How to write effective notes

The purpose of making summary notes on a topic or section is to aid your overall understanding of material, to help you distinguish between what is really important information (depth) and what is merely supporting detail. Reference to the main syllabus topics will help the process of discernment within each subject.
In addition, good summary notes make retrieval of information quicker and easier.

  • Sort out your filing system.

First thing’s first, if you haven’t already done so, get your subject folders and notes organized immediately. Invest in some ring binders, dividers, plastic pockets, etc. Have a separate folder for each subject (a permanent reference point) and then keep a ‘current folder’ for managing notes in progress.

  • Less is always more.

When writing notes, remember they should contain a summary, not an extensive repetition of what is in the textbook. Don’t crowd the page. Stick to main headings and sub-headings. Use abbreviations where appropriate. Try to reduce what you need to know on the topic down to one A4 sheet. Once you have an overview, it is easier to fill out the detail.

  • Make your notes visual 

Ensure your notes have a memorable appearance so that you can recall them easily. Use illustrations, diagrams, graphs, colors, and boxes (‘a picture is worth a thousand words’). Arrange the material in a logical hierarchy (title, sub-point, explanation, example). Ideally, you should be able to close your eyes in an exam and visualize a particular page of notes.

  • Beware of transcribing and highlighting!

Merely re-writing the text from the book into your notes does not ensure retention. Try to put things in your own words and devise your own examples – this will make the material more meaningful. Only use a highlighter pen AFTER you have read and reviewed a text, thus ensuring you identify the most important material and you avoid the creation of a fluorescent textbook!

  • Compare notes with other students

Comparing notes with other students is an effective, yet underutilized strategy. Many students only ask to see other students’ notes when they’ve missed a class. By comparing notes with others, you gain perspective and see what other students in the class found to be salient information. Collaborating and discussing topics covered in class not only helps you to better understand content for an upcoming test, but it also gives you valuable insight about how other students have learned to succeed in classes taught by even the most demanding professors. Get to know some of the best note takers and schedule a time after class each week to compare notes. This is also an opportunity for you to test your command of the material by attempting to explain it to others.

WHAT TO WRITE DOWN Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know you can leave out of your notes.
Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading first…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

  • Dates of events:

Dates allow you to
a) create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and
b) understand the context of an event.
For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

  • Names of people:

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

  • Theories: 

Any statement of a theory should be recorded — theories are the main points of most classes.

  • Definitions:

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, it should be written down.

  • Arguments and debates:

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate related in class or your reading should be recorded. This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development within the particular discipline you are studying. 

  • Images and exercises:

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, or when an in-class exercise is performed, a few words are necessary to record the experience. Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.
I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most students haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

If you have any advice or technique that you use and is working well we’d love to hear it in the comments below.