Taking notes can be difficult, especially in classes with fast-talking instructors and complex new ideas. It becomes even more challenging in courses where participation is high or in the early morning when your hands and brain are barely functioning. But these tips can help you organize and take the best notes possible whether you’re in high school or college—and if you’re in high school, getting on the right track early will only make life easier for you.
Start with general organization
You might like the Cornell Note Taking System, or you may prefer brain maps. You may like to arrange a table of contents by date or by ideas in alphabetical order. Whatever your preferences for organization, using a binder for each class rather than a notebook is a game changer. With a binder, it’s easy to arrange and re-arrange pages to fit your organization style of choice. (Not to mention you won’t risk having to buy a second notebook if you use it up!) You can also hole-punch articles and assignments and fit them in to correspond with your notes without using tape or juggling folders full of loose-leaf paper. If you don’t yet have an organizational style of preference, try this out. I have a small binder for each class in which I open with a table of contents. I organize my notes by date, along with relevant materials and all my assignments. I also print out all reports and essays I turn in, even though they are generally all submitted online. This allows you to take notes directly on the pages and highlight things you like or don’t like about your work post-submission to improve.
Once you’ve arranged your binders, you need to make a serious effort to keep up with them. Be consistent with your organization and set aside some time every week to go through each binder and rearrange items as needed. If you don’t keep up with this organization, everything inside the binder is pointless and will be more complicated to decipher.
How to outline and take down your notes
Now that we’ve discussed the general organization of your notes, it’s time to discuss what needs to be included in the notes themselves. The following are a general format and sections you can use for sets of notes in each class, and although it’s based on my college classes, it can be applied to high school courses as well. First, pick a few pencil and highlighter colors ahead of time and make a color code early on that you can continue to use; for example, use yellow for keywords, pink for sources, green for things to remember, and red for things you find confusing. Be sure to stick to the system you choose so you don’t confuse yourself—otherwise it will hinder more than help you.
Dates should be included at the top of each page of your notes as well as in the table of contents, as should the unit and a relevant title. The professor or teacher’s name and class number might help you remember and keep you even more organized, but that’s not as necessary. Here are some examples of good headers with important information:
- Nov. 1, 2021 - Composition 1120: Unit 4 introduction
- Comp 1120: 11/01/2021, Unit 4 introduction
- PROF. PERRY’S COMP 1120: NOV 1, UNIT 4 INTRO
Writing an introduction is more for when you study the notes rather than when you’re taking them. At the beginning of class, leave space for a one- to two-sentence intro at the top of your notes and fill it in at the end of the class to act as a summary of the lecture. When you’re reviewing your notes or looking for specific information, you can refer to the table of contents to find the general pages and remind yourself what’s in each lesson’s notes without having to re-read every possible page. Here’s an example for how you might format an introduction:
Today, Professor Perry announced the dates for assignments under unit 4, and we discussed the contents of chapter 12: counterarguments, how to format an argumentative essay, and the article by Dr. Doe.
The body of your notes is where you should get creative. Play around with different methods to find what works best. If you prefer visual notes, use drawings and maps to aid your learning. In college, you won’t be expected to follow a strict method for notetaking like you may have to in high school, so utilizing your own skills and tailoring your notes to your learning preferences and style are important. Some methods to consider include:
- Mapping: Start with a general idea bubble and draw arrows to narrower topics down the page.
- Bulleting: Use bullets to announce topics and follow with indented paragraphs.
- The Cornell style: Use a split page to cover questions and longer sets of notes.
- Organized chaos: Use a pencil to write whatever you want and highlight what seems to be the most important later, then add notes in the margins with a different colored pencil or pen to elaborate on ideas.
It might also help to create a personal shorthand code specific to your studies or use one that’s already been created. Looking up shorthand lists for your major might be helpful, but if you can’t find one you like (or any at all), create a list like this one I utilized for my own notes when I started film school:
- Mise-en-scen: MES
- Technical element: TE
- Artistic element: AE
- Point of information: POI
Having a system to abbreviate longer and common words for a particular class will make it easier to keep up with the lesson. Most teachers and professors will repeat something if you missed it and need to ask, but you don’t want to ask them to repeat everything.
No matter your individual style, the most important thing in notetaking is consistency. Using some of these techniques might help build your own personal style, but no method will be perfect until you’ve worked with it for a while. So pick something and stick with it!
For more studying and homework advice for high school and college students, check out the articles in our Majors and Academics section.