Top three tips for taking notes in college

The move from high school to college classes can be jarring. Most freshmen find themselves woefully unprepared for the shift. For those students that have trouble adjusting, it is crucial that they set themselves up for success before the first class even begins. Here are three tips to help both incoming students and those that already find themselves overwhelmed by classwork.

Tip 1: Go to every class.

One of the first things many professors will say is that attendance is optional. It is easy to hear that and fall into the pitfall of thinking that skipping class is a suitable option to get some extra free time out of a school day. It is not.

It takes several hours of studying to learn the same information that you would be given at a one-hour lecture. There are several reasons. First off, being in a room paying attention to a speaker engages more of your senses and more of your brain than reading out of a textbook or off a screen ever could. Then, there is the fact that the professor will, in all likelihood, emphasize the most important information, go over more difficult parts in more detail, and answer questions. Nowadays, many professors post recordings and lesson details online. Those are useful tools for review, but they cannot replace actually being in the room.

Tip 2: Declutter your workspace.


This goes for both your space in class and when studying. The best thing you can do for yourself while studying, learning, or writing an essay is to sit at a desk or a table free from excess papers or distractions. If you know your phone or something at your desk takes away your attention, set it aside. If possible, have a laptop that is just for schoolwork. Keep all papers in neat folders separated for each class. The goal is to make sure as much of your time for coursework is spent on that coursework.

The same basic principles apply in the classroom or lecture hall. If you find yourself easily distracted by other people, try to find a spot that is away from any crowds. Likewise, if you find that you need to move around or fidget to stay focused, find somewhere in the back of the lecture hall where you have space and are not distracting your peers. On the other hand, if you find yourself prone to zoning out when on your own, sit near other people. The only things on your desk should be the minimum needed for you to successfully focus and take notes. Keep all possible distractions, such as water and snacks, on the floor by your feet.

Tip 3: Turn off the laptop or tablet.


Modern technology is a huge boon to modern education. In fact, many professors heavily rely on technology, and institutions are spending millions of dollars to stay up-to-date. However, there are some things that are still best done by hand. Surprisingly, taking notes is one of those things.

Taking notes engages the same areas of the brain that are associated with learning and memory retention. Even if you are someone who rarely goes back to their notes, the simple act of taking them is beneficial. This applies much more so to the act of writing by hand than it does to typing. So, by putting away your device in favor of the ol’ pen and paper, you are not only reducing possible distractions but also doing your brain a favor! In addition, by handwriting notes, you are engaging yourself more actively with the material than if you are typing. And, if you ever find yourself falling behind when writing notes in a class with a particularly fast-talking professor, you can always just switch back to typing.

If you desire, you can also use those same principles to up your studying game. Instead of just reading your notes, actively engage with them. Rewrite them, edit them, or expand them. For the best results, do this the night of the class while the ideas are still fresh in your head. This will help crystalize the ideas for the future. If the class has essays or written projects, you can give yourself a head start by rewriting your notes into complete sentences. That way, you get the added benefit of having fully-formed sentences to pluck out for later reuse.

While listening can be somewhat passive, learning is an active process. It requires effort and focus. It is work. To borrow an old cliche, make sure you work smarter, not harder. (But also work hard. It defeats the purpose of the work if you are not putting in the effort. It is just that “work smarter AND harder” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

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About the author:

I am Lynn Miner-Rosen, M.Ed., ACC, CDCS the founder of LMR Coaching and the creator of the ADHD JOB SQUAD™. I provide coaching, instruction, and support to college students &adults with (and without) ADD, ADHD, Executive Functioning Deficits, and Learning Differences worldwide. I am a leading expert in ADHD career coaching and an ICF Credentialed and Board Certified Career Development Coach, ADD/ADHD Coach, Executive Function Coach, and Life Coach.