Swamped? 3 ideas for effective note taking

1 February 2022

It's easy to become overwhelmed when it comes to revision. So many things to learn but where to start? Here are some ideas on how you can help out your 'future self' by taking effective notes.

Box of stationery

You’ve written notes, perhaps you’ve annotated slides, maybe you’ve even created little studying aids. Yet, have you ever noticed that when the time comes to revise, you’ve opened your notes and everything just sort of looks… the same?

Pages of black, maybe blue, ink? Megabytes of slides with annotations wherever you could find space? You’ve got all the information you need to excel, but it’s all kind of hard to discern and pick apart.

We’ve all been there – and when it comes to exam time, we’d rather have fewer things to worry about than more. What does effective note-taking look like, and how do you make your life that much easier? It all begins with forward thinking.

1. Write for 'future you'

When it comes to writing coursework, have you ever been told to “write with the reader in mind”? Well, that’s exactly what you have to do with your notes: you have to write for 'future you'.

The purpose of note-taking is to affirm understanding, condense knowledge, and, most importantly, support you during revision. If your notes are hard to navigate, all over the place or missing key bits of information, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to bring everything together.

How do you make life easier for 'future you'? Have your note-taking be structured, distinctive and creative.

2. Structure your notes

Organisation is key – so when it comes to taking notes, always have a clear idea about where you can find your notes, and how they will be laid out.

For example, I like to use mind maps where I structure everything by having the module name in the middle, then dedicating each topic to its own branch, followed by sub-topics, and so on. Thanks to my system of headers and sub-headers, I always know where to go when I need to revise my notes or add to them.

How do you know when you’ve got a great structure? The moment one of your friends asks you about your notes on a topic, and you can find them easily and without struggle

What medium do you enjoy using to take notes? How could you effectively structure how you write them?

3. Make everything easy to distinguish

Where are my topics? Where did I write my summaries? Where did I put those case studies? Where is that really specific answer to that really predictable multiple choice question?

Whether you’ve got stylised notebooks, digital mind maps or dozens of flashcards, make sure you’ve got a way to tell things apart. For example, when I’m taking notes in psychology lectures, I use blue ink for general information, green ink for citations (Knowitall, 2019), purple for key insights, and orange for doodles (I have a lot of doodles). Using this method, I can find an elusive study or key study point within a few seconds of skimming the pages. Try doing that with only black ink!

What can you do to make your note-taking easier and have the most important notes stand out?

4. From mind maps to flashcards to acronyms to songs, be creative!

One time I memorised an entire passage of text by singing it in the style of Elvis Presley-era rock. Sure, it felt a bit out of place because it was about dementia, but you can bet I still haven’t forgotten it!

Get a sense of how you learn, and play to your strengths. If you’re musical, use rhythms and songs. If you’re visual, use colours and shapes to your advantage. If you know repetition will be key, take notes that are made to be converted into flashcards. If you have a lot of similar information to recall, try putting it together in an acronym.

How are you going to be creative to make your note-taking more memorable? When it comes to effective note-taking, the only limit is how creative – and sometimes crazy – you’re willing to be!

Robert Vilkelis, BSc Psychology and Language Sciences