Green blog banner titled "How to Write Great Notes" with a small note in centre saying "Note to self: do not quit"

How to Take Notes Properly When Studying

Recently, I wrote a blog post about how important it is to take notes when you study. In the post, I explained how it can help you to remember your work in the long run and ensure you have something student-friendly to come back to. Anyone who read that post now knows how it can help you to keep your focus on your work. I hope that all convinced you to try writing your own notes. It really is useful!

In that post, I said that you can only get the full benefits of note-taking if you do it properly. There’s no point in copying up your textbook word for word. That isn’t going to make you learn things better – nor is randomly alternating your colours with the aim of making your work “visually interesting”. If you don’t do notes properly, you’re missing out on at least three-quarters of the benefits they can bring.

But how do you write them properly? How do you make sure that your notes are good ones that you want to back to? What can you do to make sure they’re focused on your exams and tailored to you as a person? Is there a way to make sure that you write them so well that other people would pay you for them?

Well, let me explain. Keep reading, and you’ll find out how you can take notes the right way.

Understand Your Resources

When it comes to taking notes, you can get your information from many different places. For the sake of simplicity in this blog post, I’m going to call these different places your “resources”. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Teachers
  • University lectures
  • Books
  • Online videos
  • Films, TV shows and documentaries
  • Textbooks
  • Transcripts
  • Academic articles
  • Online courses
  • Printables for schools
  • Other people’s notes
  • Historical artefacts
  • Websites and blog posts
  • Examples of exam answers (solved equations, essays, etc.)
  • Non-examples of exam answers (answers with something wrong with them that you can identify)

Each one of these types of resources comes with its own strengths and challenges. You need to be able to understand the unique resource to be able to get the most out of it.

Sometimes, you’ll be able to access the same resource over and over again. Other times, you’ll only have a chance to look at it once. That’s going to change how you interact with it. With human resources like a teacher or uni lecturer, you can go back after class and ask them questions. With online videos, you can pause. That’s going to help you slow down and chunk your information into useful notes.

Before you start taking notes, you need to be aware of these strengths and challenges. Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself feeling very lost and out of your depth.

I can’t tell you how many students go to uni lectures for the first time and feel overwhelmed by how fast they’re going! That’s because they didn’t think about how it might be different from a class in school and what they’ll need to do differently to access the resource to its fullest.

So, before you start, take time to understand the resource. It will help!

Remember the Purpose of Note-Taking

If you want to take good notes, you need to remember why you’re even taking them to begin with. So many students just go through the motions and write any old waffle. They aren’t sure what they should be keeping and what can be thrown out!

So, take the time to ask yourself how taking notes will benefit your studies. Here are some of the biggest ways it will help you:

  • Putting the info in an easy-to-read format for revision
  • Staying focused on the resource you’re using.
  • Ensuring you can actually explain a topic in your own words.
  • Tailoring general-use information on a topic to your particular exam or essay question.
  • Making connections to things you already know.
  • Consolidating the information you learnt from many different places.
  • Keeping the information even when you no longer have access to the resource.
  • Maintaining a record of your learning in the subject.
  • Bonus: selling to other students for some extra cash.

These goals can really help you to focus your mind when you want to take notes. You’ll remember what the point is and why you need to write all this info down in the first place.

For example, you know that if you want to sell your work, you need to make sure you’re not plagiarising. So, it needs to be in your own words, and the info should be from more than one resource.

Also, if you know that you’re doing this for an essay at uni, you’ll want to make sure you record where you got this important info from. There’s nothing worse than trying to cite a quote and forgetting which source it came from!

Thinking about this might even help you to decide if your notes should be written by hand or typed!


Set Yourself Some Objectives Before You Start

If you go in blindly and just start writing, the chances are that your work won’t have direction. You won’t know which information could be useful to you and which information you should discard. So, you’ll probably end up either writing too much or too little.

Giving yourself one or two concrete tasks is much better than a vague command to “take notes”.

So whenever I’m going to take notes on a learning resource, I always ask myself two vital things:

What new information do I want to gain? What questions do I want answers for?

I’ll come up with 3-5 questions based on this and write them down at the top of my page. They’ll act as a constant reminder of what I’m trying to learn. Whenever I feel like I’m rambling, I’ll look back at these questions and refocus myself.

These questions work as great subheadings, too!

Here’s an example of me asking myself these questions when I was doing an online course on stylistics:

An example of asking questions before taking notes in the form of a checklist.
I like to use Microsoft OneNote for my notes so that I can tick off my questions once I have answers to them.

When I’ve finished with the resource, I’ll review the questions I had in the beginning. I tick off the ones I have answers to and highlight the ones I still need to work on. This helps me to know if I need to find another resource on the topic or not.

