evidence etc.
  • a final summary, questions, and follow-up ideas or questions
The Cornell method of note-taking
Cornell can help you focus and make notes that are useful later

This Cornell system makes you more aware of what you are hearing/reading and writing down. You are by default paying more attention to the information you’re given and thinking about how it’s useful. This improves your recall but also gives you something more useful when you later review for study or exam revision. You could change the categories for different subjects and it would still work.

Question > evidence > conclusion

Cal Newport, who has written a couple of excellent books on succeeding in college and university, recommends a question, evidence, conclusion structure. Here’s how that might look:

Question, evidence, conclusion method
A simple approach to help focus notes

It’s easy to see how useful the above example would be in some lectures. Notice how the note-maker has added a new question after the conclusion. Perhaps this will evolve in to a great essay topic or long answer for a written exam.

You might find it useful to come up with different categories. For example: problem, options, solution…or idea, explanation, next steps.

Mind Maps

Mind maps are visual and spatial arrangements of text. Every student does them diverently. They often look like tree charts or spider charts and use colour or doodles and illustrations to cue your visual brain.

mind map using colour and doodles to take notes on traffic accidents
Mind maps use layout, doodles, and colours

Notice how this mind map is divided into categories of problem, evidence, solution, just like the previous example. The student has used colour to help clarify the different categories and what they mean. They’ve even identified a possible essay topic and marked it with lightning bolts to catch they’re attention later.

Any of these approaches to taking notes in college and university can work for you. I think you will find that just having a systematic approach to taking notes of any kind can make lectures and readings more enjoyable and useful.

Give one of these a try and see how it feels.

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