5 Tips for More Efficient and Effective Note-Taking

Three hours.

That’s the usual amount of time suggested for homework per class. Maybe it’s a whole skew of math questions or science questions. Maybe it’s a chapter or three from the text book. Either way, you’re probably going to be summarizing and recording information in  a notebook at some point. But, and I don’t know about you, on most days I don’t want to spend all my free time on summarizing and recording information.

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Early last semester, however, I had no strategy for making that homework practice more efficient while not throwing away the benefits of note taking at the same time. 3 hours per class, day in day out. That, or I could take minimal or even no notes, and kiss a good exam mark goodbye (That option was quickly off the table).

But, even with my admittedly limited experience, I did figure a few things out. So, unqualified as it may be, here are my tips to taking more efficient notes when reading your textbook.

1: Read, then write.

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If experience counts for anything, stopping every time something important comes up to write it down is going to take forever. Not only that, but chances are, you’ll come across a sentence shortly after that will undermine the first sentence or phrase the point better, and you’ll have the erase and write a new note… You get it. It’s frustrating.

Instead? Take it a couple paragraphs at a time. Read for a bit, then stop, summarize the most important points, and continue. Aside from saving yourself a lot of time, you’ll get a chance to mentally edit and understand what you’ve read – which will be all the better when exam time rolls around.

2: One example is (usually) enough.

One textbook I have lists what feels like a billion example for every concept. It gets to the point where, well, I’m not reading any more. I’m looking for where the examples end. If I were to write every single one down, for every concept? It would take a whole lot more than three hours to do my homework.

So? Write down one example for any concept you understand otherwise. Obviously, if you feel you need more for something in particular, go for it – do what will help you learn. If you’re worried exams will come and that one example won’t be enough? Remember you can always refer back to that list of examples later. For me, though, one has always been enough, and it has kept my efficiency up. Instead of focusing on writing ten examples, I can focus on the key concepts.

3: If you can print, print.

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This applies pretty much exclusively to online papers or articles, evidently. I find that those are the hardest of all the read – I’m less inclined to take notes as switching from screen to notebook is hard my eyes, and the internet can be quite compelling when you’re reading something particularly dense. Sooner or later, I’ll be watching cat videos instead of reading a paper on political philosophy.

The solution? Print double sided, and only print what you need (If there are four pages of bibliography, you can probably just read that part online), but print what you’re reading. There’s a good chance that you’ll take notes, highlight important quotes, and just read things more deeply. Something about reading off screens just makes the information harder to retain. (Here’s some science to back that up.)

4: Know what you’re looking for.

This is a lot easier said than done, I admit that. Me, I have one really helpful TA who hints at what is most important to make notes on for one course. For other courses, it’s just something to figure out on your own. Consider the aim of the course, consider what the professor tends to emphasize in lecture. These are the things that may turn out to be more important – though every course is different.

One big pointer would also be to look at the subheadings in any given textbook chapter – look at what main ideas are being presented, and base your notes on those. Or, if you’re reading an essay, write down the thesis and main arguments, with minimal examples (see above for more on the examples). Come exam time, this might make your studying more worth while.

5: Organize!

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This is almost self-explanatory; keep things in order, keep them labelled, and make sure nothing gets lost! It will save you so much stress, knowing that when you need to look at your notes, they’re all going to be there and grouped together nicely. Like topics should stay together, separate courses should stay separate, and binder/folders/bound notebooks are your friends!

So, there you go. Hopefully these tips (and their respective memes) will help make your note taking a little more effective. And maybe the point of homework isn’t to get it done quickly, but these tips will help with that too – it’s an added bonus. I know I certainly don’t like scrambling for good notes when exams come!

With that, happy note taking, and good luck in the rest of your semester! Let me know if there are any other note-taking tips and tricks that work for you!

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