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When it comes to getting the most out of your seminars and lectures, there’s nothing more crucial to your ability to retain information and learn effectively than good, solid, old-fashioned note taking.

Note Taking and Retention

Note taking helps you engage with information and remember it. When you’re making notes, you’re processing the information twice: once as it’s being said and again as you’re writing it down. You end up retaining more information because you’re engaging with it on two levels.

It’s not a surprise, then, that students who take notes fare much better than those who don’t. This is because reviewing notes helps you move learned information from short-term to long-term memory, and also integrate new concepts with those you already know. Ultimately, studies indicate that academic performance in exams and paper writing improves when students take effective notes and consult them later.

Find Your Strategy

There are pros and cons for various note-taking methods. The key is to find some that work for you and use them. Andrew R., a fifth-year student at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Halifax, says, “I use different methods for different courses. Some courses are more visual, so I take pictures or draw. Others are lecture-style, so I’ll either record the lecture or write out notes.”

Deborah Hemming, a teaching assistant at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, believes that pen-and-paper note taking is the way to go. “You retain things much better if you’re engaged with the material physically,” she says.

The majority of the respondents to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they choose the old-fashioned paper-and-pen method. “I definitely still take notes by hand,” says Andrea H., a third-year student at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. As she explains, “There’s a memory-retention benefit to actual, physical note taking. With an app, I could lose the notes or forget to use it.”

If your typing is faster than your penmanship, using a laptop or tablet computer can work, too, and your note taking might be much quicker.

Tips about typing your notes

Knowbility, an organization dedicated to increasing access to technology for people with disabilities, notes (pun intended) that people average 24-31 words per minute when writing by hand, while when typing they can record 60-70 words per minute. Plus, digital note taking minimizes any fear that you’ll lose a semester’s worth of information behind your bed or by spilling coffee on your papers.

But it can be easy to get distracted by social media and the Web if you’re looking at your screen. Make sure to close all other applications while you’re in class, and make regular eye contact with your instructor. That way he or she will know you’re not goofing off, but rather, focusing on the lecture or classroom discussion.

Audio recording is another option for note taking. It can be more efficient if you’re not a fast writer or typist, the discussion is fast-moving, or you like to review the class again to pick up things you might have missed. Just make sure you ask your instructor before recording his or her lecture.

Navigating an hour and a half of audio to find the spot where you think the professor mentioned something specific can be a daunting task. To keep yourself from facing a mountain of tape, or zoning out in class since you can listen to it later, be selective with what you record. Stay alert and turn your recording device on and off in order to capture the most important or complicated information.

If you’re a visual learner, you can “record” notes by taking a picture. Charlotte MacKay, also a teaching assistant and writing tutor at McGill University, says, “I know a lot of people who prefer to take pictures of their notes or of the board.”

If your instructor provides his or her lecture online ahead of time, you may also find it helpful to print the presentation before class. This allows you to visually proceed through the lecture and add supplemental notes.

Some people find it extremely helpful to write things in various colours. This can help you categorize different types of information or highlight the most important points.

Tips about recording your notes

Circle back to notes you’ve recorded soon after attending class. While listening, write down the key points you want to remember. If you skip this step, the point of recording is lost.

Lauren W., a student at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has a clever solution. She explains, “I like to put the lectures I record on my mp3 player. That way, I can listen to them and review when I’m on the bus or walking somewhere.”

Pen Recorders
Shermin Murji, Health Education Coordinator at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, suggests that there’s a new device available. She says, “You can take notes and record at the same time. When you’re studying, if you click on a specific word with the pen, the recording will jump to what was being said at the moment you wrote it.” Pretty darn cool!

The Cornell Method
One immensely popular way of taking notes is the Cornell Method, which has you organize different types of note in various locations and colours. The method incorporates several note-taking strategies such as summation, examples, definitions, and asking questions.

Cornell notes are organized in a way that helps you locate important information more easily. During a lecture or while reading for class, you can highlight key points, phrases, or dates. Juliet Dunphy, Manager of Student Learning Services at Concordia University in Montreal, says, “The Cornell Method is a time-tested and proven method that we’ve found contributes to the best retention overall.”

More information about the Cornell Method

Here’s how the Cornell Method of note taking works:

  1. Divide a piece of paper into two columns: “key word” on the left and “notes” on the right.
  2. The note-taking column on the right needs to be twice the size of the key word column on the left.
  3. Leave five to seven lines (approximately two inches) at the bottom of the page.
  4. Place notes from class or readings in the note-taking column. Focus on the main ideas and avoid long sentences. Use symbols or abbreviations whenever possible to keep things succinct.
  5. In the key word column, place relevant questions or key words that relate to each note. Do this while in class or as soon as possible afterward.
  6. Within 24 hours of taking the notes, write a summary of the content in the bottom five to seven lines of the page. Also identify any questions you have about the material and write them down.

Learn even more about the Cornell Method

Note-Taking Apps

Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s the 21st century. Who’s even using pens and paper anymore? Well, fear not, as there are a ton of helpful apps to support your note-taking capabilities. Here are some to check out:

This app, an Internet browser add-on, lets you highlight and post sticky notes in online text. “It’s a really awesome app. It’s invaluable to me,” says Bryson C., a fourth-year student at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Halifax.

Check out the Diigo app.

By far the most popular note-taking app, Evernote allows you to store notes online in the cloud. This means that even if you lose your phone or laptop, all your notes about Shakespeare’s sonnets are still sleeping soundly online. Plus, you can access them anywhere, a convenient feature.

Check out Evernote.

Andrew says, “Just keep trying different methods. Eventually you’ll figure out what works in what kind of situation.”

More note-taking apps

This note-taking app lets you organize notes in various colours, allowing you to keep track of everything from to-do and grocery lists to notes about Pavlov or trigonometry.

“It’s cool because it’s similar to sticky notes, and it’s really easy to organize. I work really well with colour,” says Dillan M., a second-year student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I also really like that you can make a list and check things off when you complete them.”

Learn more about ColorNote and download it to your device.

Echo Smartpen
Digital pens, or “smart pens,” are a hybrid of old- and new-school note taking. They require special digital notebooks, but all of the information is automatically sent to an online account using WiFi and stored electronically. You still get the physical and interactive benefits of using a pen, but all of the information is stored securely in a digital place. Plus, there’s no waste of paper, so it’s good for the environment.

Learn more about Echo Smartpen and download it to your device.

Here are a few more to check out:

Simplenote by Automattic
iPhone, iPad, Android, coming soon

SuperNote by ASUS
iPhone, iPad

SafeNote by CodeDrop
iPhone, iPad, Android

OneNote by Microsoft
iPhone, iPad, Android

There’s no harm in trying out an app, or recording a lecture, to see what works for you. If you find that you’re not retaining as much as you’d like or your notes aren’t clear, make an appointment to chat with a tutor or academic advisor about some other options. Whatever you choose, just remember that being engaged in class and actively cataloging the information is the first step toward brilliant, brain-expanding notes.

Take Action!

  • Don’t rely solely on one method of note taking. Use several.
  • Review the notes you’ve written within 24 hours for maximum retention.
  • Be selective when recording a lecture, and review it shortly afterward.
  • Try out different apps or strategies to find your favourite.

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