How to Nail Note-Taking in College

April 15, 2021 • 6 Min Read

Advice, Apps and Online Tools to Develop Skills and Maximize Academic Success

Discovering the study habits that work best in college may take some trial and error, but when learned and consistently employed, those study skills will go a long way in positively influencing academic performance.

Of these study habits, effective note-taking can play a huge role in determining how information and ideas are recalled, digested and implemented. Students looking for note-taking strategies can find much to benefit them in the guide that follows. In addition to providing an overview of some of the most popular note-taking and study aid apps, degree-seekers can also learn how best to put them to use.

Learners looking for ways to improve their reading comprehension can also take advantage of tips and tricks for getting the most out of the text at hand. Use this guide to learn how to take your study skills to the next level.

Taking Notes Effectively

Although it may seem like lots of work on the front end to learn the various methods of note-taking and review the range of apps, students who take the time to do this early in their college careers stand to benefit greatly.

The Best Methods for Taking Notes

While there are many methods for note-taking, the most effective share some common principles. It’s important to date each note-taking strategy and provide context for the content involved (e.g. the name of a book being discussed, the chapter of a math textbook, historical events being discussed, etc.).

Any note-taking system will need to include space for: your notes, summary/analysis and exam question predictions. There’s no one correct way to take notes; take the time to find the system that works best for your learning style.

The Cornell Method

The Cornell Method is the most regularly cited note-taking system for college students. This is an advantageous way to create an organized system to highlight critical information. To begin, the note-taker divides a page into three sections, leaving the largest portion for the actual in-class note-taking.

After class, use a column beside your notes to extract key terms, define them and note important ideas and arguments. Below your notes and key terms, leave space to summarize the class and document any questions you may have. This summarization is critical to actively engaging with the material rather than just passively taking notes.

Mind Mapping

If traditional note-taking feels linear and encumbering in its form, mind mapping may be an effective tool. This freeform style allows you to connect terms and create relationships between ideas and concepts. Mind mapping can be explored on paper or digitally.

As with any of these methods, actively returning to your notes, highlighting and defining key ideas and taking the time to engage with the material is essential. It’s important to note that while this can be a useful method, the free-flowing nature of mind mapping can make it difficult to track more linear concepts, such as timelines.

The Outlining Method

This style of note-taking is especially helpful when tackling detail-oriented, dense subjects. Simple in its form, the outlining method calls for first highlighting main topics and themes. Below each main topic is space for the student to focus on related subtopics. Another advantage to this system is it readily lends itself to studying, as each main topic could be considered exam-worthy content.

Two-Column Notes

Notes aren’t always taken from a lecture and when you need to record and analyze information from a text, the two-column system may help. To begin, divide a page in half vertically. On the left side, list key terms and questions (this will be especially helpful when studying from a textbook with highlighted key terms). While reading, define terms and answer questions. This method allows you to have a running log of defined terms and ideas, making this a great study tool.

The Cornell Method is the most regularly cited note-taking system for college students. This is an advantageous way to create an organized system to highlight critical information. To begin, the note-taker divides a page into three sections, leaving the largest portion for the actual in-class note-taking.

After class, use a column beside your notes to extract key terms, define them and note important ideas and arguments. Below your notes and key terms, leave space to summarize the class and document any questions you may have. This summarization is critical to actively engaging with the material rather than just passively taking notes.

Apps and Tools for Note-Taking Excellence

Technological advances have allowed for the existence of a robust, competitive collection of apps and digital tools aiding in students’ ability to capture necessary information. Some of these apps require monthly fees while others are free (it’s worth noting some institutions have agreements to provide free access to certain apps for their students).

The features range from providing a simple platform for note-taking to the more sophisticated, synching information to all your devices and even offering the ability record lectures (with your professor’s permission, of course).

Before delving into several of the popular apps and what they can offer, there is value in recognizing the benefit of hand-written notes. Pen-to-paper notes allows for a tactile experience free from technological restraints, while computer-based note-taking can create distractions from the task at hand.

Michael Lodato, a Ph.D. student and associate instructor at Indiana University Bloomington, prefers his students take notes by hand. “When you’re in class, you should be actively listening and participating in addition to taking notes. Using a computer adds another distraction,” Lodato says. “My students insist that laptops don’t distract them, but it’s simply too tempting to check your email or go on Facebook for a quick second. As soon as you divide your attention, you’ll risk getting lost.”

More than the possibility for distraction, scientific studies suggest an interesting correlation between hand-written notes and academic success. In the Psychological Science journal, researchers conducted an experiment revealing the act of taking notes by hand leads to both better quality of learning in the moment and a greater likelihood of retaining the information. That said, the preference toward computer-based note-taking is undeniable and the evolution of note-taking apps is making them an indispensable tool for the modern student.

Evernote Evernote

Evernote is widely considered the gold standard of note-taking applications. This app is a functional tool that’s especially user-friendly and provides a whole host of tools to maximize learning. Beyond regular note-taking, Evernote provides text-recognition capabilities, the opportunity to save hefty amounts of data, a web clipper and seemingly innumerable organizational tools.

