Note-taking strategies

Psychologists know better than anyone how fallible our memories are. For students, taking good notes distinguishes successful students from less-successful ones. Initially taking good notes is the start of getting that information into your long-term memory. What you do after you take the notes also plays a role in whether or not you get the right information into your brain.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your understanding of and memory for class content, start off by asking your instructor for advice on taking notes in his or her class…and take their advice.

In my classes and in classes for which you get no other advice, try this:

Take notes only on the right side of your page. I even fold my page in half the long way as a physical reminder. As soon after class as you can, rewrite your notes on the left side of the page in a different color ink. Here are a couple of examples. The first and third pictures are full pages. The second and fourth pictures show close-ups so you can see what was written. You can click on the image to make it bigger:










When you rewrite your notes, don’t just simply rewrite what you have on the page. Rather, use the sketchy notes from class as reminders of what you heard:

  • Rewrite your notes in complete sentences. Often you’ll discover that you don’t really understand the instructor’s point. You can use that as the basis for a question in class.
  • Add information that you still remember but that didn’t make it into your notes. Despite our problems with memory, it’s actually remarkably good in the short term. You’ll surprise yourself at how much information you indeed remember if you put it on paper soon after class is over.
  • Recopy diagrams more neatly and with more detail than you were able to get in class.

What you’ll find is that the process of doing this will solidify the information in your memory. You will also discover what you understand and what you don’t. This will let you know what you need to ask your instructor about. You should also notice that all the cramming that you used to do isn’t necessary any more.

If you do try this, let me know how it works for you.