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The best way to take notes at university

Which note-taking method is the best? Do you prefer handwritten notes or a digital application? Let’s find out the best way to take notes for you

    Grace McCabe's avatar

    Grace McCabe

    Content Writer, THE Student
    May 24 2024
    person taking notes with lots of books open on desk/ iStock


    Taking effective notes is the cornerstone of academic success at university. It involves having the right tools, listening actively and writing concisely. But finding the right note-taking method is the first step. 

    Note-taking methods 

    The Cornell Method 

    The Cornell Method is a note-taking technique that involves dividing your page into two columns: a larger one for main notes and a smaller one for cues or questions. During a lecture, jot down your main points, then return to your notes and add any additional queries later. Then summarise key points at the bottom of the page. This method encourages active engagement with the material during and after your lessons. 

    Outline Method 

    The Outline Method involves organising notes hierarchically, starting with main topics and subtopics. Each level of information is represented by headings, bullet points or numbering, creating a structured outline of the material. This method is effective for breaking down complex information into manageable sections and identifying relationships between different concepts. 

    Mapping Method 

    The Mapping Method uses visual representations such as diagrams or mind maps to illustrate the relationships between different ideas. Concepts are connected with lines or arrows, creating a visual map of your content. This method is beneficial for visual learners and can help you see the big picture of a topic while also identifying key details. 

    Charting Method 

    With the Charting Method, information is organised into tables or charts for easy comparison and contrast. This method is particularly useful for organising data, creating timelines or summarising lists of information. By presenting information in a structured format, the Charting Method helps you identify patterns and trends more efficiently. 

    Sentence Method 

    The Sentence Method involves writing complete sentences that summarise key points or ideas from a lecture or research. This method focuses on capturing information in a narrative form, making it easier to understand and retain. By summarising information in your own words, you reinforce your understanding of the material. 

    Annotation Method 

    In the Annotation Method, you take notes directly on lecture slides, textbooks or other course materials. You highlight keywords or important information and use abbreviations, add comments or annotations to clarify concepts. This method allows for active engagement with the material and helps you focus on key points while reading or listening during seminars. 

    Flow Method 

    The Flow Method involves capturing information in a continuous stream of consciousness, without worrying about structure or organisation. This method is useful for brainstorming ideas or jotting down thoughts quickly. By allowing your ideas to flow freely, you can explore connections between important points and generate new insights. 

    Once you find the best method for you, you can then move on to decide how you want to make notes. Do you prefer the tactile feel of pen and paper or the convenience of digital tools? 

    Should you handwrite your notes? 

    Many students find that handwriting notes helps them retain information better.

    Cognitive benefits 

    Writing by hand engages more cognitive processes than typing. It slows you down, allowing you to process information in your own words and commit it to memory.


    Handwritten notes can be customised to suit your learning style. You can use different colours, underline and add drawings, formulae and symbols, making the information more memorable.

    Reduced distractions 

    Using pen and paper eliminates the distractions that come with digital devices. You’re less likely to be tempted by social media or other online distractions during lectures.

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    Digital Notes 

    Taking comprehensive notes during university lectures is often a challenge, with the pressure to keep up with your lecturer while ensuring your notes are clear and coherent. In such situations, digital note apps or typing your notes up can be easier and many students are choosing this option.


    Typing is generally faster than writing by hand, allowing you to capture more information during lectures.


    Digital notes can be easily organised and edited. You can also create folders, use tags and employ search functions to quickly find specific information later.


    Digital notes can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection. You can even sync your notes across devices and never have to worry about losing them.

    Note-taking Apps 

    If you do find that digital note-taking suits your learning style, there are many applications available.


    A popular choice for its versatility, Evernote allows you to create text, audio and image notes. It’s great for organising research materials and syncing across devices.


    Microsoft’s OneNote simulates a digital notebook, allowing you to type, draw and annotate notes. It’s particularly useful for collaborative projects and integrates well with other Microsoft Office apps.


    This app is favoured by many for its handwriting features, allowing you to write, draw and highlight with ease. It’s great for students who prefer the feel of handwriting but want the convenience of digital notes.

    Google Keep 

    Google Keep is free to any users with Google accounts. It allows you to turn your handwritten notes into digital files through its interface, share lists and to-do lists, all while tracking your tasks. It’s particularly popular for group projects or collaborative studying.


    Simplenote uses a minimalist design to offer users a clutter-free note-taking experience. Compatible across various platforms including Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS and Linux, it is a great app if you need to sync your notes across multiple devices.


    GoodNotes offers helpful features such as Spellcheck and Word Complete, which automatically correct mistakes as you write, allowing you to concentrate on your thoughts. It’s accessible on various devices, including laptops, tablets and phones, ensuring your entire note library is easily accessible wherever you are. Plus, your notes are securely saved and synced across devices, so you never have to worry about losing them. 

    Alternative note-taking tips 

    You can use alternative approaches and additional note-taking tips to really highlight your topics and improve your study skills. Some of these are great during lectures; others can help you with your study notes in groups or solo sessions. 


    Instead of traditional written notes, consider using a sketchnoting approach. Combine words and visuals, such as doodles, icons and diagrams to represent key concepts. This creative method can enhance memory retention and make note-taking more enjoyable. 

    Voice notes 

    Experiment with recording audio notes during lectures or study sessions, where allowed, using a voice recorder app on your smartphone or computer. This can be particularly useful for capturing detailed explanations or discussions that might be difficult to write down quickly. There are many programmes that can then turn the recording into written notes that you can adapt into presentations, flashcards and more. 


    Flashcards are a strong method for reviewing key concepts and definitions. Write the term or concept on one side and the definition or explanation on the other. Flashcards are a great tool for self-testing and reinforcing learning. 

    Colour coding 

    Incorporate colour coding into your notes by using different coloured pens, highlighters or digital text formatting. Assign specific colours to different categories or themes to visually distinguish between them and aid in recall. 

    Peer collaboration 

    Collaborate with classmates to create shared notes or study guides. Divide up the material and take turns summarising and compiling notes. Sharing perspectives and insights can deepen your understanding of the material and provide additional study resources. 

    Reflection prompts 

    Integrate reflection prompts into your notes to encourage critical thinking and deeper engagement with the material. Ask yourself questions such as “How does this concept relate to real-life examples?” or “What are the implications of this idea?”

    Multi-sensory approach 

    Engage multiple senses in your note-taking process by incorporating tactile elements, such as textured paper or sticky notes, or by listening to background music or ambient sounds that enhance concentration and focus. 

    Emotional annotation 

    Use emojis, symbols or brief annotations to capture your emotional responses or reactions to the material. This can add a personal touch to your notes and help you connect with the content on a deeper level. 

    Experiment with different methods and find what works best for you and your degree subject. You may find that one approach is great for lectures, another for seminars and a final note-taking strategy for solo study. 

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