Tips & Stories

Improve Your Note-Taking with These 3 Tips

Improve Your Note-Taking with These 3 Tips

Posted by Greg Wén on 10 Aug 2016

Posted by Greg Wén on 10 Aug 2016

As a student in a lecture, how many times have you been in the middle of transcribing a sentence when the professor switches to the next slide? Students today face the challenge of managing an overwhelming amount of information, tools, and distractions. While it would be logical to think that the goal of a good student would be to capture all the facts, theories, and data thrown your way, the key to successful note-taking is remembering the important things, and not remembering everything. (For the latter—there’s Evernote.)

Here are three tips to help you separate the important from the trivial so you can get the most out of your studies.

 1. Pick out the main ideas

One of the pitfalls of note-taking is that it is a passive activity. Our hands might be scribbling furiously, but in an effort to capture everything, our minds focus on the task of transcribing more than the task of understanding what’s important.

Tip: Listen actively to the lecture and identify key phrases, ideas, and takeaway points. When you hear something you’ll need to remember, jot down keywords to serve as reminders. If there were points you found especially significant or if the lecturer says something you don’t understand, annotate these with an “!” (exclamation mark) so you can easily identify and revisit them later.

The process of jotting shorter main ideas helps your brain to process the information you just heard. Because you aren’t physically able to write down every word in the lecture, you must reformat the information in a concise and meaningful way. Whatever you write down using this  technique is already more effective than listening and writing at the same time, because you’re already thinking about what the lecturer said.

2. Shorthand techniques

Shorthand (or stenographic) techniques consist of abbreviated symbols, letters, or pen strokes. Some form of shorthand has been used for centuries to conceal important messages from unintended eyes. However, they’re also a great way of capturing information quickly. There are many forms of shorthand, and, depending on how similar they are to modern writing conventions, they can be quite difficult to learn.

Instead of trying to learn an entire shorthand method, try adopting certain techniques in your note-taking. You are probably already familiar with some of them, such as using “w/” to represent with.

Take that concept one step further and think of words or patterns you commonly see or use. For example, in English and many Latin languages, the suffix –tion occurs frequently, especially in academic contexts. Words like conversion, mutation, and relation can be shortened consistently. You can use a “.” (period or full-stop) to abbreviate the suffix.

conversion » convers.
mutation » mutat.

You can employ similar techniques to verbs. Try using an apostrophe (‘) to denote a verb in the past.

converted » convert’
mutated » mutat’

Tip: Remember that the ultimate goal of shorthand is to capture information faster. There is no correct or standard way to do it, so feel free to experiment with variations that work best for you. After trying out various abbreviations, Some note-takers use é (e-acute) to represent the word before and è (e-grave) to represent the word after.

The infection cleared up after the application of the treatment. »
Infect. clear’ è applicat. of treatment.

Even if you use just one or two shorthand techniques, you’ll find that you can cut down on the amount you have to write.

3. Limit yourself

When it comes to reviewing your notes, one of the most useful techniques is the practice of preparing a review card. Limiting the space you have to write your notes on is a way of filtering through the massive amounts of information you must process. It forces your brain to be selective and prioritize information.

Tip: If you need to review your notes from a previous lecture or chapter, try creating your own review cards using index cards or Post-it® Notes. When filling these cards out, there’s no need to write down things you already know. Your cards should only contain concepts and ideas from your notes that are still unfamiliar to you. Once you’re done, everything you need to study more in depth will already be on your cards.


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12 Comments RSS

  • Emiliano

    … or use Evernote for recording all sentences of your teacher and writing your phrases or keywords. At home you’ll be able to re-listen the recording and re-typing all important sentences and keywords.
    Evernote is a special app for students with specific learning problems!
    I love it. My students love it!

    • Stephen

      As a professor, I should be the wet blanket and point out that you should get the teacher’s permission to record his voice. In some places, it’s legally required before recording.

      By the way, Evernote is wonderful and has become one of three or four indispensable tools of technology in my life. Thank you for Evernote. Thank you, thank you.

  • C Scott Willy

    “if the lecturer says something you don’t understand, annotate these with an “!” (exclamation mark)”

    If you are taking notes in EN better to use “???” as you can more easily search for your questions.

    • Adrian Brancato

      I like the “???” idea. I’ve used it for years. But EN won’t find it or a host of other punctuation marks. Sad. Apple Notes will. Very sad.

  • Jamie Tadlock

    Really great tips! I like applying the notecard tip to books I read. Trying to summarize a chapter on a card really forces you to consider what you think is the most important things to remember. Thanks for a great article!

  • Darla Baker

    Love the tips. I want to add that I use Evernote to take a picture of the slides or white board during meetings.

  • John H

    Better yet, get LiveScribe and sync it with Evernote. This is an awesome combination. My hand written notes are now searchable and kept in a database.

  • Gloria Honda

    all tips and replies so helpful, Thanks!

  • Michael Bierman

    Using some OSs (e.g. iOS, OSX) you can convert text shortcuts to full words or pharses. So you could convert, “convers.” to conversion so it is more readable later. You could also change, “???” to “Follow up on:” or something like that.

    I use the shortcut for “Insert Todo” for reminding me to follow up on things.

  • David

    I love Evernote because the search capabilities and my EN database contains tons of info that has already been processed by me before storing it. But I almost never use it to take live notes in class. There are some other apps that are much better than Evernote for this task. I have iOS and Mac devices and one of the best live note-taking apps I have found (and I have tested almost 10 different options) is Notability, The ability to sync your written notes with the sound you are recording is precious. In addition it offers many other functions like direct drawing or text input using an electronic pen or your own finger (almost never use this but surely this can be useful in other areas) and importing of pictures from the camera roll or directly from the camera, all this always synced with the recorded audio.
    When you are studying you can easily tap (or click if you are on your Mac) on any of your notes and the audio automatically jumps to the exact place in time when your lecturer is speaking about the subject. Just genius!
    For my most important courses I filter and refine my notes and then import them into Evernote as PDF documents to use EN fantastic search powers afterwards.
    I would love to see a function of audio and notes synchronization implemented in Evernote, it would be amazing and could made me ditch other apps.

  • Todd

    Good article and comments, many good suggestions. I take a lot of written notes in meetings as I find them easier than using a laptop or tablet in that situation. I use a marking system that has been quite effective. I put the following marks in the left margin:
    Square = Action item for me or my team
    Double Square = Urgent action for me or my team
    Circle = Action item for someone else
    Circle w/ Arrow = Action item on someone else due to me
    Triangle = Issue
    Upside down triangle = Idea
    Big Q = Question

    When I review my notes at a later time, I can spot these key things quickly. When an action item is completed, I check it off.

    Ideas I enter into a special Ideas notebook in EN

    Questions are for asking at the end of a lecture or follow up with someone afterward so I don’t forget.

    • Carolyn Black

      I work in the visual arts and when I make hand notes I use visual markers, surrounded by a circle.e.g. an eye means look it up; a ‘?’ means it needs more thinking; an ‘I’ in a circle means information; a capital ‘A’ means an action. Very important bits are blocked into a box. not much use for evernote really, but will help you harvest only the most important notes you made by hand