Due to its ease of use and endless possibilities, any style of note-taking — from the Cornell Method to mind mapping — could be implemented using this tool. Additionally, its compatibility across platforms makes sharing information between devices seamless as well as the ability to share information with other users. The basic platform is free to use with premium versions available for a monthly fee.

OneNote OneNote

OneNote, a Microsoft product, has garnered some effusive praise and is seen by many as a great alternative to Evernote — especially if you engage with other Microsoft products and programs. Compared to the price increases that Evernote has introduced for their business and premium platforms, OneNote remains a completely free service. While this app may lack some of the initial user-friendliness when compared to other options, OneNote has the potential to be indispensable for the Microsoft Office user.

Offering similar functions like text recognition and myriad organizational tricks, OneNote supplies unique functions including drawing directly on notes and images all while actively existing alongside other Microsoft programs such as Word and PowerPoint. Students who prefer the outlining method of note-taking could really benefit from this app, as the ability to link a professor’s presentation directly into your notes leaves critical info right at your fingertips.

Google Keep Google Keep

Google Keep is yet another free note-taking tool with the inherent ability to painlessly coexist with apps within the Google family. In an academic setting where group projects are a regular occurrence, the use of this app along with the sharing and editing capabilities of Google docs, makes it a popular choice for college students.

This app boasts effective text recognition and is very straightforward in its note-taking abilities. While user friendly, Google Keep does lack some of the more sophisticated attributes like audio recording and the ability to mark up documents by hand. While Google Keep would not lend itself to the free-flowing nature of mind mapping notes, more linear styles like outlining and column-based notes would work well.

Penultimate Penultimate

Although specifically a tool for Apple products, Penultimate is a stylus-based application designed to focus on handwritten notes, sketching and drawing. This app allows clean and clear stylus drawing, plus it works hand-in-hand with the Evernote application’s sync and search capability.

Penultimate would be especially helpful for the student interested in the more freeform, mind mapping style of note-taking. Once the notes are taken, it lives alongside Evernote and benefits from all the available features.

Dropbox Paper Dropbox Paper

Dropbox Paper is a collaborative app and effective tool for group projects. This platform allows groups to work on material from audio to code to Word documents, all located in one place. With a simple and user-friendly interface, beginning with a blank canvas, all types of media can be uploaded, shared and edited on the fly.

This app has received glowing reviews for its Google Drive-like functionality with the openness of an application like Evernote. While it may lack the stylus-based drawing capability, this is a great tool for note-taking and most useful for projects where collaborating is essential to success.

Reading Comprehension in College

Much like the important nature of successful note-taking, active and critical reading is essential when digging into college-level assignments. Just as passive note-taking can leave you with a less-than-functional relationship with the course material, passive reading significantly hinders reading comprehension. To get the most out of your reading, it’s necessary to have a plan going into the process, engage with the text and use some of the best impulses of effective note-taking.

  • Know the requirements The first step to successful reading comprehension is understanding the very style, structure and expectations of college education differs greatly from what’s expected in high school. “Most of the need-to-know material is presented in class when you are in high school,” says Lodato of Indiana University Bloomington. He goes on to say that unlike high school, much of the critical information is culled from outside that classroom, so “taking notes as you read is just important as taking notes in class.” These markedly different educational methods are important to recognize before planning and implementing methods to bolster reading comprehension.
  • Start with a plan Having a plan in place before you begin reading is a necessary precursor to diving into the text at hand. Previewing the material first, pulling key terms that need to be defined and questions that need to be answered, having a general understanding of why you’re reading what you’re reading and why it’s important is a good start. Especially in the case of non-textbooks, another first step to reading critically is doing some preliminary legwork to understand why the professor chose that text, learn the biographical history of the author and understand potential biases that may exist. Answering these questions for yourself before cracking open a book will leave you significantly more prepared than if you simply just started reading.
  • Be active Probably the most elemental part of effective, active reading is how the reader takes notes and engages with the text. First, realize it’s widely understood that, with some exceptions, highlighting is a passive activity. Instead, write notes and questions in the margins and define keywords – when revisiting the text, these notes will be far more effective in helping you prepare for exams than simply highlighting things. When actively reading, this process of annotating is highly beneficial. Underline key terms and ideas while reading, make sure you indicate where testable information can be found and take the time to summarize what you’ve read.
  • Do the legwork When dealing with an especially dense, difficult text, there are useful methods to implement that can help detangle the knottiest of passages. Taking the time to define seemingly foreign words and ideas is a helpful habit to adopt. Also recognize the context of what you’re reading and where it exists within the larger academic and intellectual school of thought. This may take some work, but again, it’s essential to know why you’re reading the text in front of you. If the text is dense, try breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Identify contextual clues and let grammar and structure lead you toward the information you should retain. “Take notes whenever the author uses signal phrases, like ‘on the contrary’ and ‘in my view,’” Lodato suggests.

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