It’s been said that our short-term memory typically lasts about fifteen seconds and that without much effort we’re able to remember about seven items at a time.  Obviously when it comes to your college education that’s not going to cut it. Every day you’re being taught multiple new facts and concepts, much of which will show up on a test later. So how is note taking helpful in the learning process?

Better Learning. As you engage the bodily sensation of physically typing or writing notes, you are employing your mind in a more comprehensive way than when you simply listen to a lecture or read a book.  Psychologist and memory expert Daniel Schacten, PhD, says, “Short term memory formation can begin through giving your attention to the information received.” In other words, as you focus on new information, you will begin to actually learn and remember it.

Less Distraction. As a rule, your mind can think faster than your professor can talk. That’s why it’s so easy to become distracted in class. The art of good note taking helps you avoid the temptation to let your mind drift off focus. Instead, it causes you to sift through the information being taught in order to decipher what’s most important and worth capturing on paper. Taking notes is not dictation; the goal is not to jot down the lecture verbatim but simply to collect the main points and a general summary.

Aid to Study. And finally, good note taking prepares you to study well. Most professors spend class time going over the information that’s most important for you to know, and therefore, what you’re likely to encounter again on a test. Having clear, organized notes (whether from class lectures or taken from your reading) is a great launching point for study. Reviewing your notes within 24-hours has been shown to increase your memory of that information exponentially. And going over your notes before a test will be helpful, as well.

If note taking is so important for all of these reasons, how can we excel at it? So glad you asked! Allow some of these educational hacks to sharpen your note taking game:

  • Change up your method. If you’ve been taking notes by hand, consider switching to a laptop for the sake of ease and speed. Another advantage is the simplicity with which you can make corrections to your notes or outline after class. OR, if electronic note taking has been your jam, try taking notes by hand for a change. Some experts have suggested this old fashioned, hands-on method can actually increase memory formation. There’s no “right or wrong” of course, but if what you’re doing has not been effective, consider changing things up.
  • Color coding. The more organized and visually recognizable you make your notes the better. For this reason, many swear by color coding: one color for headings, another for subheadings, yet another color for new vocabulary or main points. This may not be practical in class, but can be something you do as you review your notes later. So buy some good highlighters or fun colored pens and get colorful!
  • Illustrations, Graphing, Mapping. Traditionally, when we think of note taking we immediately think of outlines complete with headers, roman numerals, letters and bullet points. This is a logical and linear way of thinking and it’s often helpful when organizing thoughts. However, not all minds work the same. If you learn best by seeing pictures, then by all means, get creative and add illustrations to your notes! Don’t be afraid to create charts or graphs to help you compare concepts side-by-side. Or try “mapping” or drawing a flow chart to show how concepts are linked or interconnected. Whatever helps you make sense of and process new information is fair game!
  • Stay organized. It should go without saying, but make sure you include a date and subject at the top of every page of notes, and keep your notes organized according to subject, and ideally by chapter or unit.
  • Don’t be afraid to come up with your own abbreviations and systems of writing. We all understand shortened words like ie, b/c or eg, but you can create your own to simplify your note taking. Think about using symbols and arrows to show what’s important or to demonstrate cause and effect.

The most important thing to remember about taking notes is that they are simply a tool to help you learn. Don’t drown in them by trying to write down everything or let them overwhelm you, but DO take them! Focus on what you’re hearing or reading and notice what’s repeated, what’s being emphasized and what stands out as most important—then jot it down. Note taking is a skill that will help you in multiple settings for years to come. The student who understands the importance of effective note taking will be a student who thrives in school, and also in their future work place.