Taking Notes, The Smart Way

One of the things that terrifies people about going to university is the fact that they’ll have to take their own notes. What if your lecturer talks too fast and you can’t keep up? What if you do it wrong and have nothing to go back to when it comes time to study? What if you fail an entire paper because you don’t know how to take notes?

Okay, let’s slow down.

Taking notes yourself is usually one of the major differences between high school and university. It can definitely take some getting used to, and after a few years at uni, I’m still perfecting my technique.

But it’s doable. Whether you’re about to make the leap to university next year, or still battling your way through Level 1 Maths, it’s a skill that’s worth practising, so you have it sorted by the time it matters.

Handwrite your notes, rather than typing them out.

I know that many of us have visions of what university will be like burned into our minds from watching too many American movies. It usually involves sitting in a lecture theatre, tapping away on a shiny Macbook Air and sipping Starbucks. #adulting

But let’s get real. Starbucks makes terrible coffee, and taking notes on a laptop, it turns out, is shooting yourself in the foot.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, experiments show that using a laptop to take notes means you’re likely to remember far fewer concepts than if you’re taking notes by hand.

By concepts I mean overall ideas, rather than single, isolated facts. So while you might remember what a metaphor is, or the formula for differentiation (these are straight-up facts), you’re far more likely to forget why we might use a metaphor, or what situations we should apply differentiation to.

Why is this? Because when you’re handwriting, you can’t copy down every single word that’s being said. You have to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not. This involves deeper processing of the information, which is essential for memorising concepts.

Do it for yourself.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist. It’s something I’m trying to wean myself off of (I’m considering the B- I got last trimester to be a success here) because it’s kind of pointless.

Perfectionism can often show up when we take notes. We want perfect headings, neatly highlighted key points, no scribbles. But… why?

Your notes are for you. If you can read and use them, they are successful.

Writing “perfect” notes takes too long and there’s really no point.  Let’s be honest – you’ll probably just chuck them out once the class is finished, anyway.

Using casual language that you understand is fine, abbreviations are fine, messy is fine. Ask yourself, “What will my future self probably forget?” and aim to help Future You out with that.

Note-taking Strategies

Okay, so we know to handwrite our notes and focus on making them useful for you, rather than perfectly pretty. Now on to some actual strategies.

Strategy 1 – Textbook Method

This basically involves pretending that you’re writing a textbook for yourself. You decide how to explain things and how to organise the information.

Strategy 2 – Cornell Method

This is a way of organising the paper you take notes on. Having specific sections for key points and a summary forces you to make decisions about what’s most important. As I mentioned above, this is a really important part of memorising concepts.

This strategy is particularly useful for those of us who struggle with perfectionism and going into too much detail, because it makes us zoom out and see the bigger picture.

Consolidate afterwards

Once you’ve got your notes, what do you do with them? This is really important, because it’s not enough to simply write good notes – we need to actually use them.

Consolidation is basically how memories go from being fragile to being more permanent and stable. It’s what needs to happen for us to be able to remember something on the day of the exam… even if we learnt it weeks, months or years ago.

How can we use our notes to consolidate the information? We need to reactivate the information – replay it, so to speak.

This can be done in a few different way:

  • Condense your original notes down into key points afterwards.
  • Rephrase them into your own words.
  • Explain the notes to your parents, cat or even yourself.
  • Make a diagram summarising the main ideas.

Writing effective notes can seem overwhelming, but it’s really about knowing a few effective strategies and focusing on “good enough” rather than “perfect”. Try these tips out now, and by the time you hit university, note-taking will be second nature.


Note taking can seem scary, but it’s really just about knowing what works and having a few good strategies ready. Practice these now to perfect your technique.