After many years in college, I have finally been able to create a note-taking system that I am confident in. I use a combination of colors, diagrams, pictures, and questions to be able to distinguish between different classes, lecture topics, information, ideas, and important points.
Surprisingly, it has taken me quite a long time to finally figure out that note taking is more about reviewing information from the class than just learning from the class material while it is being taught. After I finally perfected my system, I find myself actually wanting to review my notes every day. I am now able to connect my notes with my homework, reading assignments, and projects as well as be able to prepare for upcoming exams.
Perhaps most importantly, however, I have been able to use my previous notes and note-taking skills to be able to study for much more important exams, such as the Fundamentals of Geology exam (first exam towards becoming a licensed professional geologist). I hope to be able to continue this pattern and be able to use my current and future notes to prepare for the Fundamentals of Engineering, Professional Geology, and Professional Engineering exams as well.
So, without further ado, below I have outlined my current note-taking system. It will always be changing to accommodate different classes but my core system will always stay the same.
1. Use a Binder System
After years of using spiral bound notebooks, I was frustrated with not being able to add handouts, move pages around, or be able to use single pages for study purposes. The binder system has completely solved this problem for me. I can now organize every class into one binder and am able to quickly flip through pages to find the information I need later on.
As a bonus, this is incredibly important for archiving purposes. The binder system allows me to organize my notes after the class has completed. I am now able to reference it later on in future classes and in my career.
Using binders is also a great way to keep handouts, returned quizzes, tests, labs, and all other related material organized in one place. When I set up my binder, I always have the following sections of each class:
- Handouts: syllabus, reading schedules, lab syllabus, class information, assignments, returned exams, and important general handouts such as the periodic table, geologic time scale, list of important math formulas, the unit circle, important vocab, etc. (more specific handouts are put into my notes section)
- Labs + Projects: here, I keep all future, graded, or current labs and projects in chronological order
- Notes: this is the meat of my binder where I keep all of my notes for each given class as well as notes on readings I have done, class handouts that are associated with specific lectures, etc.
Tip: I have found that in some classes, the desk is not large enough to accommodate an entire binder during lecture. To solve this, I usually keep loose-leaf paper tucked into my backpack and binder. Sometimes, I will also bring a clipboard or binder clip to keep all of my loose pages together. If you encounter this, the key is to always add your notes to the binder at the end of the day.
2. Color Code Each Class
Color coding each class is a simple and effective way to organize. Each class in my binder is easily identifiable. You can use these colors, not only when dividing up your notes within your binder, but also on your calendar. Using these colors, you are able to easily plan out assignments, exams, etc. without having to write each class every time.
In my binder, to distinguish my different classes, I make sure that the dividers, tabs, and reference material notes are in that given color. Many people will also use their class color for all of their notes or highlighted material as well. I don’t find that helpful myself (see below) but if you do, go for it!
3. Combine Your Notes with Handouts
Your notes should be a fluid and seamless stream of information. Throughout your lecture notes, you should add in relevant handouts that fill in any gaps your notes may be lacking.
For example, let’s say you’re taking a physics class. This particular lecture is going over rotational kinematics. Your professor goes over multiple word problems and examples in class but covers multiple formulas. In your notes, you should follow along and take notes as usual. When you get home to review the material, you should print out a handout of all the rotational kinematic formulas and any relevant diagrams right after your last page of notes.
Sometimes, I will look ahead in the lecture material and bring in printed handouts with me to be able to write on them during the lecture as well. But seriously, who has time to do that? Just print it afterward and I promise it will help you in the long run!
Here is a list of potential information and printouts that can be added to your notes:
- In-class assignments
- Reading notes (your personal notes on assigned readings)
- Lecture slideshow printouts
- Pictures, graphics, etc.
- Scanned copies of important graphics in textbooks
- Vocabulary, formulas, or other important information only relevant to a particular lecture or section
- Photocopies of notes taken in other courses that are relevant
Tip: If your handout is blank on the back, the next day, just start taking notes on that blank side, it will keep your notes looking consistent.
4. Create a Color Combo for each Topic
Color coding can be also used to identify different lecture topics. This is crucial when going back to review for an exam or trying to quickly find a piece of information for an assignment or group project.
