How to Have an Effective Note Taking While in School


Writing and reading are what graduate students usually do while in school. While it has been a year since I graduated, I have learned some lessons that I could share with you regarding my master study experience, which includes how to take notes effectively. These are the results of doing all of my weekly reading materials that were expected to be done before the classes begin back then.

In this article, I would like to share my experience with note-taking management and some lessons learned that are still applicable to this day. In fact, I am currently (and mentally) preparing to apply for the Ph.D. program, so this background research on preparing the school excites me (yes, it should be exciting, right?). The tips that I will share would be applicable for all majors, as it will focus on how you manage your reading and writings for school in general. I usually take notes in the same language that the instructor taught in class. But it also depends and might go differently when taking some foreign language classes.

Digital notetaking is an option for students nowadays. Photo by Suganth on Unsplash
Digital notetaking is an option for students nowadays. Photo by Suganth on Unsplash.

Find Your Ideal Note-Taking Media and Style
It would be best that you know how you will manage your notes. Would it be with a notebook, papers, or digital notebook (such as a tablet)? Mostly, I have always gone with the paper version when I take notes. To be honest, I tried all different methods in each semester at Boston University (it is such a fun way sometimes to experiment with your life, lol). I would prefer some blank papers since it would be useful to rewrite and rearrange. After class, I always had the habit to re-read my notes and re-write it, so I’d understand the topic better.

Using digital notebook (such as a tablet) is one thing I have considered so many times. The learning curve is high since it needs a lot of practice to write in your tablet with your digital pen. Some of my friends who pursue Ph.D. have done it and said that it was the best method for them. The technology, such as Dropbox, google drive or cloud, allows them to have everything in one single device (and in the air).

Flashcards for notetaking. Photo by Pinterest.

Read the Materials Effectively and Take Notes
When reading materials before classes, it would be good if you take the time to jot down some notes about what you read. I can imagine all of the pressure with all the piles of must-read-papers, but it’d be very beneficial to develop self-discipline in doing your reading (been there, done that). One tip I learned from Raul Pacheco-Vega about reading strategies is that try to read the abstract, introduction and conclusion at first to capture the most important information in a paper and write the comments in the margin paper. Some useful tips for managing your readings through excel documentation can also be found here.

Furthermore, based on Raul Pacheco-Vega’s article, memo writing will allow us to engage more with the material (beyond highlighting and taking notes in the margin of printed copies or digital PDFs). By writing the notes, it will not only force you to read the article, but it will also allow you to brainstorm and process the materials more deeply. This habit will help you retain the knowledge, and therefore you’d be able to engage actively in class.

Figure Out Your Sustainable Bookshelves
Keeping your notes in a safe place is essential. I would suggest scanning your notes routinely so that you also keep the digital version. There might be possibilities that you lose or misplace your notebook somewhere, so risk management beforehand is always useful. Having a backup is also relevant for your data analysis and other study progress. In my case, I always use both backups, digitally using Dropbox and another using an external hard disk. Another software you should consider is reference manager such as Mendeley or Endnote. It is really useful to invest for your academic purposes, and I believe it would make your life easier especially while writing your paper.

I mostly manage my notebooks via my laptop: from scanned copies in dropbox or rewrite into digital notebook. Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash
I mostly manage my notebooks via my laptop: from scanned copies in Dropbox or rewrite into a digital notebook. Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash.

Learn to listen actively in class while taking some notes.
There might be several methods of note taking from this article, such as the Cornell, mapping, outline, charting and sentence method. What is more important from note taking is that it’d ensure you to listen actively to the professor. Then, it will require you to think about what you are writing, rather than writing verbatim. By having better study notes, it will also help you make the connection between topics and serves as a quality review material for after class.

There has been an article written by Professor of Economics in University of Michigan, Susan Dynarski, about how laptops are ineffective on taking notes in class. The article states that the notes of the laptop users would closely resemble transcripts than lecture summaries since the students would keep typing with their fingers and stop their brains for substantive processing.

I believe that by figuring out how to make better notes, it will help you throughout the time of your study. It is not just about your class notes; it is more about remembering concepts, developing meaningful learning skills, and gaining a better understanding of a topic. It will eventually lead to less stress when the exam comes around.

At Boston University where I usually reread and rewrite my notes (when the weather is nice). Photo by author.
At Boston University where I usually reread and rewrite my notes (when the weather is nice). Photo by author.

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Andrea Adhi currently works as a research associate at J-PAL Southeast Asia. Prior to joining J-PAL, she worked at the Republic of Indonesia’s National Team for Acceleration of Poverty Reduction (TNP2K). She was a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Professional Fellow in 2014. Andrea holds a bachelor’s degree from Universitas Gadjah Mada in 2012 and a master’s degree from Boston University in 2016, both in economics major. In her spare time, Andrea enjoys watching art and music performance, playing piano and ukulele, or wandering around with her adventurous mind.


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