It’s that time of year again when you have to stretch out your fingers and get ready for some quick typing – and not when you’re messaging your friends. Learning how to take notes and organize them properly using a laptop will be an invaluable skill that translates well into other aspects of life. Taking notes while in a meeting or while listening to your favourite podcast to write about later will be that much easier for you, and you will certainly impress your colleagues.
Five simple steps will make your life easier now and forever, so let’s get to it:
1. Choice of Software
There are two directions that I will suggest in this area, OneNote and Evernote. OneNote is included with Microsoft Office (but not in the Mac version), and has an online edition, as well. It’s a fairly robust program as it is tied into the entire Office Suite, which allows you to do much fancier note taking (graphics, tables, pie-charts, etc). The online edition is just as powerful as the desktop version, a great feature. Evernote has a simpler editor, but the big selling point is how many platforms it is available on. You can sync your notes with a desktop application, the website, iPhone/iPod/iPad, Android, Blackberry, Palm Pre, and Windows Mobile. Each of the options include options to share and collaborate on items, as well as, tag them, which are the next steps.
This is going to be a key point, because without organization, your notes are going to be real difficult to understand. Regardless of which software you use (even if it is just a plain text editor or pen and paper), the initial action should be to title and date your page. The title should be the course name and a space for the topic of the lecture. Most will provide you with a syllabus at the start of the semester to give you a sense of the topics that will be covered, so you can do a lot of preliminary work to set-up your notes. I would also suggest including the chapter of your textbook or a guest lecturer’s name for quick reference. With Evernote, you can tag your notes with the textbook name, course name, whether it relates to a midterm or final exam, or even warn yourself with a big “boring” tag. The only tags I would suggest you absolutely use (if the other information is in the title) are: important and review, which will help you immensely narrow down where your time should be spent.
Taking great notes does not have to benefit you alone. There will come times where you or a friend will miss a class and will have to be filled in. The only option when I went to University (when laptops weren’t widely used) was to photocopy someone else’s notes, which also meant deciphering the notes and most likely, recopying them. Now, with Evernote and OneNote, you can simply email the notes to someone, or even better, invite them to edit the document with you. Collaborating on the notes together will make sure you cover all your bases and not leave any gaps with the lecture. It is also a valuable way to organize group projects. With different areas or pages set-up for each member’s tasks, you can all track what has been worked on and what still has to be done – allowing the group to pick up someone’s slack before it’s too late.
4. Be Prepared
Being organized with your notes, and typing them out quickly in class will only work if you have enough battery life for your laptop. There will be nothing worse than being in the latter stages of a three hour session when your laptop dies. Be sure to fully charge up your laptop before class, bring a second battery if possible, or find an outlet to plug into during the class. Also, worse comes to worse, make sure you have pens and paper handy. Save yourself some time before the lecture starts to get the program up and running, enter in your title, date, and some quick headers for the lecture if you can. Doing that will save you some time and not cause you to panic if the professor jumps from one topic to the next, and then back again. Another great idea is to enter in difficult to spell names or places into your dictionary or software that autocompletes terms for you. That way, you don’t have to worry about how to properly spell Friedrich Nietzsche and focus on the ideas. I can suggest Texter for Windows, or TextExpander for Mac to achieve this.
Finally, review your notes regularly. If I have a break after a lecture, I will sit down somewhere to glance over the notes I just took quickly to catch any errors or add to the notes to flesh out the ideas completely. In the evening, read over your notes once again to keep the ideas fresh in your mind. You will retain the information much longer than if you wait until the very last minute to try and understand a concept or memorize information. If a lecture was especially dense with information that was incomplete or complex, it may be worthwhile to surf to Wikipedia or other reliable source to read up on it, and then attach that link to your notes for future reference. The more consistent you are with the review process, the better results you will achieve with your course work.
Follow these five steps, and you will have a lot of information at your disposal for quick review before midterms or easy access to that memorable quote to include with a paper. The best part of organizing your notes digitally is that you can look over them in later semesters easily without having to search through binders full of paper. These skills will also bring you great success in the workplace by keeping information at your fingertips.
Take notes, and prosper.