16 votes

How do you people at universities handle your notes?

Specially those of you who attend courses on the field of humanities, in which I feel the amount of note-taking is even greater than most fields, given all the reading and talking that occurs during classes and out of them. How do you do it? Do you write on paper perhaps, or do you find that digital notes suit you better?
I'm asking this because I am about to start my studies (finally) and am curious about how other people handle this task which, honestly, has been a nuisance through all my life. I'm not the best at organizing my notes and I believe it harms my studying overall.

25 comments

  1. [3]
    Death
    Link
    My study is split between more theoretical humanities courses and more mathematical ones. For both I tend to take my notes by hand for a few reasons: Hand notation has been shown in research to...

    My study is split between more theoretical humanities courses and more mathematical ones. For both I tend to take my notes by hand for a few reasons:

    • Hand notation has been shown in research to aid in information storage and retention, as it often forces you to paraphrase and internalize the info while you're writing it. Compared to typing as the teacher dictates which can eventually becomes pretty mindless, so to say.
    • This also forces you to learn to separate the essential information, such as definitions or formulas, from the non-essential or secondary information.
    • I actually tend to not use my handwritten notes first for revision material, but usually start with the course literature, then the lecture slides, then my notes. Then rewriting revision sheets from those sources. How effective this is is heavily dependent on the context, of course.
    • for one or two courses a couple of students ended up agreeing to create a collaborative document with notes, and I found rewriting my notes on the computer was a good way of revising and re-organizing them.
    • having a non-digital backup in case of critical hardware failure is nice :)
    • it's much harder to get distracted during the lecture if you're constantly on the lookout for things you need to write or are going over your notes again. On a laptop the temptation to browse the internet is always there.
    11 votes
    1. [2]
      chungkng
      Link Parent
      That is so cool! Must have been nice having access to all those different notes and perspectives, what a great idea. Also, I loved the idea of re-organizing your notes on the computer afterwards....

      for one or two courses a couple of students ended up agreeing to create a collaborative document with notes, and I found rewriting my notes on the computer was a good way of revising and re-organizing them.

      That is so cool! Must have been nice having access to all those different notes and perspectives, what a great idea. Also, I loved the idea of re-organizing your notes on the computer afterwards. Seems like a good way to keep things in place and not have to worry about finding early notes later on during the course. I think I'll experiment with this system of rewriting stuff after classes. If writing them is good for memorization I bet typing them later won't do harm :).

      2 votes
      1. Death
        Link Parent
        Retyping them is essentially an extra motivation to re-read your notes for the day, which definitely helps organize the information a little bit better. Our document was organized through the...

        Retyping them is essentially an extra motivation to re-read your notes for the day, which definitely helps organize the information a little bit better.

        Our document was organized through the programme's shared WhatsApp group, by the way. If you have something like that it might be a good place to start.

        2 votes
  2. patience_limited
    (edited )
    Link
    I'll give some of the old-school methodology here, because when I was in college and grad school, portable computing was either non-existent or prohibitively expensive. Everything was handwritten,...

    I'll give some of the old-school methodology here, because when I was in college and grad school, portable computing was either non-existent or prohibitively expensive. Everything was handwritten, and I'd have elaborate diagrams with arrows to related ideas, graphs, different annotations for the likelihood that details would be tested, color highlighting, etc.

    My notebooks were usually 5 mm or 1/4" grid paper, which was versatile enough to handle any subject, whether humanities, science, or math. I'd keep a 50 mm margin either side of the main notes for subsidiary notations - minor details given later, arrows connecting related concepts, indications that specific items would be tested, and so on. Or just doodlings - my med school notes had some great jewelry designs, which should have told me something (I dropped out).

    My high-school teachers were big fans of outlining, for both texts and notes. Currently, outlines are mainly recommended as preparation for writing, as in essays or novels. They're also very good for giving structure to your lecture notes or making sure you have a conceptual understanding of textbook material. I'd write an outline for each chapter, or each week of lecture notes, emphasizing anything noted on the course syllabus.

    As computing became more available (I wrote my Master's thesis on a Commodore Amiga 2000), I started retyping both my notes and outlines. At the same time, I was very aware that I was losing the layer of graphic annotations from the handwritten notes, and had to come up with ways to convey the same pictographic information. Nothing I could type, as hierarchies or different fonts, was as concise and easy to commit to memory. When it came to studying for tests, I'd handwrite question-and-answer flashcards, including whatever diagrams or circles and arrows made the information stand out while I was note-taking.

    So I still use handwritten notes for information I have to know in detail. When I'm in the field gathering information for due diligence or a new site setup, there's nothing better than a notebook - no batteries, no awkward screen angles, diagrams don't require switching applications, it doesn't get damaged while banging around behind a server rack, and you can maintain suitable eye contact if you're interviewing someone. On the other hand, a laptop is perfect for group business meetings, when you just need to record information or to-dos, and refer to them on an as-needed basis.

