5 Tips On How To Write Better Notes; From a Valedictorian

Whether you’re a high school or university student, note-taking is a vital skill to study more effectively and efficiently. However, it can be such a tiresome process, compiling everything. And you probably were exposed to very limited teaching on how to actually take notes. Don’t fear! We’ve got your back. Here are five tips to help you take better study notes for your classes.

Tip 1: Do whatever it takes (short of, you know, harm to yourself or others) to understand the content.  

You know how when you’re in a really difficult class and the teacher just seems to drone on and on about one topic or another? Or worse, when they prepare text-heavy slides and just read off the board? And you just really wish you had stayed in bed for the day?

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All of us in that ONE dreaded morning class, which is somehow the hardest to study/take notes for?
(source: https://giphy.com/gifs/Tk4V30LsCa8Y8)

I see you nodding. Guess what? It happens to everyone!

While it’s important not to skip classes/lectures, it’s absolutely crucial that go back to anything you didn’t understand. Supplement any materials provided with information that helps you make sense of said materials. We’re lucky to be alive at a time when thousands of educational resources are posted online for free! YouTube has a wealth of information as does education-specific websites like Khan Academy. Rewriting your study notes using what you’ve researched in your own words also does wonders for retention! You’ll find yourself making connections to different bits and bobs of information until things just make sense. If you just copy down everything the lecturer or textbook says, you are passively engaging with the content. This means you won’t actually be learning anything. You need to actively engage with information and if that means going that extra mile and rewording said information, well, so be it!

Tip 2: Use colours for your study notes!

There’s no rule stating you have to keep your notes a boring black and white. In fact, according to a review published in The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, colour forces your brain to pay attention to what you’re looking at (i.e. your notes). Colours also increase the level of arousal in your body so you won’t feel so sleepy when you’re typing or writing notes at midnight. (Though you should definitely organise your sleep schedule.) Increased attention and arousal both lead to increased memory retention.

This doesn’t mean you have to use a different colour for every word in your notes. I only use a limited number of colours in my notes because I have a tendency to spend hours picking the “perfect” colour (spoiler: it doesn’t exist) which just results in a waste of time. Colour-coding your information may also prove advantageous and help you organise your notes better, especially if you’re a visual thinker.

Tip 3: Paper vs. laptop? Honestly, whatever works best for you.

Choosing to handwrite your study notes vs. typing them has been a pretty controversial topic in recent years. And the evidence is confusing. One study found that students who wrote notes by hand were more likely to use visual cues and write information in their own words which increased retention. Students who took notes on their laptops had a tendency to type whatever the lecturer was saying verbatim without really processing it. They were also prone to distractions online (been there, done that). However, a more recent study found that handwriting vs. typing notes didn’t have a significant difference in memory retention. What really mattered was the quality of your notes.

So, work with whatever suits you best. I prefer using my laptop for notes because it’s easier to search for keywords and insert complicated diagrams (which I would never be able to replicate by hand) into documents.

Tip 4: Use drawings and images to consolidate your memory.

Whether or not you’re a visual learner, drawings may help you retain information better. A study found that drawing was better than rewriting notes or passive reading/observing of notes and images. Drawing forces you to think of a shorthand way of representing information. Besides, the visuospatial regions of your brain are less likely to be damaged over time due to age unlike the hippocampus and frontal lobes (both playing crucial roles in memory). So, you’ll be able to remember information for a long time too! 🙂

Tip 5: Experiment with a variety of note-taking methods.

Note-taking is a really personal skill and everyone learns and retains information differently. There are so many different note-taking techniques to choose from: mind-mapping, bullet journals, Cornell method–I could go on! What you’re most likely to find is there’s no ONE technique that works perfectly for you. Rather, it’s a quirky amalgamation of methods that mesh into something that just fits well with how your brain works. So how do you figure out which technique works for you? You just have to try them out and see.

In my first semester at university, I had a really difficult time making study notes. Not only was the content far more challenging than what I was used to, but the note-taking methods I was so used to utilizing in school also weren’t effective or possible. I experimented with mindmaps, handwritten notes, and several note-taking applications before I settled on my current format. It takes trial and error, and sometimes the results aren’t pretty. However, try to focus on the long-run. Studying is a marathon, not a sprint.

BONUS: Spaced repetition is absolutely vital.

This isn’t exactly related to taking study notes per se, but one can’t write an article about studying without discussing spaced repetition!

So, what exactly is spaced repetition? It is based on Ebbinghaus’ memory experiment which he ran from 1880-1885. He memorized nonsensical syllables and tested his retention. The result? The forgetting curve! His experiment has been replicated several times over the years such as in this study.

Unless you have an eidetic or photographic memory, I’m sorry to say you will most likely forget what you learnt in class. The trick to combat this? Well, spaced repetition!

If you revise your notes regularly, you will find that your retention is much better. Gradually, you can increase the amount of time between revisions because that piece of knowledge has become so embedded into your memory that you could repeat it in your sleep (this is a slight exaggeration, do not try this at home).

And there you have it! Five tips (and a bonus!) to help wrap your head around taking effective study notes. What techniques do you use? Do you have a special method that has helped you survive in school this far? Let us know in the comments below!

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