No BS Guide on Note-taking Strategies for College

Note-taking May 31, 2020

If learning is the ladder of growth, note-taking helps you climb faster.

That’s not to say note-taking is the be-all and end-all for successful learning, but essential for learning better.

So how do you take effective notes?

Many people think of using note-taking methods, apps, color schemes, sticky notes, and so on. While these are good for organizing content, it doesn’t imply taking effective notes. Besides, some of these may not improve learning and end up wasting time.

For example, the Cornell method is a great note-taking template. You can create separate sections for cues and a summary that are handy in reviews. However, like any other note-taking method, the strength of those notes hinges on how you make them.

So you may need more than templates, tips, and tricks.

To achieve the best learning outcomes, you can develop a note-taking strategy—combined tactics of listening, reading, writing, and methods.

You can get a better understanding of note-taking strategies in this article. But before going into the details, let’s have a look at some fundamentals.

Note-taking Fundamentals

Essentially, note-taking is to comprehend and reconstruct information into small nuggets of knowledge. It involves writing keywords and phrases that are useful to recall information.

A few mantras for taking better notes are:

  • Don't make a book out of a book or a transcript out of a lecture.
  • The goal is to understand first and then write in your own words.
  • Write in a legibly scrappy way (to write fast).
  • Avoid writing so little that it doesn’t make sense later in your reviews.

Note-taking has a few moving parts that need skill to work right. Like any other skill, it requires practice to master.

Let’s go back to the main topic here.

How to Develop a Note-taking Strategy?

I maintained well-organized notes in college; they had to look appealing. I was proud of Wikipedia-like elaboration of things in every bullet. Albeit, I struggled during my reviews due to information overload.

It took me a few years to figure out how to make notes more effective for learning.

If I had a time machine, I’d go back and ask younger me to use this note-taking strategy for college:

  1. Limit distractions and listen to the lecture carefully.
  2. Take quick and short notes using an outline format on my laptop.
  3. On the same day, improve those notes with more information from the lecture and other sources.
  4. Add formatting like boldness, bullets, and highlighted cues.
  5. Reduce notes: use pen & paper to write down only important keywords linked to each other—like in the mind map method—and use it in future reviews.

Robust note-taking strategies are agile. Say the lecturer is speaking too fast, then you can focus more on listening. Or say a talk is too damn good, then listen to the speaker with full attention not taking any notes.

Likewise, a note-taking strategy needs to upgrade with experiments. You’ll never know whether something works if you don’t try. The aim is to reach a satisfactory point and not constantly tinker with the strategy.

In my experience, it’s not a good practice to create notes that are in-depth and fancy. Some people think adding designs and coloring improves effectiveness. I think they are an utter waste of time. I’d rather use that time to review notes.

As you have limited time to learn, it’s prudent to review from small concentrated notes. You can re-write a shortened version of notes. Even if the notes look short, you might be able to create a list of keywords and phrases. This method can help enhance information recall and retention in less time.

A note-taking strategy should lower friction in learning. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Use plain and simple language while writing.
  • Develop a formatting scheme and stick to it.
  • Don’t make a mess by adding too many markers and symbols.
  • Keep all notes organized in one place.

How to listen, read, and write are at the core of a note-taking strategy. You can’t make effective notes without refining all these different parts.

Refining Different Parts of a Note-taking Strategy

You have only a few seconds to analyze and hold the information while taking notes. It’s in that short period you need to comprehend the information. And for better comprehension, you need better focus.

Having a sharp focus is particularly important for listening to lectures. You need to pay attention to what the speaker stresses, repeats, or asks whether everyone has clearly understood it.

Effective listening practices include good body posture, avoiding distractions, and critical thinking. You can learn more about listening skills for lectures here.

The same focus and practices can be applied for reading and taking notes. Additionally, it’s best to read everything first and take notes during the second or third reading.

While reading a book, sometimes it makes sense to take notes on the book itself. You can use the end pages that are usually left blank to add your notes with the page number.

If you’re taking notes from the internet, it’s best to link all the sources for future references.

I find using a computer to take notes is way better than paper. Computer notes are more flexible, mobile, and manageable than paper. You can also easily add illustrations, graphs, and diagrams wherever possible in your notes.

But in my experience, using pen and paper is best during reviews. One drawback of taking notes on a computer can be the speed of taking notes. As the average speaking speed is faster than the average typing speed, you need to be good at touch typing.

The way forward

To create effective notes, you need a personal note-taking strategy. It is one of the best self-learning skills you can acquire.

Form habits for better listening, reading, and writing. Use templates and tips for guidance, not a strategy.

Always find ways to improve learning and have fun doing it!


Bipin VK

Bipin is the co-founder of Savay app. He's passionate about building products that help people in learning, skill development, and productivity.