How to Take Notes Successfully

note taking

Studying season is officially in session. With third year in full swing, I thought it would be useful to share my favourite note-taking tips! I, like most people, used to HATE taking notes. What’s relevant? Do I really need to remember that? I know it, but will I know it in the exam under pressure? Will this even be on the exam? That used to be my brain pretty much in every lecture. However, after almost 16 years of education, and coming to the last year of my university degree, I have finally trained my brain to take notes properly and eliminate the constant questions that used to ping around in my brain.

Step 1: always keep a rough book to use in class / lectures.

This one has literally saved my life so much. I thrive off having neat notes to look forward to in order to revise from, but it usually lasts a week and sometimes I don’t listen or mess up and I don’t have the time to re-do pretty notes in class. This means, that my standard of work would drop massively in the first month, therefore dropping my work ethic, and of course, my grades.

So, I’ve started taking a ‘rough notes’ book into my lectures, where I could doodle, write anything I could anywhere, and not have to worry about quick and messy notes. So, in lectures, I pretty much write down anything I hear or deem appropriate. At the end of the day (if I’m not too tired) I will open my rough book and write down the notes neatly in a refillable pad, and then put them into a folder.

This cuts out the stress of spelling things wrong, making mistakes and placement of extra-add ons that some teachers fail to mention until the end of the lecture. I’ve found that having a rough book has given me more time to listen and focus on content instead of worry about what my handwriting looks like, but also furthered my involvement in my course as I can do extra reading as I go along and understand things that I didn’t in the lecture.

Step 2: use a block set of colours for certain things.


I used to always go overboard with colour and that often left me confused between a date, key person, new word or event. Of course, pens also always get lost, and I never really had a ‘set’ colour for a certain thing, which meant I was always flicking back and forth trying to figure out why I used the same shade green for a date and a person. Was it related? An accident? Who knows! This meant that the coloured, important information I would be missing out on, as everything was coloured or underlined and highlighted and basically left my head in a mess.

This also cuts out the need of carrying around a huge pencil case with all your fine liners, felt tips, highlighters, pens, coloured pencils and more. Instead, I now take a tiny square pencil case with me, that simply has a pen, pencil, rubber, my set use of colours (usually 3-4) and two highlighters for module codes and module names. I’ve found it so much easier to keep pens in the same place and not lose them this way, as they’re always in that same pencil case and they aren’t used for anything else except their sole purpose.

This also helps with taking notes from books. For example, one colour could be used for names and dates, another for quotes, a third for key ideas and a fourth for extra reading and sources. This has literally saved my notes, as it clearly shows what I need to know, what I need to revise and what I already know.

Using a couple of set colours helped me as  I picked up the most important information off the page only, and made sure that I was actually looking at it rather than skipping the paragraph of green that is apparently ‘important’.


Step 3: write in short points.

Whenever I’ve written a paragraph or even more than a sentence of notes, I’ve pretty much always skim read over it and moved on. Taking short bullet points helps you revise a lot and keeps your knowledge concise and easy to recover, as well as easier to revise. Shorter sentences are also easier to remember, so you’re more likely to read them and remember them!

Step 4: try to paraphrase what you learn.

A lot of my lecturers hate it when you use their exact powerpoint slide to convey ideas or information. The internet is here, use it.

Summarise your lecture notes in your own words, and if you really can’t, then write down what you need but don’t do it every time. This leaves you relying on someone else for research and won’t convey original and effective ideas in the exam. If the information is important, write it down, but don’t use the exact words of your teachers unless you are told to do so (this is especially important at university). In presentations, you’re more likely to get a higher grade if you paraphrase your teachers slides as they will most likely remember what information they have given out, therefore being at a higher chance of getting a better grade rather than copy and pasting exactly what they put on the screen just a few months ago.

Also, you’re more likely to find more interesting ideas and information through your own research and some digging on the internet, therefore actually teaching your classmates (or exam markers) that you are capable of finding your own information, rather than what anyone else can do.

Step 5: use a planner.

I often find loose sheets of paper in my room from a Chinese lesson I had two years ago, and I don’t know whether to throw it away or not. Is it scrap? Do I need it? Probably not, but I’ll keep it anyway. Or, I try to find an important key point in my notes, and I cannot seem to remember when I did it or where it could be. That’s where dating and using a planner is handy!

In my planner, I have each week of uni dated and which module is on each day, as well as what the name of the lecture is. This means that if I desperately need to find something, I can have a quick look at my planner and find at which time I did the lecture, and then find that lecture in my date’s notes.

Before this year, I found it so difficult to find old information, and I honestly just hoped to remember it when I learnt it, which was definitely not the case. Now that I am using my planner daily, I can find notes easily and keep on top of the information that I receive, as well as plan out my days ahead of exams or deadlines. God, I wish I did this earlier.

I hope this helps anyone that is currently in education and is struggling to take notes (just like I was literally about 6 months ago) and good luck on your studies!


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