Take Better Notes

Whether you want to succeed in school or you want to be on top of your professional career , effective note-taking is a valuable skill for retaining, remembering, reciting and recalling information. If you follow these simple steps and tips you will not only learn how to take notes, you’ll learn how to take notes that will help you apply knowledge and retain material.


Being Prepared

  1. Gather your note-taking materials. It may sound pretty basic, but it's important to have all of your note-taking materials organized and ready to go before the start of any class, meeting or lecture.
    • If you're writing with paper and pens, make sure you have an A4 sized notebook with plenty of blank pages and two of each color pen. If you're using a laptop, make sure it's fully charged or that you can sit near a power outlet.
    • If you wear glasses, make sure you have them with you in case the teacher/lecturer writes down any important information on a black or whiteboard. If you bring your glasses, make sure to bring a small microfiber cloth so that you are able to clean them should the need arise. Also remember to position yourself in an area of the room where you can effectively see and hear the speaker.
  2. Come prepared. Before you come to a class, lecture, or meeting, make sure to review your notes from the last time round. This will bring you fully up to speed and ready to pick up where you left off.
    • If you were advised to do any background reading to prepare for the class, make sure that you get it done. This will help you to understand any themes, concepts or ideas that the teacher/lecturer is likely to present in class. A good idea would be to outline the section, article, or chapter before hand. Write your outline on one side of the paper so that you can add your class notes to the other side.[1]
    • Remember the old adage "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail".
  3. Be an active listener. When note-taking, many people make the mistake of mindlessly taking down every word, without really comprehending what is being said.
    • This is a mistake. If you don't make an effort to understand the topic while you're in class, you miss out on a valuable learning opportunity.
    • Therefore, you should try to absorb the information you're hearing the first time round, then you won't have as much work to do or risk feeling confused come review time.
  4. Take notes by hand. Although taking notes on your laptop is convenient, a study conducted at Princeton University has shown that note takers actually retain information better when they take notes by hand.
    • It's suspected that this is due to the fact that laptop users tend to transcribe what they hear word-for-word, without really processing what's being said.
    • Longhand note-takers, on the other hand, can't write fast enough to copy each word verbatim, so they are forced to engage with the material a little more in order to pick out the most important and relevant information.[2]
    • As a result, you should try to take notes by hand whenever possible.
  5. Don't be afraid to ask questions. When you come across something you don't understand, don't just jot it down and tell yourself that you'll worry about it later -- ask the teacher/lecturer for clarification.
    • Think about it -- if you find something confusing now, you'll find it twice as confusing during your note-review later.
    • Don't be afraid to ask the teacher/lecturer to repeat themselves either -- particularly if you feel that they've said something important.

