As a law student I spend several hours a day taking notes. Before I was a law student I was working on a Bachelors degree where I also spent several hours a day taking notes. This post will focus on generally note taking and I will be doing a follow up post on note taking in law school. Please keep in mind that these tips are my opinion and not all these will work for you.
1. To Each His/Her Own
The biggest thing to keep in mind when getting ready for school and activities like note taking, is that everyone learns in different ways. So if your best friend has an excessively tabbed and color coded note taking system, do not be intimidated. On the other hand if the guy who failed last semester is back, and taking notes on a napkin, when he decides to take notes that is; then there might be at least a minimal connection between his note taking and his success, and his technique is probably best avoided.
2. Be Organized
I am not saying you need a complex system, but at a minimum keep notes from each class together. I like to use multi-subject notebooks and assign each class a subject. I have also used a binder with a tab for each subject, this can be helpful if you get a lot of handouts, so you can put the handout next to the notes for the day.
3. Use a Header
Labeling your notes with a header that includes the class name and the date can be extremely helpful. If you forget your notebook one day, you will know where the notes on separate paper fit when you put them together. When you date your notes it is a lot easier to ask for the notes you are missing or want help with. If your only two classes are math and English, then class name isn't so important; however if you are taking Shakespeare and British Literature, resulting in simultaneous reading of Richard II and Richard III, putting the name of the class is super helpful. (Put the date on handouts too.)
4. Simple is Better
If you develop a system that results in you worrying more about the system in your notes then the substance of your notes, then you have probably strayed from "simple is better". An example might be highlighting with multiple colors while in class. A highlighting system can work for reading notes or for reviewing notes, but it doesn't work well while taking notes in class. It is much quicker to use written labels while taking class notes.
5. Verbatim is Verboten (Forbidden)
Taking down everything the teacher says does not engage critical thinking. Try to summarize in your own words when you can. There are times that you want to write what your teacher is saying, such as if they repeat something several times, if they write it on the board, or if its is a list of one or two word statements. Even still, it is really good to try to put these things in your own words.
There are a lot of note taking methods, and also opinions on what information is important. When you begin taking notes, play with different formats. Don't hesitate to use different formats for different subjects. If you are worried about whether you are recording the right information in class you can do several things: talk to your teacher about your notes and see what they think, compare notes with a friend, or see how you do on a test. I don't really recommend the last option as it is not always the best indication and you can mess your grade up before you know.
7. Distinguish Key Terms
Whether this is where you use a highlighter in your notes or you underline, it's useful to distinguish key terms in your notes for future reference or for quick reference.
8. Short Hand
Use some short hand. You don't have to learn any formal short hand, just use some well known abbreviations or topic specific short hand. For example: w/, w/o are commonly used as with and without respectively; or in a music theory class you might use M and m to represent Major and minor respectively. This is the one academic activity where chat speak is permissible.
9. Write Legibly
Your notes don't have to be readable for anyone except you, but it you cannot read your notes you are in trouble. This can be tricky when you are trying to write fast, that is why short hand is helpful. Legible notes are the key to their usefulness later on.
10. NO COMPUTER!
I know we live in the digital age and every student has a computer or a tablet, but I promise your computer is not helping you while you are taking notes. This recent article on Vox.com just verifies what I had already noticed in my classes. I feel like I don't remember material as well when I type my notes instead of handwriting, so I have to study harder when its test time. Also computers are distracting, it is much more tempting to be on Facebook or Twitter when your computer is open then when you don't have your computer open.
What are your best note taking tips? Do you use a computer?