How to take notes at uni

A year ago, I had no idea what one was supposed to do during a lecture. To be honest, I didn’t really know what a lecture was. I’ve come a long way since then and I thought it would be a good idea to share what I have learnt through trial and error.

The best way for most people to learn during a lecture is by taking notes. You may think that you’d take more in by merely listening and paying attention, but unless you have a perfect memory- if you do then go ahead- you’re going to forget things. Lecturers won’t include everything in their notes so it is important that you jot things down in a way that will make sense to you later.

Method 1: Printing lecture slides

I started off by printing out lecture slides and annotating them. This caused two problems; 1. The slides are not always up the night before and 2. I was using a ridiculous amount of ink and paper. Maybe this was due to the sheer number of lectures I had per week (usually 3 for each subject) but it just wasn’t going to work for me long term. I organised these notes by punching holes in them and putting them into a binder- another problem, I hate binders. Time to abandon method 1.

Method 2: Handwriting

This second method worked well for a while. I bought myself some spiral exercise books (on sale from BIG W- plus they were coloured!), and set to work writing down everything that was said. Writing is definitely a better way to remember information and this would work especially well for subjects like maths and chemistry where you can draw diagrams. After another week, I became overwhelmed by the amount of content that I just wasn’t getting down. Some lecturers would talk too fast or move through the slides too quickly, not leaving me time to write. I’d go home and look over my notes but they’d often be messy, unclear and incomplete. This wasn’t an issue for all of my subjects- so I kept handwriting notes for chemistry and my breadth subject- creative writing.

Method 3: Microsoft word

I caved and bought a macbook air- something that I thought I would never do because it meant giving in to the uni stereotypes and also, they were just plain expensive. I explored other options but they were either too heavy and bulky or too small for my liking. At first I hated it and I felt guilty for spending my money on this thing that I didn’t know how to use, but now I think this was the best decision that I’ve made since starting university. One thing though, I did switch the function of my control and command keys to make the transition from windows easier. I have now converted to being a mac user and I wouldn’t change a thing.

What I do is compile my notes into one separate word file per subject. This has an advantage because when I’m stuck during an online test I can just click ‘ctrl’ and ‘s’ and search through a whole semesters worth of notes. I use the headings that you see under styles because word has this nifty feature called the document map pane that allows you to see all of your headings and subheadings and navigate through your document with them. To access it click: view -> sidebar -> document map pane

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Here is an example of what my notes like like with the map pane open. Note: I now only tend to use Heading 1 for the title of each lecture and no other style headings because I find it a lot easier to not have to collapse the headings for each lecture (see the little arrows in the map pane? Well you have to click them to hide the subheadings. Too much hassle if you ask me).

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My technique has changed dramatically since my first semester(above). Sometimes, as you can see below, I go a bit overboard with highlighting but I find that this helps me keep things organised. I highlight different things in different colours and insert pictures from the slides when I need to. A lot of people don’t do this but it stops me from needing to look back at the slides when I’m revising. My notes aren’t perfect, they have occasional spelling mistakes and aren’t complete sentences. I also use shorthand eg. b/w for between and w/ for with or when.

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Method 4: OneNote

Something I learnt very recently is that you can annotate lecture notes in onenote, without actually having to write onto the pdf document.

You first create a notebook, then you can add different tabs up the top per subject and create a page for each lecture or class in that subject. This is basically an online version of a normal notebook and is extremely useful for keeping lecture and tutorial notes together. You can even insert assignment dates and other information. The best thing is that when you go to reivse you don’t need to open up your lecture slides and notes because they are already together.

Here’s an example of how you might organise your notebook;

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You can then insert your lecture notes as a PDF printout. Click: Insert-> pdf printout->search and upload

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This is an example of my annotated slides. As you can see, I’ve written next to the lecture slides and highlighted key parts. You could use a key for this, highlight in different colours or write in shorthand.

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Method 5: A combination

I use different methods for different subjects. I’d advise writing for subjects like maths or chemistry, or ones where you have enough time to write things down. Typing allows you to go back and edit things but it is a lot of work and sometimes I wonder if it is worth it. Annotating slides is a way to balance paying attention and getting the important things down, but then this does mean that you may not have all of your notes in one document or notebook. I find that with OneNote things aren’t as streamlined and I’d rather have my lecture slides and notes combined instead of next to each other.

At the moment, I’m typing notes for three subjects and annotating my subject workbook for another. This wasn’t included in my above methods because I don’t think it’s a technique that will work for many subjects. I’m also rewriting my notes at home so that I can memorise them and have something easier to look at come exam time. However, it’s ridiculously time consuming. In the future I plan on using OneNote and just rewriting my notes at home.

Finding a method that works for you takes time and a lot of it involves trial and error. I’m almost a year into university and I’m still finding my feet! What methods do you find useful? Are there any that I have missed?

Happy studying!- S