Making the Best Notes Possible

  1. Focus on key words and concepts. The most important change you can make to improve your note-taking skills is to focus solely on taking down key words and concepts.
    • Identify the most relevant information. Write down individual words or key phrases that are most relevant to the topic at hand -- things like dates, names, theories, definitions -- only the most important details should make the cut. Eliminate all the filler words and secondary details -- if you wanted those things you could read a textbook.
    • Think about what you want to retain. Why are you taking the class? Why are you attending the seminar? Why did your employer send you to the conference? While it may be your first instinct to try to write down what you hear or see verbatim, you have to remember that you are taking notes in order to learn something from them -- you're not writing a novella.
    • Prioritize any "new" information. Don't waste time writing down information that you already know -- this is useless to you and just wastes time. Focus on writing down any new information that you've never learned before -- this will give you the most value from your note-taking.
  2. Use the "question, answer, evidence" method. This is a very effective method of taking notes, as it forces you to engage with the material as you write and allows you to describe the topic in your own words. This technique of paraphrasing information has been proven to help students understand and retain material much more effectively.[3]
    • Instead of copying down line after line of information, listen carefully to what the speaker is saying and make an effort to understand the material. Once you've done that, formulate your notes as a series of questions raised by the material, then fill in your own answers.
    • For example, if the question was "what is the central theme of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?", the answer could be "more than a tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet is about the consequences of holding grudges".
    • Then underneath this answer, you can provide evidence for your conclusion by pointing to specific examples from within the text. This strategy allows you to record all of the relevant information, in a concise, easy-to-read format.
  3. Use shorthand. The average student writes 1/3 word per second, while the average speaker speaks at a rate of 2/3 words per second. Therefore, developing your own system of shorthand writing can help you to write more efficiently and avoid falling behind.
    • Try writing things like "wd" for would, "cd" for could and "w/" for with. Write a plus sign for the word "and". Also try to abbreviate long words that appear again and again throughout the class or lecture -- for example, instead of writing "popular sovereignty" 25 times over the course of a history class, write "pop sov".
    • Of course, it's essential that you're able to decipher your own shorthand later on -- if you think you might have difficulty, try writing out a key on the inside cover of your copy.You could also go back and fill in the full length version of the words after class.
    • If the speaker is still going too fast for you despite your shorthand, consider bringing a recording device to your next class -- this will allow you to listen a second time and fill in any gaps in your notes.
  4. Make your notes visually appealing. You will be reluctant to go back and study your notes if they are messy, disorganized and difficult to read, so it's important that they look nice! Here are some tips on how to create more visually appealing notes:
    • Always start on a fresh page. You'll find your notes much easier to read if you start on a fresh, blank page for each new class or topic. Put the date in the top right hand corner and only write on one side of each page, especially if you're writing with very inky pens.
    • Make sure your writing is legible. Taking notes will be a complete waste of time if you can't read them afterwards! No matter how fast you write, make sure you're writing is small, neat and legible, and avoid using cursive handwriting if possible.
    • Use wide margins. Line each page with a pen and ruler, giving yourself a wide margin on the left hand side. This will prevent the page from becoming too overcrowded and will leave you space to write in any additional information once you review your notes.
    • Use symbols and diagrams. Things like arrows, dots and boxes, diagrams, charts, and other visual aids are often great ways to associate and remember key concepts, especially if you're a visual learner.
  5. Color-code your notes. Many people find that adding a splash of color to their notes helps to make the information more readable and easier to retain.
    • This is due to the fact that color stimulates the creative side of your brain, making your notes more interesting and therefore easier to retain. Color-coding helps you to link color with memory, allowing you to remember the contents of your notes with relatively little effort.[4]
    • Try using different colored pens for different parts of your notes -- for example, you could write questions in red, definitions in blue and conclusions in green.
    • You could also use a highlighter pen to highlight key words, dates and definitions. Don't go overboard though -- you shouldn't mistake highlighting your notes for actual study.
  6. Take notes from your textbook. After a class or lecture, you may want to supplement your notes with information from a textbook. Taking notes from a textbook is another skill worth mastering.
    • Preview the material: Before you jump straight in to reading a text, preview the material to get a sense of what it's about. Read any introductions and conclusions, headers and sub-headers, and the first and last line of every paragraph. Also glance over any charts, illustrations or diagrams.
    • Actively read the text: Now go back to the beginning of the text and read it thoroughly from start to finish. Once you have finished a paragraph, go back and highlight any key words, facts, concepts or important quotes. Look for visual cues in the textbook itself -- things like bold or italicized words and the use of color or bullet points are often used to highlight significant points.
    • Take notes: Once you've thoroughly read the text, go back and make notes from the information you highlighted. Try not to copy full sentences from the text -- this simply wastes time -- and paraphrase using your own words where possible.[5]

