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Taking Class Notes: How to Find the "Write" Tool

A significant part of your life as a student is going to classes and taking notes. In any given class, what your professor or teacher has to say is considered “important” and guides you through understanding the concepts and ideas. Thus, recording the information shared during class can be critical to your success in that course and potentially others. That said, not every class requires the same kind of note taking. What you will do with your notes after class has a big impact on how to take them. What works for math may not work for science or history, so finding the right tool is key to your academic success. Should you take all your notes by hand or on the computer? What about a tablet? What’s the best tool or tools for you?

Taking notes by hand might help you learn more in the moment

There have been several studies that have looked at the benefits of taking notes on a computer versus by hand. The stand-out piece of data from the studies is that students who take notes by hand tend to do better on conceptual assessments. In other words, taking notes by hand helps you learn big concepts and their connecting pieces better than if you took notes on a computer. When it came to learning facts, the two were essentially the same. 

On face value, if what you are learning during a lecture or discussion is more about bigger ideas, themes and concepts rather than terms, dates and vocabulary, then you might want to consider pulling out the notepad. Writing by hand in generative. In other words, when you take notes by hand you have to summarize, synthesize and paraphrase. Unlike typing, you have to shorten what is said in the moment into smaller, more concise pieces. This process requires that your brain take an active role in how you disseminate that information onto the page. Additionally, when you write by hand you are able to move around the paper quickly and can circle, underline, add notes in the margin or add symbols to help indicate size, importance, and direction. Your brain actively helps you edit as you go, leaving you ideally with the most important information discussed in class. All of this brain processing you are doing during class has shown to help you retain the information more deeply after class. 

Taking notes on a laptop can help you stay organized and find information faster

Most people can type way faster than they can write, which makes taking notes on a computer a bit easier and certainly more thorough. There’s no question that even the fastest writers can miss things or suffer from a cramped hand. And there are some great apps to use to take notes like Evernote, OneNote, Google Docs or Microsoft Office. That said, when we take notes on our laptops, they are non-generative: keyboards lend themselves to capturing a lecture closer to verbatim with little editing along the way. Computers help to consolidate a large amount of information which in turn leaves the burden of determining what is most important to you. For some of you, having lots of information to sift through is super helpful and for others can feel overwhelming.

One of the benefits of taking notes on your computer is that you can find things quickly by search or naming convention. And if you store your notes in the Cloud, there is very little chance that your work gets lost. Another advantage is that you can copy and paste notes from multiple sources and create your own study materials. 

Taking notes on a tablet gives you the benefits of writing by hand and digital storage and organization

For those of you who like to write by hand but also like to have the benefits of digital storage and organization, a tablet might be the perfect tool. Stylus pens come in all shapes, sizes and feels. Furthermore, there are lots of different note taking applications, some of which allow you to write directly on to an electronic handout and others that transform your writing into text making it searchable. Tablets also have the typing feature which can be used on screen or through a keyboard accessory.   

Choose the “write” tool for you

What the studies don’t necessarily look at is [italic] your note taking strengths (and weaknesses). There are several factors to consider when it comes to deciding between the pen or keyboard. To figure out what tool is best for you, consider the following three questions:

What am I going to do with the notes?

At the end of the day, this is the most important thing to ask yourself. If you are taking notes so that you can later retrieve that information from your brain to take a test or write a paper, then a pen may be a better option than the keyboard. On the other hand, if you are writing things down that you will use as reference material later on, then having it electronically could really help you. 

Do I type faster than I write?

For most people, they type much faster than they can write. This is why typing notes is so attractive. But for some, this isn’t the case. And for others, their handwriting is so hard to read that, even if they are slow typers, that’s more effective than writing by hand. And there are certain subjects, like math, that almost require that you write by hand. Either way, if one method will cause you to miss a significant portion of information, then choose the other. 

Do I have a system for keeping my notes organized? 

Taking notes by hand means that you have to store and organize them in some fashion. For some of you, keeping your binders or notebooks in order and organized is easy-peasy and, for others, a total disaster. Computers succeed in their search function, so even if you are not the most organized person, you can often find what you need. 

How easily am I distracted?

Your computer can be super distracting when it comes to typing notes and focusing on the task at hand. The digital world has become inundated with ads, social media channels, and enticing content. Between open tabs (possibly displaying YouTube videos and social media accounts) it’s easy to click on something else and find yourself focusing on something other than the lecture in front of you. Computers lend themselves to multitasking which can take your focus away from what you are trying to learn. So if you have the discipline to keep the distractions at bay, then by all means, type away. But if you are someone that can find yourself taking a break from your lecture in an endless scroll of TikTok and Instagram feeds, then maybe a pen and paper might be better at helping you stay focused on what you are trying to learn.

The key to success in college is figuring out what methods of learning work best for you. Whether that’s handwritten notes in every class or using a laptop to type quickly, we’re here to make sure that you succeed in your academic endeavors this semester. Consider the questions above and be open to trying out systems that will allow you to do your best this year.