I can type a little over a 100 words per minute, which is far faster than I can even begin to dream about writing longhand. Because of this, I took my laptop to most of my classes my first semester at college, my reasons being that my notes would have more information, be formatted the way I like them, and I wouldn’t have to carry around so many things all day. I was also really slow when it came to compressing all of the information that my professors threw at me in an hour and a half. I was so reliant on the neatly formatted powerpoints and handouts of high school that I was utterly unprepared for the fast-paced lectures that my professors preferred (and they were without visual aid).
And while my notes did end up nicely typed up and ready, they were really just transcripts of the lectures. I typed the information as quickly as my professor spoke it without much of a second thought. This also allowed me to get distracted in times of explanations or questions. If my professor traveled away from the lecture, I could easily check up on Facebook, my emails, or whatever else was on my mind. And it wasn’t just me with my laptop. With a lecture of about 400 students, it was easy for us to use our laptops and phones, since the professors never really cared enough to single out a student in such a large lecture hall. After all, it was our grades that would suffer, not theirs.
And suffer my grades did. I fell just short of failing my first biology exam, a 50 question exam with five options per question with excruciatingly detailed answers. When asked how much we should know for the test, my professor simply responded, “everything.” Did I wildly underestimate his answer? Yes. But, I stopped taking my laptop to class and chose to handwrite all of my notes. They were chaotic and full of sloppy diagrams, but they were my notes and interpretations of the lecture, not regurgitated outlines of the slides. On the second exam, I scored a low A, which was leagues of improvement compared to my first score, and I noticed this pattern throughout all of my classes.
What happened to me is actually congruent with a lot of research studies done on students who take their laptops to class versus those who handwrite their notes. Researchers at Princeton and UCLA found that even if the laptops are only used to take notes during class, students still performed lower than their handwriting counterparts. The researchers believed this was because students who write their notes longhand were unable to write down everything they heard, so they were able to listen, digest, and summarize what the professor spoke. On the other hand, students who typed simply copied down the lecture verbatim.
So how do you take effective notes without a laptop? Get organized!
Get the Right Materials
Set up a note-taking system that works for you. Depending on how fast your lecture is paced, you might bring with various colored pens, post-it notes, highlighters, or really, whatever you work with best. Since writing is slower than typing, you definitely want to be able to format your notes in a way that helps you later on.
Find the Right Notetaking System
I like to write my notes in a sort of lazy outline style. I’ll write subheaders for each topic we cover and all of my information will go under. Other methods that are popular are the Cornell Style notes, the two-column notes, and bullet list notes. It’s really important to experiment with notetaking styles and figure out what works best for you.
Get Used to Shorthanding Things
Get used to abbreviating words or using symbols for words that you write over and over again (and make a key on the top or side of your notes). It’ll save you a lot of time and will allow you to keep up with the lecture without losing information.
Write in Cursive
If you’re going to review and edit your notes later, consider writing in cursive. We tend to be able to write in cursive faster, since the letters require less motions and the pen doesn’t leave the page.
Review Notes Later
If your notes are a total wreck, go ahead and rewrite them later, adding in any information from readings or the lecture supplements. This will not only cement what you learned earlier in class but make your review materials that much easier to read.