    Also, if your instructor permits, by all means use audio recording and photo functions on your phone if you're uncertain of your ability to take comprehensive notes in class. Don't rely solely on this, but it's an aid until you've identified your most effective transcription and learning styles for the material.

    For studying, I now transcribe notes into Anki flashcards, though I still find that I miss the easy memorization from pictures. The Anki file formats are portable and there are mobile applications, so you can study anywhere with spaced repetition.

    I have tried a RocketBook, as /u/aphoenix mentioned, but I truly hate the special ink pens required, as well as the inability to edit scans easily. There's Rocket OCR, but it doesn't work at all well with my handwriting. The pens aren't as finely pointed and precise as I like (my favorite pen these days is a Pigma Micron 0.35 mm). I can't avoid smearing the water-soluble ink with my hands, the pages seem to have a magical affinity for coffee droplets. The surface doesn't quite behave like paper, so my handwriting suffers.

    I do use OneNote quite a bit now, and it's both liberating and limiting. I can link websites, paste in whole PDFs or other documents, embed Visio diagrams, include drawings from a tablet or phone, and so on. But I've found it's much better for creating reference libraries than for studying; it's so easy to include everything, but harder to isolate essential information. I kept an entire small datacenter's worth of documentation in a OneNote file, with multiple tabs for specific servers and applications - this worked great for my own quick reference, and left little for a new admin to discover.

    4 votes
  3. [2]
    Grzmot
    Link
    If you have problems organizing your notes, taking them digitally might be the better idea, as the chance that you lose your notes in digital form is miniscule compared to losing paper if you are...

    If you have problems organizing your notes, taking them digitally might be the better idea, as the chance that you lose your notes in digital form is miniscule compared to losing paper if you are a disorganized person (like me), and organizing them is much much easier than a stack of lose papers from a college block.

    Since you're taking humanities, I wager something simple like MS Word (or equivalent) should do the job for you. If you don't want to spend money or are interested in advanced note-taking I'd have a look into Markdown (essentially what Tildes uses to format comments). The entire thing is puretext, but it makes writing much more efficient if you only have to type as opposed to typing and pressing buttons on an interface/memorizing shortcuts to type in bold or italics, etc.

    3 votes
    1. cfabbro
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      MS Onenote is probably a better choice than Word for this role. It will allow OP to more easily incorporate other elements besides text (e.g. hyperlinks, webpage snippits, images, handwritten...

      MS Onenote is probably a better choice than Word for this role. It will allow OP to more easily incorporate other elements besides text (e.g. hyperlinks, webpage snippits, images, handwritten notes/diagrams, etc.) into each note, and it also has more/better organization and collaborative tools built into it than Word does too. Evernote does similar, and is superior to Onenote IMO, but it's also SaaS-based so costs $/mo, which is not for everyone.

      1 vote
  4. tempestoftruth
    Link
    I take my notes by hand (unless I don't have paper available), and I do so for most of the reasons Death outlines in his post. You are more likely to remember what it is that you've written, and...

    I take my notes by hand (unless I don't have paper available), and I do so for most of the reasons Death outlines in his post. You are more likely to remember what it is that you've written, and because you can't copy as quickly, you are forced to decide what information is the most important and prioritize taking that down over anything else. If I feel like studying, what that usually looks like is going back over my notes and re-organizing them in a way that presents the most important information in the shortest length possible, creating a kind of cheat sheet you can use and look at right before the exam. Doing this soon after you've taken the notes is important, otherwise you'll forget the context of some of the things you've written and it won't be as comprehensive a review. Most of the time, though, just handwriting all my notes is enough for me to remember what I need to remember for my exams. I've had years of practice doing just that though, and I tend to have a good memory, so it may not work so well for you.

    3 votes
  5. [2]
    grahamiam
    Link
    Very similar habits to /u/death. As a grad student and now a teacher, I always take notes by hand, then transcribe important things to the computer. My usual note-taking (changes some depending on...

    Very similar habits to /u/death. As a grad student and now a teacher, I always take notes by hand, then transcribe important things to the computer. My usual note-taking (changes some depending on what I'm taking notes on) is to divide my paper into two columns. On the left, I do summary, main points, reword, etc. Always put a page number or some other indicator of how to refind the material later. On the right, I write down questions I have, or connections to other things, or ideas for how to use the material.

    In undergrad, I was one of those students who never needed to take notes until suddenly I desperately did. So I wish I had built up the skills sooner, but I don't think there was any way to make me do so.

