Forgotten Skills: Classroom Note-taking

Now that school is starting up again, we’re revisiting a few of the study skills you may have forgotten. First up is note-taking: what’s the best and most effective way to take notes? It turns out that there are several (and some are even backed up by science!). This week, we focus on in-class note-taking. Next time, we’ll move to books and articles.

The most controversial question about note-taking that we’ve seen hinges on the medium. Do you go digital, or stick with paper and pen(cil)? The answer to this, as to many questions, is ‘it depends’.

Several studies have shown that physically writing material out is helpful for learning, while typing is not. These studies suggest that you’re better off writing your notes out by hand, because the act of writing will help you remember the material and make you more familiar with it even before you start exam review.

Other studies have also shown that laptops are more distracting, both to students who use them and nearby students. (Maybe you don’t think you’re distracted as you answer that email, but research says you are – and so are the two people sitting behind you.)

Laptop fiends, don’t worry: the science is still out on this one. Contrasting studies show that laptops in the classroom, especially when they’re linked to classroom activities (e.g., “who can tell me where Caesar died?”), can be more beneficial to learning than non-digital approaches. And obviously, for students who use laptops because their handwriting is illegible, slow, or otherwise difficult, digital yields better outcomes.

While digital vs. manual should be a matter of choice, it’s important to pick the right tool for the job. If you’re working on a laptop, typing in a word processor on a real keyboard is probably better – and less distracting – than typing on a tablet or phone. While some studies show that tweeting notes can be effective, most of them focus on professional academics. It’s not yet clear that tweeting is a good substitute for more traditional note-taking. If you’re working manually, it’s good to have a notebook that’s the right size for you and your specific circumstances. That may not be 8.5×11, especially if you’re in a class with relatively small chair desks (sometimes they don’t fit!). Bound pages are also generally easier to keep track of than looseleaf, even if you use a binder.

So now that we’ve covered the tools, what about the content? The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to write down everything your instructor says. You should write important points – terms that appear on slides, anything that’s repeated more than once (this is why it’s important to pay attention!), or concepts that take more than a few minutes of class to explain. In addition to these important points, you should add anything that helps you remember what they are. Your goal should be to give yourself the content that will help you recreate the class when you read it. (If you’re not sure what I mean by that, there’s a pretty good example from the movie Mean Girls.)

Having said that, you shouldn’t be too hung up about the format. There are a lot of different options for formatting your notes (outlines, Cornell, highlighting or other use of color, etc.: you can see some examples here, and some pictorial examples here if you don’t mind PDFs), but these are largely a matter of personal choice. Even if you don’t choose one of those systems, but rather write down the important parts of the lecture are they happen, that’s fine as long as it works for you. It’s more important that you’re consistent in your approach and don’t get distracted from the topic by paying too much attention to formatting your notes. Remember: you can always go back and review later!

And that brings me to my last point: you should be reviewing your notes on a regular basis, not just before the exam! It doesn’t have to be after every class, or even every week, but it should be more than just at the end of the year. By reviewing (and even better, condensing and rewriting with cross-references), you’ll help yourself learn in gradual doses. By studying your notes gradually, rather than all at once, you’re more likely to remember your material longer, too.


This week’s post is a guest post by a student of education.

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