For example, I always use the color purple to distinguish any physics class I am in. So the dividers and tabs are all purple. But when it comes to lectures, each lecture topic (in physics it usually represent each chapter in the textbook) is a different color. In order to keep a flow of different colors, I usually start with the class color for the first chapter/lecture topic, then go down the rainbow. This is what my notes would look like:
- Syllabus/calendar/tabs/dividers: Purple highlighters, pens, and dividers all used
- Chapter 1 (Concepts of Motion): Purple
- Chapter 2 (Kinematics in One Dimension): Pink
- Chapter 3 (Vectors): Red
- Chapter 4 (Kinematics in Two Dimension): Orange
- Chapter 5 (Force and Motion): Green (I skip yellow, it’s too light)
- And so on…
For each section, I will use a dark color for titles and headers, a lighter color for the full text, an accent color for important topics, information, or formulas, and highlighters for material that will be on the exam. Often in class, the professor will say “this will be on the exam,” that is a good clue to highlight it…
5. Distinguish Crucial Information from Supporting Material
Continuing on with color coding your different lecture topics, it is important to be able to identify what material is crucial to your understanding of the topic, and what is just supporting. I do this in two ways.
First, like explained above, I use a highlighter only to highlight material that is either crucial or is distinctly given to us for an exam.
The second way I do this is using the left-hand margin. I do not write anything on the left-hand margin except the date and crucial signifiers such as question marks (to review later), stars (will be on the exam), and asterisks (memorize). This way, when I quickly look down the margin, I will be able to identify anything crucial or review-worthy if I have only a few minutes to study.
6. Write Your Own Tests and Study Guides
This is college. Many many professors do not handout study guides for students to cram last minute. We need to take matters into our own hands.
I will do this by creating my own test questions in my notes. I will write the question on a sticky note and put the answer behind it. This way, when I am reviewing my notes, I can easily and quickly test myself on the material in question. When test time rolls around, I am able to combine all of these questions into my own practice exam to quiz myself.
Another way I use these questions are to create study guides. A combination of the crucial material in each section with the questions I have created gives a great overview of each topic and an easy way to study for exams and finals.
7. Add Summaries
Stretching your brain to review material without looking at your notes is a great way to learn. You can do this at the end of each lecture, end of each day, or at the end of each topic. I prefer to do only one summary per lecture topic in order to review the topic as a whole. I will do this by first writing a small summary paragraph without looking at my notes. Then I will read through my notes and correct any errors and expand any ideas.
This is also a great way to create a quick reference for future you! I used all of my lecture summaries when studying for my licensing exam. It gave me the ability to know where I needed to find information quickly as well as an easy and quick review of each section.
8. Add Mind-Maps
After each summary, sketch up a quick mind-map for each topic. This will help fill in any gaps of material and help you connect each different topic to the main subject matter of the course. I love doing these so much! In fact, this is my favorite study technique!
9. Date your Notes
Best friend skipped class two Wednesdays ago and needs to bum some notes? Professor says the exam will cover material from February 3rd to March 10th? There is a dozen reason to date your notes and surprisingly, a lot of students don’t. It’s so easy! Just do it!
10. Clearly Mark Exam Sections
When I say “Exam Sections” I mean this: your professor says on the syllabus that Exam 1 will cover Lectures 1-4 and Exam 2 will cover 5-9 while the final will only cover lectures 3-8. Your exam section for Exam 1 would be lectures 1-4 (not the lectures themselves, the group of lectures). You should be able to distinguish between these sections easily. This will save you wasted study time. Trust me!
I separate my exam sections by:
- Adding labeled sticky-tabs to the first and last page of each exam section and
- Adding a full blank page between each exam section.
This way, when I am reading through my notes and end on a blank page, I know I have reached the end of the material I need to study.
11. Review Your Notes Everyday
I know, I know. After a long day of classes, work, homework, group project meetings, labs, workouts, club activities, volunteer events, scholarship applications… all you want to do is jump on the couch and veg out. I’m with ya! But I promise you! If you take 5-10 extra minutes of brain activity to quickly review your notes (you have worked so hard on), you will actually be saving yourself SO MUCH TIME! Homework, quizzes, and projects will be so much easier for you to understand and when it comes to testing time? You will have most of the information down EASY!
12. Make Your Notes System Unique
The list above is just the tips and tricks I have learned that work for me throughout my years in college. This is by no means a complete list of laws each student should follow for success. There are countless other great systems that work for other people. Trial and error are key. Keep working on your system and make it work for you. Good luck!
Well, there you have it. A compiled list of all my tips and tricks for creating some awesome notes that will help you kill your classes and ace your finals! As a perpetual student, these techniques have helped me ace some of the toughest classes there are and they look pretty too!
Do you take hand-written notes in class?