    3 votes
    1. Death
      Link Parent
      I'm going to experiment with your technique for my next courses, it sounds intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

      I'm going to experiment with your technique for my next courses, it sounds intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

      1 vote
  6. mrbig
    (edited )
    Link
    I don't. Well, not exactly. When I was pursuing my master's degree in literature, I highlighted and annotated the hell of the texts, but only did that at home. Going back to the source material...

    I don't. Well, not exactly. When I was pursuing my master's degree in literature, I highlighted and annotated the hell of the texts, but only did that at home. Going back to the source material was way more productive for me. During class, (trying to) pay proper attention to the lecture was enough effort by itself. Besides:

    • my handwriting changes every day and I have trouble recognizing it
    • any piece of paper that ends up in my hands will become a crumpled mess of silly cartoons and random nonsense after 15 minutes
    • computers, tablets, and smartphones are distraction machines
    • when it comes to IT stuff (at least at the introductory level) you'll find everything on Google anyway

    If you haven't guessed, I have ADHD. I'm certain note-taking is beneficial for a lot of people (probably even the majority). I just wanted to provide another perspective. I did have problems in obtaining my master's degree, but lack of note-taking was not one of them. Even though I'm super-ADHD, somethings are paradoxically easier for me, especially abstraction, synthesis, relating apparently distant concepts and looking at the big picture. These things were highly beneficial for the research I was pursuing.

    3 votes
  7. Chobbes
    Link
    I generally write them by hand because having a computer in class is a big distraction... I prefer typing, and am faster at LaTeXing my notes than I am at writing them, but it just doesn't work...

    I generally write them by hand because having a computer in class is a big distraction... I prefer typing, and am faster at LaTeXing my notes than I am at writing them, but it just doesn't work for me. Sometimes I do decide to type them for one reason or the other, in which case org-mode has served me well.

    However, after that point I have had some success in summarizing my notes in org-mode and making flash cards with them in org-drill. I'm not sure how useful this is overall, but it's kind of fun.

    2 votes
  8. [6]
    aphoenix
    Link
    While in school, I took notes by hand. I tend to take notes by hand now as well. I've upgraded what I take the notes on, but it's the same sort of thing that I used to do. The notes are less about...

    While in school, I took notes by hand. I tend to take notes by hand now as well. I've upgraded what I take the notes on, but it's the same sort of thing that I used to do.

    The notes are less about being organized for review, and more about helping me to retain the information. I do try to organize as I go that they can be reviewed later, but I have the sort of memory where if I write it down, I can often "read" whatever I wrote later; I don't have an eidetic memory, but it's still a very good one.

    I have also dabbled with taking notes "by hand" but on an iPad or other tablet that has a stylus. This is a very good option as well, but I think that the act of physically writing is important, as opposed to typing or recording.

    2 votes
    1. [5]
      chungkng
      Link Parent
      Does the rocketbook work good for you? This seems like a great and cheap option, unfortunately not available where I live but still nice to know such thing exists. During all my school years I did...

      Does the rocketbook work good for you? This seems like a great and cheap option, unfortunately not available where I live but still nice to know such thing exists.

      During all my school years I did the same as you, took notes just to help retain the information but I don't know if that was as effective as I thought it was back then, so that's why I am looking for new ways, because I am certain I won't be able to get by just writing stuff and then never looking at it again.

      1 vote
      1. [4]
        aphoenix
        Link Parent
        The rocketbook works fairly well; it's not quite as seemless as I want it to be. I will admit that I still have paper notebooks as well; all my personal stuff is done in paper notebooks, notably...

        The rocketbook works fairly well; it's not quite as seemless as I want it to be. I will admit that I still have paper notebooks as well; all my personal stuff is done in paper notebooks, notably because I still have dozens of them that I've received as gifts over the years (I got a big pack of World of Warcraft themed ones, and they're great).

        Until recently, I kept production journals in paper. I have a format that I wrote in every day (perhaps irrelevant to academia, but it was "summary of yesterday's issues" and then "plan for today", and each section had some breakdowns by client - I still do this in the Rocketbook) and I think subscribing to a particular format is worthwhile. What that format is would be a personal choice; when I did my degree, I tended to keep about 30% of the page on the left clear so I could write a summary there, and take most of my notes in the 70% on the right. I found this useful for going back and revising.

        I used to use colour coded tabs to mark projects in a particular way, so I could easily reference things and I think this is transferable to academia, and can be very useful. I didn't do this while at school though.

        3 votes
        1. [3]
          skybrian
          Link Parent
          When you say it's not as seamless as you want it to be, what do you mean by that? I'm wondering if I should get one. BTW, the name caught my eye because decades ago I worked at a startup that made...

          When you say it's not as seamless as you want it to be, what do you mean by that? I'm wondering if I should get one.

