Strategies for taking effective notes

By Diana Davis

When I got to graduate school, one of the strangest things was all of the crazy ways that my fellow students were taking notes.

I had never seen such notes! In my undergrad classes at Williams, everyone basically took notes the same way: They copied down what the professor wrote on the board, and maybe wrote down some of the things the professor said, into a notebook or on looseleaf lined paper. But in graduate school, the spectrum of note-taking methods got much wider. Let me give you some examples:

Some students didn’t take any notes at all. How could they remember everything? I have no idea. The very thought of not taking notes would fill me with anxiety. These students must have been brilliant — or maybe they were just lazy.

One student wrote with a Sharpie on plain white paper. This, he said, forced him to only write down the most important things from class. In the past, he had gotten overuse injuries in his wrists by writing too much. He probably filled three pages with inch-high letters during a typical class.

Another student carefully took a piece of unlined paper and folded it in half the short way, then restricted his notes to just half of the page. (He used the bottom half in the following class.) Like the Sharpie strategy, this restricted him to only writing down the most important things.

Both of the students I’ve just mentioned wrote all the way across the page, as though the paper had lines. But another student I know put his notes in boxes on the page: He took notes on the left side and then put a box around them when the topic was finished, then made another box for the next calculation, and another box for a figure, and so on.

The most beautiful notes I saw were on regular printer paper. This grad student took careful notes with a very fine mechanical pencil, and had a big eraser which he used frequently, to make sure everything was perfect. Each page was numbered in the top corner, and by the end of the semester I think the number was in the 60s. His notes could have been scanned and made into a textbook.

These experiences convinced me that unlined paper was the way to go, because math doesn’t really conform well to being written down in prose. You always want to put equations and figures, and most of the time lines just get in the way. My friend used a notebook of plain pages, and I soon converted to this myself. I now use a notebook with plain pages for all of my research, and I think it is perfect! I can easily draw figures, I never lose the papers because they are all bound in a notebook, and I always have plenty of room to write; no searching around for a piece of paper.

I hope that this gives you some ideas for new ways to take more effective notes. What have you found works best for you?

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3 Responses to Strategies for taking effective notes

  1. Ongorolrotobotor says:

    I’ll be sure to try this out. I’m still in community college taking Calculus 2, but this sounds like solid advice. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Terra says:

    I’m in an ap physics course and I’ve found using dark or brightly colored ink on quad paper works well too.

  3. Ben says:

    I prefer buff engineering paper. It gives me the freedom of unlined paper and yet, because the grid from the reverse side is faintly visible, provides me with structure that keeps my writing neat.

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