Feel free to update the questions at any time. You might find that you don’t actually need the answers to one of them or that there’s something else you need to learn! And don’t be afraid to use the same source over and over again with a different set of questions.

Note Down Information in Your Own Words

Notes will only take you so far if you’re just using the words in the resource. Some academic articles are super hard to read, and it’s going to take a huge strain on your working memory to understand it. Once you’ve taken the time to get what the writer is saying, you should take steps to make sure you never have to struggle through their work again.

Taking notes is a great way to do this. If you write the information in your own style, you’re going to use words that you know and recognise well. You’ll stay away from sentence structures that might confuse you or take up too much cognitive load. It means you only have to struggle to understand some pretentious academic once.

Plus, as I said in the last blog post on the importance of note-taking, you can’t explain a concept to someone else if you don’t understand it. Trying to summarise the concept in your own words is a great way to test how well you got it. Of course, we can’t all rely on having someone who’ll listen to us as we work through every resource we use. So, explaining it to a future version of yourself in the form of notes is the next best thing.

So, don’t just copy down what you heard or read word for word. Think about if there’s an easier way to say what you want to say. Don’t feel like you need to stick to standard English, either. Use slang! Or, if you’re bilingual, words from your other language! As long as the keywords stay in standard English, it’s still useful.

Read a Whole Chunk Before Taking Notes

It’s all well and good for me to say, “Write in your own words”. How do you do that, though? How can you make sure that you don’t accidentally make your notes too close to the text?

Well, it’s all about how much you read before you start writing. If you take notes sentence by sentence, you’ll find it’s much harder for you to think of ways to write down the info in your own words. Do, you need to make sure you take in a reasonable-sized chunk of the resource before you try to write about it.

Chunking your resource will have some extra benefits, too. It will help you to sort through what’s useful for your exams and what isn’t. You can also take the time to decide whether the resource is worth taking notes on before you waste your time and paper.

But what is a good size for a chunk? How much should you read, watch or listen to before you start writing your own notes? After all, too much info can overload your working memory, right? You don’t want to read so much that you lose track of things.

Well, I’d say you should read at least a paragraph before you add any info to your notes. A paragraph is enough text for you to change up the order, and a good writer will make sure that they change paragraphs when they want to talk about something new.

In a video, you might want to watch at least 1 minute of content. Some YouTubers are kind enough to split their videos up into sections for your ease! Those are great for chunking your work. In a film or documentary, you might want to take notes after each scene change.


When It’s Time to Write, Put the Resource Down

Once you’ve read, watched or heard the chunk you’re going to work on, you don’t want to keep the resource in sight. This will tempt you to copy down what was in the resource rather than finding your own words to express the idea. In the long run, that’s not going to help you make notes that are catered for you.

Putting the resource away before you make notes on it forces you to actually think hard about what you’ve just learnt. You actually have to use the knowledge rather than just regurgitating definitions and ideas that you see right in front of you.

This method is a big help. After all, learning is supposed to feel a little uncomfortable. The discomfort you get from trying to remember that chunk and put it into your own words is what you need to help it stick in your head.

So, put the book down or pause the video. Write out what you understood from the resource before you read or play it again. This will give you a great indication of how much you actually took in. Can you summarise it? If not, maybe the chunk was too big. Maybe you lost focus. It might even be the language of the text! You might have fooled yourself into thinking you understood when you really didn’t.

Figure out what caused you to struggle to take the chunk in. Then, correct it. Shorten the chunk! Find a quieter place to study. Come back to that resource once you understand the words you used. If you use this method from the start, you can fix any issues you had before you get to the end of the source. That will mean you’ll waste as little time and energy as possible.

Colour Code Your Notes

I love it when my notes look pretty and colourful. They make them inviting to read. It means I don’t hate revision so much! I mean, at least I got to use my favourite teal pen, right?

Adding colour to your notes can have some real benefits. However, these only work if you’re using different colours for a reason. You can’t just change up the colour per word or paragraph and expect that to magically aid your memory. It’s not going to do much. Well, it does slow you down a little! Not much else, though.

If you want to get the benefits of using different colours in your notes, you need a code. Create a key for yourself that you always use. Make sure you’re using pens that you can easily get hold of again if they run out. Stick to the same colours for the same types of information.

You should definitely designate specific colours for the following types of info:

  • Possible exam questions
  • Examples
  • Definitions of key terms
  • Links to other subjects
  • Feedback and advice on how to improve
  • Key ideas you must remember over everything else.

The reason this is so helpful is because it helps you to sort through your notes at a later stage. Let’s say you’ve written over 200 pages, and you need to remember the definition of the word “chiasmus”. It’s much easier for you to find if you know you always highlight key terms in purple!

This is true of essay plans, too. Write out your point, evidence, analysis and context in different colours. It will help you to sort out each piece of info in your brain.

