It’s a new semester! And if part of your “new year, new you” plan for 2019 included upping your GPA, now’s the prime time to start thinking ahead to exams. And your first step toward a perfect academic record? Taking great notes in class.
Effective notes have the obvious benefit of helping you review course material for tests, but truly great notes do more than that. They make exam preparation faster – you won’t need to make a separate study guide, because you can pick out likely exam questions right from your notes. And they actually help you retain the class info long after the course is over, so you don’t need to re-learn it all next year.
And, once you get the hang of it, taking uber-effective notes is a breeze. Take these four steps to create stellar notes, and prepare to ace all your classes in 2019!
Consider Doing it the Old Fashioned Way
There’s no denying that taking notes on your laptop is, well, just so much easier than writing them out by hand. And typing your notes up in class has some benefits: you can toggle the lecture slides (if available) and your own notes on the same screen to more easily follow along, and you can type fast enough to take word-for-word notes on what your teacher says.
But if you want to make exam prep easier, consider putting pen to paper instead. As Scientific American explains, typing up your notes can put your brain on autopilot: You might be writing what the teacher says, but you’re not integrating the information the way you would when you physically write the info down.
Not surprisingly, the research shows that students that take notes using pen and paper tend to process and retain class info better than those who typed it out. So grab your binder – it’ll mean easier studying later!
Keep Your Notes Organized
This one seems obvious – but be honest, how many times have you forgotten simple details, like writing the date on your notes? Simply adding the date and lecture title helps you keep your class binder organized, so you’re not asking “wait, where did I write that?” when you’re trying to study for your exam.
And if you write your notes on loose-leaf paper, try adding page numbers to the top of each page so you can keep each page in order when you put them in their binder. Most lessons build on the one before, so keeping your notes in the correct order will make for easier studying.
Use Visuals to Identify Important Information
The biggest perk of taking great notes is that you’ll have a much easier time studying for the exam. So as you’re taking your notes, use visuals to highlight the most crucial info – in other words, the stuff you’ll probably see on the exam.
So what should you highlight? Pick up a pack of 3 different colors, and highlight these three key concepts:
- Repeated information. Heard the same thing three times in one lecture? It’s sure to show up on your exam. Instead if writing it out three times, use your pink highlighter to go back and highlight your original note when the instructor repeats it.
- In-class examples. These are classic exam fodder. And highlighting any examples your prof provides in yellow means they’re sure to stand out – so you can remember to study them later.
- Lists of concepts: Draw a box around lists with your green highlighter, so you can be sure to zero in on those when you’re preparing for the exam.
Teachers also love asking about the relationships between two concepts. So if your prof highlights a connection in class, simply drawing an arrow between the two concepts in your notes can help you remember.
And, finally, use your highlighter to draw a star beside any concepts you’re not quite sure you understood in class. That way, you’ll know to go back to it and make sure you actually get it when you’re reviewing your notes later.
Consider Doing it Twice
OK, this tip might be the least fun. But we promise, it’s the most effective. If you have trouble deciphering your notes after class (no judgement – we know you’re writing fast!) consider keeping two sets of notes: the “rough” set you actually take in class, and a polished set you put together as part of your homework.
Doubling up on your notes has two main benefits. For one, it forces you to actually make sure you understood each concept you took notes on – so you don’t star a concept and forget about it until the night before your test.
More importantly, it’s another chance to review the concepts covered in class. The research shows that you’ll lose about 60 percent of the info you learned within 24 hours – that is, unless you review it. Taking two sets of notes helps your brain move your class notes from “temporary” storage into longer-term memory. So it will feel fresh come exam time – and you’ll be prepared for the test with a quick review rather than an all-nighter.
About the Author
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.