Study Smart Series: 5 Tips for College Note-Taking Success

By Sarah O’Brien

College note-taking should be recognised as an art form. All that inventive doodling in our notebook margins has to amount to something right?

Well now that you mention it, a study conducted by Princeton University shows that students who take longhand notes find new ideas much easier to grasp and retain. So say goodbye to your MacBook-loving ways and embrace the scrawl, here are 5 simple tips for college note-taking success.

Be an active Listener

Staring at your notebook, mindlessly jotting down eeeeeeverything your lecturer says verbatim is a recipe for note-taking disaster. You won’t be able to write fast enough to keep up and your notes will begin looking disjointed pretty quickly. Instead focus on being an active listener in your lectures.

Start engaging with what’s being said and formulate concepts in your own words. Obviously if there’s a key word or turn of phrase being used-take it down, but with everything else, keep it short and sweet. In a nutshell your goal is to extract and record the most important information.

Get organised

We’ve all been there: you turn up for your 9am class (a herculean effort in and off itself!), slightly worse for wear after a late one, with not so much as a pen or paper in sight. You’ve one of two options here. Either you badger that slightly contemptuous classmate of yours for note-taking supplies or you sit for the next 2 hours nodding off…

Don’t be that student, for your own sake. Turn up to class 10 minutes early to review whatever class material was covered in the previous lecture. Not only will this mentally prepare you to engage with the lecture, it will also help ground difficult concepts, helping you get the most out of your classes.

Make it legible

Did we say embrace the scrawl? Sorry we meant penmanship A+ game! College note-taking veers off into a shark-infested water level of difficulty when dealing with illegible handwriting, so take your time.

If this is an area you’re really struggling with, take a few minutes after each class to carefully go through your notes and rewrite sections that are difficult to read. Because when exam time comes a knocking the last thing you’ll want to deal with is a barrage of handwritten gibberish.

“In a nutshell your goal is to extract and record the most important information.”

Keep it simple

Brevity is key when it comes to note-taking so stick to short sentences and key words. If you can reduce an idea to a phrase or even a key word do it.  For a more structured approach to your notes, give the Cornell Method a try. This method requires your notes be broken up into three sections: cues, notes and summaries.

The notes section should be filled in during class times as normal, while the cues and summaries sections should be done in review. The cues column, intended to jog students’ memories upon first glance at the notes, should always consist of questions, visual cues or main points. The Cornell Method has been shown to be a highly effective approach to organising and condensing notes.

 Review, review, review

Don’t hastily shove your notebook into your bag as your peers peter out of the lecture hall, never to glance at your notes again. For maximum information retention, it is crucial that notes are reviewed within 24 hours of a lecture.

Edit your notes in a different coloured pen to differentiate between any new additions and what you wrote in class. For maximum impact consider rewriting your notes out in full, especially, as we’ve previously mentioned, if you’ve difficulty maintaining legible copy.

*This article first appeared on


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