Reviewing Your Notes

  1. Review your notes later in the day. Reviewing your notes after class, or later the same day will help you to retain the information much more effectively. You don't need to study them intensely -- just spend 15 to 20 minutes going back over them each night.
    • Fill in any blanks. Use your review time to fill in any additional information that you remember from the class or lecture.
    • Write a summary. Another effective tool for committing your notes to memory is to summarize the information contained in your notes at the bottom of the page.
  2. Test yourself. Test yourself on your understanding of the material by covering up your notes and trying to explain the topic to yourself -- out loud or in your head.
    • See how many of the important details you can remember, then read the notes again to recap on any information you might have missed.
    • Explain the material to a friend. Teaching or explaining the material to a friend is a good way to test whether you've fully understood the topic, and whether your notes deal with the topic comprehensively.
  3. Memorize your notes. You'll really see the benefit of having good notes when it comes to exam time and you have to memorize all of the material. If you have been consistently reviewing your notes for 20 to 30 minutes each night, you'll find the memorization process much easier. Here are some popular memorization techniques you can try:
    • Line-by-line method: If you have to memorize a chunk of text, one good technique is is to read the first line a couple of times, then try to repeat it out loud without looking at the page. Read the second line a couple of times, then try to repeat the first and second line out loud, without looking at the page. Keep going in this fashion until you can repeat the entire chunk of text without looking at the page.
    • Story method: This method involves turning the information you have to memorize into a simple story that's easy to remember. For example, if you wanted to remember the first three elements in Group one of the periodic table (hydrogen, helium, and lithium) you could use the following story "(H)arriet and (He)nry went to the (Li)brary". The story doesn't need to make sense -- in fact, the sillier it is, the better.
    • Mnemonic devices: Using mnemonic devices is a good way to remember lists of words in a particular order. To make a mnemonic, simply take the first letter of each word you wish to remember and come up with a short sentence where each word starts with those letters. For example, to remember the lines on a musical staff EGBDF you could use the mnemonic "Every Good Boy Does Fine".[6]
    • For more detailed instructions on popular and effective memorization techniques, see this article.


  • If the speaker repeats something more than twice, then it's probably important and worth paying attention to.
  • If you are reading a book for an English literature class, make sure you have a pack of Post-It notes at hand, since you may not be allowed to write in the actual book. When making these notes, make sure that you say on each Post-it how the audience feels when the author uses a certain type of language. The author always uses imagery, especially in Shakespeare's plays. Take note and include a personal response.
  • When you take notes make sure you underline keywords that might appear on your test.
  • Make sure to have a separate notebook or page for your subjects, and remember to label.
  • Write it down with different wording, it helps get the actual idea into your mind.
  • If the school allows it, different brightly-colored highlighters can be used. That way, when you see the colors, you will want to take a look at it. However, do not highlight each and everything! You don't want to enter in some coloring competition.
  • Use software, such as Evernote or Microsoft Office OneNote, to arrange notes.
  • You can even record your classroom lectures using various apps, i.e., if your school/college allows it.
  • Although computers make it easier to take notes, try to write down your notes. Studies have proved that hand-writing notes helps in effective recollection (not to mention, it improves your writing speed too).
  • Make sure you can understand your own notes for tests and exams!
  • Make two or three-page notes in one day or as per requirement , add these into main file.
  • Use colorful pens or sharpies (fine point) to have organized and clean notes. Try to incorporate different colors not just one color.
  • Label your notes in either bullets or numbers. Create a title for your notes so you know where it is kept and it is well organized for whenever you need to study them for an upcoming test.
  • If you have an open-note test, use your notes wisely. Try not to use them unless you really need them.
  • After reviewing your notes, find quizzes online or have someone at home write questions about the topic. If you can't answer questions about the subject with your notes, you might need to write better notes next time.
  • Be sure to have several pencils and/or pens, in case the pencil breaks or becomes too short, or the pen clogs or dries up.
  • Type your notes during class. Then at home write them.


  • Don't be distracted by people who are not the speaker.
  • Have a separate sheet or bring sticky notes for asides, and (optionally) number what you wrote down on both sheets, marking what corresponds to what.
  • Ask your teacher/ professor before you use a recording device.

Things You'll Need

  • At least two pens or pencils
  • An eraser, for pencils that do not have erasers attached.
  • Glasses or other aids
  • Plenty of paper
  • Highlighters (at least two colors) or colored pens
  • At least one pack of different colored sticky notes.
  • A binder or folder to organize your notes (keep it neat).

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Sources and Citations