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The Art of Notetaking

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Notepad with the text: The Art of Notetaking

There’s a saying that says that there are two things that are unavoidable in life: taxes and death. The saying is true, but in my opinion, it lacks a third thing: notetaking. It sounds boring, but notetaking is something we’ve all had to do at some point in our lives, and is vital to success at the University of Massachusetts.

As soon as I learned how to write, I was also taught the art of good notetaking. So, I’ve decided to share some of the secrets I’ve picked up over the years about this thing we all hate, but need to do.

  1. If you’re able to, take notes by hand

    I know that writing by hand is a thing of centuries past, and yes, I’m aware of the toll it takes on our planet. But, taking notes by hand will help you learn and understand better. There are actual studies on it, so it’s not just me saying this. 

    Although it’s easier and faster to type everything, using your laptop or tablet can be very distracting. Not only that, but there was a study published in Psychological Science saying that taking notes by longhand forces you to be more selective in what you write, because you can’t write down everything verbatim. If you’re actively listening for keywords, you’re then paying better attention and actually retaining important information.

    If you really want to save the planet and ditch notebooks, using a smart pen on your tablet is always a good alternative.

  2. Color code everything

    One of the first things I learned in school was that titles go in red, and subtitles go in orange, and that’s something that will stay with me forever.

    Besides that, you can use a third color for key terms (this is especially useful in science lectures), and a fourth one for words you just learned, or that you need to look up later. If you’re given any especially important piece of information—e.g. a physics law, a math formula, etc.—write in the middle of the page and then use a highlighter and draw a square around it.

    It may seem like a hustle to be picking out colors in the middle of a lecture, but color-coding makes going back and studying specific topics a million times easier.  

  3. You don’t understand the subject? Put even more effort in your notes

    We’ve all been there: you’re in a lecture, and the instructor might as well be speaking Klingon. You’re lost, so you give up on taking notes, because what’s the point anyway?

    If you don’t understand the subject don’t give up — put even more effort into your notes instead. Write down all the keywords and phrases coming out of the professor’s mouth, copy whatever you need to from the slides (though not every single thing), and add a little note to the side wherever you have doubts. If you need more time or extra clarification with something, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor, chances are you’re not the only one.  Doing this will help you have the material in your own words; which will make understanding the subject much easier.

  4. Outline is best, but don’t be afraid to add to it

    There are so many notetaking methods out there it’s almost intimidating. I personally prefer the outline method because it’s less work and it just comes naturally to me. That being said, sometimes you need to illustrate the information in a different way. For example, I sometimes copy important illustrations or tables in my notes so that I can better retain the contents of said illustrations.

    Another recommendation for the outline is to use different symbols for the main topic, the subtopic, and the reinforcing facts or thoughts about it. So, for example, it would look this:

  • Tips for notetaking:
    • Color-code everything
      • Use red for titles and orange for subtitles
  1. Use abbreviations

    Trying to write down everything your professor said verbatim is almost impossible, especially if you’re taking notes in longhand. For those moments when writing a word is taking too much of your precious time, abbreviations are your best friend. You don’t necessarily need to learn shorthand; you can come up with your own abbreviations for any given word (as long as you remember what the abbreviation means).


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