In the previous tip I I tried to persuade you as to Why you should take lecture notes.

“OK, but How?”

Glad you asked. Here are ten tips to help you get those fingers smoking.

1. Name and organize your files and folders

There’s no point in taking notes if you can’t find them weeks or months later just before exam time. So have a separate folder for each subject, and maybe a separate folder for each module within that subject folder.

I name my files like this: Date-Title-Initials. So for example, I’d name the file containing this tip: 140901-HowNoteTaking-DPM. That helps me keep my notes in chronological order, but the summary title also helps me to see what’s in the file without having to open it. I like to put my initials on files so that if I’m working on a shared project I can distinguish my files from others.

2. Date and title the lecture at the top of the page.

This is helpful for when you print out your notes. If your Word processing software will let you include the file name and date in the header or footer, then this too will help you keep track of printed lectures.

3. Number the pages

If you ever print off your notes, your binder fails, and your papers start billowing all over campus, you’ll wish you had done this.

4. Set your Word processor to auto-save

We’ve all done it – once. We’ve been working on a document for over an hour when Word freezes, or we forget to save, or our thumb hits delete. Noooooooooooo! So set your word-processing software  to save every 3-5 minutes to make sure that the most you can lose is a few minutes work.

5. Summarize as you go

I know yesterday I encouraged you to take extensive notes, but that doesn’t mean you need to write out every word. That’s impossible. Err on the side of too much initially, but try to develop the ability of summarizing the lesson as you go. That’s actually a much better way to start learning the material than to try and type out everything word for word.

6. Outline the lecture

Most teachers today realize the importance of structure and will either be following one on Powerpoint or via a handout. If not, you need to work hard at making your own outline of the lecture. Again many Word processors like Word will let you take notes in Outline format and some options like Workflowy are specialized tools for outlining. Most outlines go like this:


A. Sub point

1. Sub-sub-point

2. Sub-sub point

B. Sub point


You can see that it’s not just different numbers but different indents and emphasis that are used as well (I also use a consistent color highlighting scheme for each level of indent). Leave a space between lines to make reading easier on your eyes.

Develop your own preferences but whatever you decide, keep that uniform for all lectures and you’ll train your brain to think like this and develop strong pegs to hang all the information on in small, accessible, and memorable packets. Far better than a big glob of undifferentiated information that your hands cannot get round or hold.

7. Note quotation sources and further reading

Sometimes teachers will quote someone else at length. Instead of trying to write down the whole quote and burn your fingers in the process, take a note of the book, author, and page number for future reference. If you can summarize the quote, all the better. Also note any direction for further reading. Perhaps you could ask the teacher to provide the quotes in a Word document for you to paste into your notes.

8. Highlight any gaps or confusion

Sometimes you will not be able to keep up with a teacher or you will not understand something she said. Take down what you can and put a note in the margin either to follow up with the teacher afterwards or compare notes with a fellow-student.

9. Review the lecture

I’m going to talk about study techniques in a later tip, but suffice to say that at the earliest opportunity after the lecture, while it’s still fresh in your mind, you should read through your notes to fill in anything you didn’t get down in class. If there are parts of the lecture without any outline or structure, work hard to outline it as much as you can. That’s going to be invaluable at exam time.

10. File the lecture

As I explained before, Dropbox ensures you won’t lose all your data if your computer crashes. But I also like to print out the lecture as well and put it in a ring-binder. That’s probably the oldie in me, but I do like to see some physical visible results for my labors!

Here’s an article on the Best Apps for Note-taking.

Other Resources

New Student Tip #1: Dropbox

New Student Tip #2: Wunderlist

New Student Tip #3: Evernote

New Student Tip #4: Diigo

New Student Tip #5: Lastpass

New Student Tip #6: Calendar

New Student Tip #7: Feedly

New Student Tip #8: Covenant Eyes

New Student Tip #9: The Why of Note-taking

Thriving at College by Alex Chediak (for students)

Preparing Your Teens For College by Alex Chediak (for parents of students)

Top 10 Books for Students

  • justmerach

    Regarding “how”… I was expecting something on writing by hand v.s. computer, but here it seems you are defaulting to typing as the assumed norm nowadays.

    I’ve suspected writing something down helps me remember it, but typing does not have the same effect. Have you read much research for/against this?

    On an unrelated note, I had one lecturer who forced us to have a “mock exam” a few weeks before our real exam with mostly essay-style questions, for the primary motive of getting us to physically move our hands with a pen in them. He smiled to himself as gradually everyone in the room started shaking their hands as the cramp hit. This may no longer be a concern if exams are typed, though I haven’t heard if that happens yet or not?

    • justmerach

      Aha, I reached Tip #12 where you mention this! I’m still interested to hear more about the research. Thankyou!