The Ultimate Guide to Taking + Studying Digital Notes

This post was last updated on 6/30/17. More informational links and resources were added.

We've all had that one teacher who spoke faster than the speed of light. Listening to them speak seemed like watching to a YouTube video in 2x speed or something.

Unless you have super neat handwriting and can write really quickly, handwritten notes quickly become impossible to write when dealing with fast-talking teachers. A page full of illegible, frantic chicken scratch isn't going to do you any good later on.

Of course, there is the argument that writing things down helps you remember information much better. While I generally agree with this and believe that a great way to study is simply to rewrite information over and over again to improve your muscle memory, during lectures led by fast-talking teachers, it becomes more important just to capture all of the information than to gain the immediate benefits of writing out your notes by hand.

But we don't want to miss out on those handwritten notes benefits immediately, right? That's why in this guide we'll be covering how to take efficient and organized typed notes during lectures, as well as how to study from digital notes later on in the most effective way possible.

The Ultimate Guide to Taking and Studying Digital Notes (a Handbook for Students) >>

how to take digital notes: preparing

Okay, so now that you're interested in switching over to digital note-taking, I've outlined some materials that you'll need before you start.

materials, products + apps

I currently use my laptop (a 2013 release of the 13" Retina MacBook Pro) to take notes digitally during class, but I am currently saving for a 9.7" iPad Pro (to be used with Apple's newest Apple Pencil), because I would prefer the increased portability, and the ability to physically write out my notes but still store them digitally. 

Of course, you don't need Apple products to take notes digitally! I just personally prefer the aesthetic and user-friendly interface that Apple products provide. I've heard great things about the Microsoft Surface from many of my friends, and a Chromebook is a great, functional, inexpensive (it's only around $160? like whaaaat?!?!) laptop option.

As for apps, I use Pages (the default word processor on Mac computers) for my notes, but Evernote, Notability, GoodNotes, Google Drive/Docs and Paper are all great options as well. I'll be showing you how to make digital notes on Pages and Google Docs, and will be providing ready-to-use, editable note templates for those two platforms. However, many of the tips I'll be sharing can be easily applied to other apps and software as well!

develop a simple, easy-to-set-up template

You want to be able to sit down in your lecture, pull out your laptop/tablet, and immediately begin typing. There's no time to figure out the most aesthetically pleasing colors or fonts or spacing to use (as much as the designer in me hates to admit it!).

Since I literally can't stand typing in straight Times New Roman or Arial for pages on end, I like to copy and paste a simple template into a new document at the beginning of each of my classes so that I can take notes quickly, but still in a pretty way ('cuz it's all about that aesthetic, folks).

When setting up your own note-taking template, take some of the following into account:

  • Will you be using these notes for more chart/graph heavy classes? If so, make sure to format and set up some graphs, tables and charts for your future easy access and usage.
  • Do you divide your notes by subheadings, chapter sections, chapters etc? If so, pre-make all of your headings before you go to class to save time.
  • How will you organize your notes? Do you write the date in the top right corner? The subject in the top left? The textbook chapter or section? Decide how you'd like to organize all of your digital notes.

Your note-taking template and format is likely to change as you learn more about your own note style, but I like to keep things consistent and stick with similar layouts, fonts and spacings throughout a school year.

read your lecture outline or textbook chapter before going to class

A great way to save time and energy during a class is to read a textbook chapter or pre-learn the content of the class before attending your lectures. Whether it be watching a YouTube/Khan Academy video, looking a topic up online, reading a chapter/section from your textbook, or looking over your teacher's slides for the next day, pre-learning content is extremely helpful. By exposing yourself, however briefly, to the new content beforehand, you make it much easier for you to learn it the day after. Having already seen and maybe even understood the content, the content will be much easier to master, and will appear a lot less daunting.

You don't have to go crazy in-depth here, but it's helpful to lightly annotate, highlight or summarize when you read and learn about your topic. Bring these pre-class notes to your lecture, and have them alongside you whilst your teacher is talking. Maybe you can add to or relate your teacher's words to what you read the day before!


how to take digital notes: ACTUALLY DOING IT

Whew! You're all set and ready to go now? Awesome. Now it's time to learn how to get set up and how to actually take your notes during class.


When you're getting set up at the beginning of class, make sure that you have the following things with you or ready:

  • Your device (laptop, tablet etc.) and any accompanying accessories (keyboard, mouse, stylus etc.)
  • Pre-class notes (either typed notes or physical notes)
  • A word processor (Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Google Docs etc.) pulled up and ready to go
  • A pen and paper (you never know when you might just have to handwrite a few quick notes, and it's better to be prepared)

Obviously, depending on the class, you might need other materials as well.

The Ultimate Guide to Taking and Studying Digital Notes (a Handbook for Students) >>

taking notes

Taking your actual notes should be much easier now that you're typing them out instead of handwriting them, but if you're in need of saving even more time, try developing a shorthand. A shorthand is essentially a shorter form or way of expressing common words or phrases. For example, typing just "bc" instead of the whole word "because" saves you the time it takes to type five extra letters. 

It's okay if your notes are kind of a jumbled mess when you're halfway through your lecture. When you get home, you can always sort through the info and organize it. Don't worry about your notes being perfectly divided into categories and subcategories in the middle of your class, and instead focus on just getting all the info down.


how to take digital notes: the aftermath

revise your notes

Since your class notes are likely pretty messy, I like to organize them a bit and add in some revisions. This could be anything from coloring in a diagram, rewriting some slightly illegible notes, or even taking pictures from Google and pasting them into your notes. Taking these steps enriches your notes, and help consolidate the information in your brain.

print them out

What I like to do after a class is to print out the notes that I took. This allows for me to highlight and annotate my notes, encouraging active reading as I study. You could just annotate your notes on your iPad or computer, but I find it easier and more helpful to physically do this step.

make a quizlet or a brainscape study set

One of my favorite ways to study from digital notes is to make a Quizlet or Brainscape study set. These two websites are great to make online flashcards with, and will allow you to easily copy and paste information into your digital flashcards.

good luck + happy studying!

I mean, unless you love studying, I doubt digital note-taking will be "happy," for you, but hopefully this guide will make note-taking a bit more efficient.

If you have any questions, thoughts or comments, please leave them down below! I'll be happy to answer any and all of your comments!

Also, if you enjoyed this guide, or found it helpful, it would mean the world to me if you could pin the image below to your Pinterest account!

Until next time...

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