The best way to take notes: 10 steps to note-taking mastery

Forget all the advanced note-taking techniques out there. Here is the only guide you will ever need to master the art of note-taking.

Are you writing down every word that is said in class? Or maybe you don’t take any notes at all? Note-taking is an art and can make the difference between and average student and an A student.

Do you want to become a note-taking master? Do you want to know the best way to take notes?

This is all you need to know about taking notes:

1. Keep it simple

Forget all the advanced note-taking techniques that are out there. Note-taking shouldn’t be so difficult or time-consuming that you cannot focus your attention on what the professor is saying or what is going on in class.

2. Purpose is to categorize

The purpose of note-taking in class is to help you categorize information. We learn through sorting and storing information in our brains into categories. The purpose is NOT to write down every single piece of information you hear – we have books for that (and the internet).

3. Structure is everything

In class, you should always be thinking about how you structure your notes. Through structuring your notes you are helping your brain to categorize the information. This is when information becomes knowledge. Without a structured set of categories in your brain, it is that much more difficult for you to remember details. Your brain needs boxes in which to place the information.

4. Three basic sections

Three sections should be the basic structure for every lecture: An introduction to what the class is about, three to five main points on the content and one take-away point.

5. Use colours (in moderation)

Using colours when you take notes can be very inducive to learning. Colours help people remember, as colours are more richly represented in memory. But don’t overdo it! The point is not to overwhelm your brain with an explosion of colours. If you choose to use colours, then they should be aligned with the structure you have for your notes. Examples of colouring logic can be: by theme, topic, class or week. In this way, the colouring enforces the structure you use and helps your brain categorize the information.

6. Write by hand

When it comes to learning and retaining information, writing by hand is far superior to writing on a laptop. People who take notes on their laptops tend to write down everything exactly as it was said. When you write by hand, you are forced to pay greater attention, be more selective of what you note down and use your own words. This greatly increases both your conceptual understanding and your retention of information.

7. Spaced repetition

You need to look through your notes regularly. Your memory is just like a path in the forest. It grows the more often people walk it (and it grows shut when no one walks there). The number of times you repeat is more important than the time you spend repeating. In other words, take several short trips down memory lane.

8. Review your new notes 

Review the material straight after class and, preferably, again in the evening. Transcribe and clarify if your notes are messy or something is unclear. This need only take a few minutes. By doing this simple trick you save hours, if not days, of studying for your exams.

9. Look through your old notes

By looking through your old notes before every class you not only expose yourself to more repetition but you help build linkages in your brain between different sets of categories. The linkages are important to understand how all the pieces fit together and to see the greater picture.

 10. Add details to your structure

Once you have a structure in place, a structure you know, your brain has boxes of categories in which you can put detailed information. At this stage, you will be amazed with how fast you can learn great heaps of detailed information.