In the past few years, I have discovered a method for taking notes that makes the notes easy to use, and turns them from a pointless exercise in dictation to a useful reference! I’ve going to “school” for some time now (about 18 years). Of course, for much of that time I was diligently copying down the words spilling from the prof’s mouth so I could study it later. I started experimenting with different note-taking styles a few years ago, and have finally settled on something that works. With a little planning and a few extra minutes of organization you can turn a course worth of information into a great reference. I use notes from classes daily now!

There are really four big steps to this process. Here they are:

1.) Get a good notebook.

I am rough on my backpack. If I get spiral-bound or loose-leaf type notebooks they get immediately destroyed, disorganized, and nasty. Instead, I use composition books. These are the kind that are bound together, and usually have a black and white “marbled” cover. I get the college-ruled ones. Its hard to find these anywhere but at college bookstores, but its worth it. You’ll want to have a sturdy notebook if you’ll be using these notes for years after the class : )

2.) Number the pages.

Skip the first four pages, then number each (I use the upper right-hand corner.) In the organizational steps to follow it is good to have numbered pages. They sell books with the pages already numbered, but bookstores seem to think that those numbers are worth about $10 per notebook! No sir. I can number the pages on the first day of class while the prof is prattling on about the syllabus for frEE.

3.) Make a Table of Contents.

First day, first thing, I write the name of the course on the first page of the book. Then, I skip two or three pages before writing my first note a few pages back on the page numbered “1.” Those blank pages will hold the table of contents. The key to having usable notes is being able to find the notes you need.

I make an entry for every main topic, not every lecture. Some days profs will cover lots of topics, some days they cover one or less. Every time a big topic is mentioned, just put your hand in the book, flip back to the table of contents and make a new entry, then flip back and keep taking notes. Be sure to note the page that you’re on when you make the note in the table of contents.

4.) Decide on a labeling scheme.

I put a double-underline on topic headings that make it to the table of contents. I don’t put double-underlines anywhere else. This helps when you’re scanning looking for big topics. A convention like this is pretty crucial. The rest of your note-taking should be as you like, but by picking a standard way of doing things before-hand makes the entire set of notes a lot more readable.

There you have it… I hope this helps you start taking useful notes earlier in your academic career than I did! If you have any other ideas or techniques that you use, please tell me about it in the comments.

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