          BTW, the name caught my eye because decades ago I worked at a startup that made an entirely different Rocketbook. (It was later renamed to "Rocket eBook" because a book publisher complained about similarity to "Pocket Book".)

          That was back before Kindle took over. The old Rocketbook is literally in a museum now, at the Computer History museum in Mountain View. I still have mine stored away in the garage, on top of the Vectrex.

          5 votes
          1. aphoenix
            Link Parent
            It took me a while to get used to the page constraints, and sometimes the scans don't pick up things that I think they should pick up. I have pretty neat handwriting, but the OCR sometimes has...

            It took me a while to get used to the page constraints, and sometimes the scans don't pick up things that I think they should pick up. I have pretty neat handwriting, but the OCR sometimes has problems as well.

            Overall, it's a very good purchase for under 40 bucks. I definitely recommend it.

            3 votes
          2. aphoenix
            Link Parent
            from @patience_limited's comment below is a better, more thoughtful writeup of the issues.

            I have tried a RocketBook, as /u/aphoenix mentioned, but I truly hate the special ink pens required, as well as the inability to edit scans easily. There's Rocket OCR, but it doesn't work at all well with my handwriting. The pens aren't as finely pointed and precise as I like (my favorite pen these days is a Pigma Micron 0.35 mm). I can't avoid smearing the water-soluble ink with my hands, the pages seem to have a magical affinity for coffee droplets. The surface doesn't quite behave like paper, so my handwriting suffers.

            from @patience_limited's comment below is a better, more thoughtful writeup of the issues.

            2 votes
  9. [2]
    frostycakes
    Link
    For my classes that allowed us to use laptops/tablets, I did all my notes in Evernote with separate notebooks per class. For the few I took that did not allow us to use tech in the classroom,...

    For my classes that allowed us to use laptops/tablets, I did all my notes in Evernote with separate notebooks per class.

    For the few I took that did not allow us to use tech in the classroom, singular dedicated notebooks, with either the top or bottom corner of the page folded in (and alternating by section; I'd switch sides after each test) was my tool of choice.-

    2 votes
    1. chungkng
      Link Parent
      That's interesting. I had never heard of folding the corner of the pages. Do you find this method helped you studying for tests?

      That's interesting. I had never heard of folding the corner of the pages. Do you find this method helped you studying for tests?

      1 vote
  10. [3]
    HoolaBoola
    Link
    I don't. Though that's a habit that will have to change. I haven't had many lectures where taking notes was important, but I think it's bound to change as I continue studying

    I don't.

    Though that's a habit that will have to change. I haven't had many lectures where taking notes was important, but I think it's bound to change as I continue studying

    2 votes
    1. [2]
      chungkng
      Link Parent
      What are you studying right now?

      What are you studying right now?

      1 vote
      1. HoolaBoola
        Link Parent
        Computer science Most of my courses are mostly online, so that's one reason I don't take notes :D

        Computer science

        Most of my courses are mostly online, so that's one reason I don't take notes :D

        2 votes
  11. Happy_Shredder
    Link
    What I ended up doing (after trying many digital/analogue options) was simply taking by hand rough notes in lectures, then rewriting in another notebook in detail, especially filling in gaps and...

    What I ended up doing (after trying many digital/analogue options) was simply taking by hand rough notes in lectures, then rewriting in another notebook in detail, especially filling in gaps and details. In the rewriting step I could take the time to ensure I actually understood the material, assumptions and approximations, and how to work with it. Kind of ended up with mini handwritten textbooks.

    2 votes
  12. knocklessmonster
    Link
    Notebook or OneNote. I got a Surface Go for it, but I think I'm still way too into pen and paper note taking. My econ professor cited research that writing on paper seems to help with retaining...

    Notebook or OneNote. I got a Surface Go for it, but I think I'm still way too into pen and paper note taking. My econ professor cited research that writing on paper seems to help with retaining the info.

    I also failed his last two tests, so I don't know about that. I'm considering @Happy_Shredder's method, because it seemed to help last semester. I find having a laptop to be too distracting.

    2 votes
  13. JakeTheDog
    Link
    Something I haven't seen mentioned yet is the use of color coding your notes. I always have 4 colors: black, blue, red and green. You can assign colors different roles. For example: Black: main...

    Something I haven't seen mentioned yet is the use of color coding your notes. I always have 4 colors: black, blue, red and green. You can assign colors different roles. For example:

    • Black: main content, bulk of text
    • Blue: details or asides for more depth or context
    • Green: summarizing sentences, keywords, key phrases
    • Red: anything that requires extra attention e.g. unanswered questions, concepts not understood that requires more study

    This has been especially useful after transitioning from the classroom to the research lab. The main benefit is being able to find the type of info I need, quickly e.g. I need to quickly review concepts before an exam, or I need to follow up on that thing I didn't quite understand etc.

    2 votes