Make Connections Between Different Subjects

Since I’ve become a teacher, I’ve noticed something. The students who say, “This is like in history”, or “I learnt this in biology”, are the ones who are most likely to do well in their exams.

These students are making “cross-curricular links”. Being able to notice these links is an important skill that never stops being useful – no matter how old you are! In fact, lots of PhD students get their research inspiration by applying ideas from one subject to another!

Let’s say you take some notes on the Theory of Evolution for science. Then, you start reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This book came out after Darwin’s theory changed the way we see humans! So, when you read the quote “ape-like fury”, your mind should go to what you learnt in science! If it does, write down your thoughts in your notes!

This is useful for so many different reasons. When you tie new information to what you already know, it makes it much easier for you to remember what you just learnt! It improves and deepens your knowledge of both subjects. You get some free revision of the other subject in there. Plus, when you come back to your notes, it will be much easier for you to understand the topic with examples you can relate to!

So, create a little symbol or use a specific colour for links to other things you already know.

An example of my linking technique using the English term "implied reader" on the show Breaking Bad.
I use a specific symbol for a linked idea in my notes. That makes them easy to find!

Don’t just do this with subjects, either. If something you learnt reminds you of a meme, film, video, TV show, or news event, write it down, too!


Ask Yourself: What is Your Purpose for Highlighting or Underlining?

When I was young, I used to go around highlighting everything I thought could be useful in my textbooks. It made the book look very pretty! However, it didn’t do much for me in the long run.

The problem was that I hadn’t actually figured out what I was trying to get out of all this highlighting. I figured that it would help me to learn, and I wanted to learn the whole book. So, I just did the whole book!

I can’t tell you how many students I’ve seen who took the same approach with their own reading. They’d grab a highlighter or ruler and go wild with it! There’s no rhyme or reason, really. Well, other than making it look pretty, of course!

You might want to keep a highlighter in your hand when reading a text. That way, you can still do something with your hands while you’re reading. If you do it properly, it can help you to write out your notes later on.

What you’ve got to do is take the time to work out what you want to use it for. When you read the text, what do you want to draw out to take notes on later? Is it the keywords? The useful info? Definitions? Dates? Recommended reading?

I recommend that you highlight the things you’re most likely to forget. For me, I can sum up a whole concept easily when I’m using the chunking method I mentioned above. However, I can’t remember a date to save my life! I also struggle to find keywords once I move on from them. So, I use one highlighter for dates and another for keywords. That gives me a bit of help when I come back to make notes later.

Record Where You Got the Information From in the Margins

When I’m writing notes by hand, I don’t just use the margins for bullet points. Margins can be a great place to record things like the name of the source for later on. This is particularly true if you need your notes for a bibliography.

I hate when I forgot where I got a piece of info from. At uni, my bibliography would be 15-20 texts long! So, when I needed to cite something, it was a nightmare to go back and work out where it came from.

The importance of this becomes even clearer if you’re borrowing these texts from the library. Even if you have to give the book back, you can still use the info in it to finish your work. No need to stress!

This isn’t only useful for people who need to write an essay with sources, though. It’s also great if you really like a source or think it can help you out again. It’s good to have a log of where you got your info from so that you can go back and use the source again if you want to.

For a text, it’s easy. Just write down the writer’s name, the text and the page number. If you want to remember a documentary or film, write the title and the year it was made. Maybe add in a main actor or voiceover person to help you find it later! For a TV show, add the episode to it, as well. Give all the PDFs you use memorable names and save them in a folder together.

For YouTube videos, create a playlist of videos you used to learn about the topic. Sort it by importance. That’s much easier than going through your watch history!

Try Cornell Notes!

There are lots of useful ways that you can take notes. You can do it in a mind map. You can try to use PowerPoint or Prezi slides. My recommendation for new-comers, though, is Cornell Notes!

Of course, this comes with a learning curve. You’ve got to learn how to use them properly! It’s important to figure out what each section of the notes page is for.

However, once you know, it will help you to sort your info out in easy-to-read sections. It has a similar use to colour coding. When you have a key of colours you use for each type of information, you know what to look for if you need to find a specific thing. With Cornell Notes, you know exactly where you need to look for it, too. Combine them, and you have a very powerful set of notes on your hands!

Cornell Notes make it simple to look back over your notes for the content you need. That means it’s going to make revision way easier for you.

You can print out your own copy of Cornell Notes online from many different sources. Or, you can get a Cornell Notebook for pretty cheap on Amazon!

I’ve also created a printable PDF that’s inspired by the Cornell Notes system. It includes a bunch of the advice that I’ve added here in this post! Check it out in my shop now and buy it in a colour of your choice!

Good luck!

Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Have my blog posts helped you? Find out how you can help me to keep creating useful advice! Click here.  

Related Articles


Leave a Reply