How to Organize Your Notes (Back to School Tip)

How to Organize Your Notes for Learning

Here are some words I never imagined I would write while in my 30s – you guys, it’s midterm season! (Full disclosure – I don’t know that I actually had any midterms when I was doing either of my undergraduate degrees. And I don’t actually have midterms now in my Masters Degree, but I have a paper due soon and it’s basically the same thing.) This has been a weird semester. I know for myself, I feel like my course has just started and yet here I am. Somehow, despite keeping up, I feel like I’m also totally behind. So this weekend, I took some time to sit down, get myself organized, and reflect on what I have learned throughout my 21 years of being a scholar. Learn from my example – and mistakes – and let me present you with what I have learned about how to organize your notes for learning.

Do I have to organize my notes?

I mean, you don’t have to do anything.

Okay, should I organize my notes?

Probably. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that organization is not a dirty word. Sometimes expending a little time at the beginning saves you a lot of time at the end.

Look, I was once like many of you. I have a naturally excellent memory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have hyperthymesia like Marilu Henner or anything like that, but I am a voracious reader and have spent a lot of my life learning lines for plays. That kicks your memory into high gear.

As a result of this, I spent a lot of my high school and undergraduate years just relying on reading stuff and having it stick in my brain. This is no way to live. Eventually your brain gets full, y’all.

And we’re supposed to take your advice about how to organize your notes?

That’s right, y’all! I’ve lived and learned. So let’s take a journey through the different ways that I’ve organized my notes, some pros, some cons, and then you can make your own decision.

As a quick note – I started university back in 2005. Ye old darke ages. I didn’t even own a laptop until my second year, when I received the Jason Lang scholarship, and even then I didn’t bring it to school every day. D2L did not even exist at this point and very few of my professors ever posted anything online. I have a very vivid memory of handwriting an essay for an in-class quiz as a part of my second or third year theatre history course.

All this lack of technology influences the way that I interact with my learning – so your mileage may vary!

Basic Organization – Notebooks for Each Course

Basic Organization

Though I didn’t have a laptop to take notes on, I always did know that I had to keep notes for each course separate somehow. (And by “notes”, I mean – the notes I took during lectures.) My strategy was to purchase a different notebook for each course. I usually found a store that had a bunch of different cover designs that coordinated, but were still distinct in some way. This is literally the most base level of organization and if that level works for you, then you do you!

Pros: Very aesthetically pleasing. Easy to keep things separate. Minimal planning or thought required ahead of time.

Cons: Pages can be wasted if you don’t take enough notes to fill an entire book. You have to carry around numerous books. It can be hard to find things quickly.

Mid-tier Organization – Take Notes on Course Readings in These Separate Notebooks

Photo of course notes

Remember how I said that I had an excellent memory?

I still do, but once I started engaging in group discussions while working on my Masters, I realized that I could not simply rely on my excellent memory. Sometimes I had to refer to an exact page or just find things more precisely than my imperfect memory could be relied upon to do quickly.

So I added on a next step – taking not just lecture notes in those separate notebooks, but taking notes on the readings I was doing as I read them.

Pros: If you put page numbers next to each note, you can quickly refer to the text. Writing something down improves your memory of what you write. Summarizing points also helps to clarify your learning. This organization technique helps you learn better.

Cons: You still have to carry a bunch of books around. You may write down things that are not key concepts. You have to scan through a lot of nonsense while writing papers. Your handwriting might be hard to read (no, just me?).

Mid-tier Organization – Write Summaries After Each Article/Chapter

Photo of article summaries

So, you wrote down a bunch of notes while you were reading that may or may not be key concepts. Fun! Now instead of re-reading chapters, you just have to read your own notes.

I have a fix for this one too! Write the title of each article/chapter and a quick note that will remind you of what this piece of content is. My personal one liners were usually pure nonsense, nothing that would be useful to anyone else, but something to twig my memory. I also usually wrote them in a completely separate notebook than the class specific notebook because I usually never had my course notebook with me while I was writing them. I also usually did this right before writing a paper so I had a quick reference.

Pros: Easy to find references for paper-writing/studying (or at least to know where to look).

Cons: Should be obvious. If you don’t make all the mistakes I made, it can be mildly time-consuming but way less full of chaos than my process.

Mid-tier Organization – Highlight Your Readings

Highlighted text

Maybe I’m behind the times, but I’ve never been a highlighter. (Other than highlighting my lines in a script so I can easily find them on a page… but even that took me a long time to buy into!)

Finally, while doing the Masters, I decided to give it a try. I’m still not sure how others highlight, but I do a mixture of things. I try to highlight sentences that express key concepts for each section of the chapter or academic article I am reading. I also try to highlight sentences that I find particularly inspirational, compelling or clear so I can easily find them when I start working on a paper.

Pros: It is easy to find things in the text itself. Taking the time to choose what to highlight increases your engagement with material and absorption of content. You look very intellectual when reading in public.

Cons: You need to carry around textbooks and highlighters now. You are SOL if you are without the textbook. Focusing on highlighting may lead to no longer taking notes. You need to go through each chapter/article individually to find the ones you are looking for.

(Note: Most of the cons can be resolved if you can access your textbook/articles in pdf form and do all your highlighting on the computer.)

Ultimate Organization: Go Digital

Ultimate Organization - pic of computer

I bet you didn’t see this one coming! (Unless you were reading between the lines of my “cons”.) I really gave you the old bait and switch with my contextualizing statement at the beginning of this post.

But here’s the thing. You’ve got to go digital. I now exclusively buy digital copies of textbooks (if I can) and download PDFs of research articles from my university’s library website. I can highlight in Adobe Reader, make little notes on the pdf, and, best of all, search pdfs for specific terms.

However, I haven’t just taken my reading digital, I’ve taken my note-taking digital. It’s been a game-changer to get myself organized. At the beginning of each course, I create a word document with a table set up thusly:

TitleAuthor(s)YearKey Points
“How to Organize Your Notes”Weir, E.2020– Very good blog post
– Lots of interesting content
-Definitely knows how to be organized and isn’t rambling
You could definitely do this in Excel or any program of your choice, but I am most comfortable with Word because I am old, I guess?

My new process takes slightly longer but it saves so much time and angst when I need to engage with the material later on a discussion post or for a paper. Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. Read article/chapter online and highlight any sentences of note
  2. Move on to some other task (or another article) to let the material percolate
  3. Scan through the article again, this time making notes in the “Key Points” column of the table. These could be summary notes or quotations. If they are quotations, mark the page down, you’ll thank yourself later.
  4. Profit!

Naturally, your mileage on all of this may vary. You may work very well just picking one of the mid-tier strategies. But as I get older, I realize I’m all about making some mild sacrifices now to make Future!Erin’s life easier so I do recommend giving the Ultimate strategy a try!

What are some of your best tips to organize your notes for learning? I’d love to give them a try and increase my productivity. Comment below!

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