How to Take Better Notes

Note-Taking Tips & Study Skills

Taking better notes is a skill I am always looking to improve. Taking better notes is important for three reasons:

  1. Time Savings: If you've taken a great set of notes, you don't have to go back and re-read or lookup information more than once.
  2. Easier to Organize: A good set of notes on a topic will be easier to add into your filing system.
  3. Better Retention: A good set of notes will help you learn key facts more thoroughly than a bunch of un-organized scribbles on a page.

Michelle Sampson is a teacher and study skills expert located in Boston, MA. She helps students improve their skills and tackle large and small study projects. Not only are Michelle's tips applicable to academics, they can also be applied to any project that requires reading comprehension you may use at work. Case in point, when I'm working on a project I need to do research for, I can apply Michelle's practices to magazine articles, books and even notes on TV shows.

Here are her 6 key rules to taking notes the organized way.

  • 01 of 06

    Highlight Four and No More

    Focused Caucasian high school girl student studying in cafe
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    When it comes to highlighting, Michelle uses a light-handed touch. "I like to highlight, but I only allow myself to highlight up to 4 words at a time. If more than 4 words are important, I will also underline the sentence that contains the key phrase, otherwise, I get too carried away, because the highlighter's power is diminished if overused. When more than 4 words are important, I also paraphrase the essence of the sentences in the margin or on a post it note."

    "If you can get away with it, try highlighting only one word," she advises.

  • 02 of 06

    Use Note Cards Instead of a Notebook

    open notebook with a red pencil
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    If you're super organized, Michelle recommends rewriting the highlighted words with paraphrasing on index cards, "They are more portable than a text book or article. I use index cards for the paraphrasing, with the keyword(s) on one side, and then its related meaning in a wider context on the reverse. Then you can hole punch and connect your index cards with a metal book ring to make them easily flippable."

  • 03 of 06

    Only Read Through Once

    Read through once when taking notes
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    Michelle only reads through the text once, taking notes as she goes: "It's sort of like the filing adage about only handling a piece of paper once. I take notes as I go to save time. It also helps me retain what I'm reading."

  • 04 of 06

    Know Your Learning Style

    Professor and mature students discussing diagrams in classroom
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    Michelle is a proponent of different note taking tactics depending on your learning style, "If you're a visual learner, reading alone is great, if you're an auditory learner, invest in a recording device or use your smartphone."

    IPhone users should check out the JMDictate App which records, and, Jott App which will record and then convert your recording into notes. You can also try Dragon, but any old recorder will work.

    "Auditory learners may prefer aurally reviewing material presented in a lecture, discussion or oral instructions. They generally feel more comfortable hearing and reiterating material, then synthesizing it further through peer discussion or making an oral presentation.

    How do you know if you're an auditory learner? Michelle uses this trick, "You might be an auditory learner if you enjoy listening to books on tape rather than reading text or if you formulate your thoughts best in a conversation (rather than journaling or writing letters.)"

    TIP: Read your school's disclosure policy about recording your professors before recording a class.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Use the Right Pen

    View of students sitting at desks during test in classroom
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    Michelle uses a dedicated set of writing implements specifically for studying. "When I take notes (in class) I insist on using mechanical pencils (to write small) and Ultra Fine Flair pens to underline key points." To Michelle, ballpoint pens are the wire hangers of studying. "No ballpoint pens for studying, ever!," says Michelle, "They run out of ink at the worst possible time, and smudge when you go to highlight the notes you wrote. Sharpie makes a new pen that doesn't bleed through notebook paper, writes fine, and never smudges when you highlight over it."

    TIP: Pencil-based notes may become smudged over time, especially if you write double-sided. For long-term notes, try the sharpie pen and stick to one side of the page or note card.

  • 06 of 06

    Color Code for Reference

    Color code notes
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    Michelle recommends color coding when dealing with a large amount of information, or for repetitive topics:

    • In the classroom: "Think about organizing notes into color coded folders. For example, in my classroom, I assign each subject area a color. Student work is stored in folders that correspond to those colors (i.e. reading=red, spelling = orange, science = green, math = blue, social studies = purple.)"
    • At the office: "Assign each project you're working on a color. As you are working on projects, create a visual tracking system with notes and reminders that correspond to each one on a bulletin board.
    • In your personal interest areas: "You can do the same in a notebook or day planner with colored post-it notes to help you organize your information (home/office/social, for example.) It's an easy way to instantly see what your to-dos are in each area. If you stick to this system, it can allow you to quickly batch tasks that are similar, or to see which areas may require more balance."

    Just be sure you can crack the code once you're done. Resist the urge to over-organize and make it difficult for yourself to follow the colors. Simple is better, says Michelle. "If you are color coding, 3-6 key areas seems to be an optimal amount. (Fewer than 3? why bother?) More than that and you will lose the automaticity that the colors are meant to provide."