Beginner’s Guide to Note Taking and Organization.

Back in late 2014 I was a note taking king. I had made a 16 page notebook similar to this one. I had color coded notes, that I hand wrote and then typed in to Notability. Then I would go in to Quizlet and input terms and concepts that I was struggling with. It was easy, but as I entered in to the university level I realized that there was a glaring issue with my method. Speed.

You see it was easy for me to spend an inordinate amount of time writing and then typing notes when I had one class, but it became much more difficult to do when I had a full-time course load and multiple science and math classes. I had really liked the reusable notebook method when I was only taking anatomy and physiology, but now I needed to carry a separate notebook for all of my classes because my reusable one was too small and I needed to keep my notes in some semblance of organization. Needless to say my notes were a mess, and as a result I would lose time sorting through notes and trying to figure out what was relevant for upcoming tests. For two semesters my efficiency suffered.

This article will guide you through some basic techniques for note taking that will hopefully speed up your study time and give you higher quality notes. I’ll be putting out articles on more advanced note taking and organization and even how to make you’re own reusable notebook later, but for now let’s get started.

#1- Dedication and Consistency is Key.

#soapbox alert: Sorry for this, but this is going to be a soapbox. I’m going to try and add these warnings at the start of these rants in case you wanted to skip this section and get to the content.

On this site we harp on commitment. Whether you want to be an M.D., a nurse, lawyer or any number of other occupations, you’re going to need commitment. In an age where society has trained us to want quick fixes and fast food service this can be a difficult concept to instill in ourselves, but you’re going to need it if you want to achieve your goal.

The same holds true for note taking. You’re going to have to develop a system that works for you. I can tell you how I do it, or what has worked and hasn’t worked for me in the past, but ultimately it’s up to you. Your system needs to be your own, tailor made for you, by you, and you need to hold yourself to it. Oh, and don’t beat yourself up if you forget to follow your method to the letter every single time. Once you start to get more comfortable with it you’ll see that it becomes second nature, or maybe you’ll find a better way of doing something.

Remember, I’m not superhuman, my ability to learn and assimilate information is just as much of a struggle for me as it is for you.

#2- To Color Code or Not?

I used to hate adding color to my notes, it takes time to switch colors in the middle of a lecture especially if your instructor or professor is a speedy talker. Sometimes it seems that by the time you finish switching colors and writing an important term they’ve jumped to the next section.

Alas it’s a struggle to decide whether or not you want to use color. As for me, I have found that once you get used to it, it’s easy to see the advantages of this method.

Colors can help divide sections…

Do you ever look through your notes, only to realize that you have no idea where one section begins and another ends? It can be frustrating wasting time trying to figure out where your relevant notes are, and what’s unnecessary fluff. That is why I recommend using a color to divide your sections, just take a look below…

Section 1.1- Structures and Bonding

compared to

Section 1.1- Structures and Bonding

Now you tell me, which one is easier to distinguish? If you’re still leaning towards not using color when writing, because you like the ease and peace of mind that comes with pencil, then try highlighting the sections after class. Do it as soon as you possibly can, because the longer you procrastinate, the more difficult it will become to make it happen.

It’s important that no matter how you choose to color code your headers, that you ALWAYS use the same color. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use that color for other minor things, but when you see that color, your mind should automatically think “new section”.


The same holds true for vocabulary words. I always use green when writing a vocabulary word or term. It just makes it so that the term pops out at me and I can focus on learning it, not trying to find it in a cluster of words. It also makes it easier later when and if I deem it necessary to make note cards.

Hint: I never use the color that I’m writing my term in for the definition. The whole point is to make the term pop, not to have it get lost in a mish-mash of other words.

Other uses…

I don’t overdo the color in my notes, for my standard text I use black. For headers I use red, and for vocabulary I use green. There are times however, that you need a little something extra; so I added a fourth color, blue to allow me to write in text that might need a little emphasis.

Untitled picture.png
Here is a sample of some of my Organic Chemistry notes. As you can see, there isn’t an overwhelming mount of color. I’ll be putting out an article where I talk about the notebook that I use and why it works so well when I want to digitize it at a later date.

These color choices might seem boring, but they don’t have to be. I’m just a fairly conservative person in my use of colors. You can use whatever colors you want, just be sure that you can decipher what they mean later.

#3- Abbreviations and Symbols

Working in the medical field, I can honestly say that I hate it when people use obscure acronyms and symbols. Reading something that someone else wrote is difficult enough without having to decipher what things mean.

As much as I hate deciphering other people’s writing, your notes are your own. Because you are the one that is going to be reading them, you can develop your own set of abbreviations and symbols that work for you. For those of you that text a lot, you’ve probably already mastered this, YOLO isn’t actually a word by the way.

For example I use a “+” sign whenever I don’t want to write “and”. I’ll also use “w/” when I want to write “with”. Oh and If you’re taking chemistry, don’t bother writing out element names, you have an entire acronym table already drawn out for them remember?

#4- Visual Aids

We are largely visual animals. Our ability to recognize and memorize shapes and pictures far exceeds our ability for words. Luckily we are at a point in history where our access to and use of visual aids is nearly limitless. There are mind maps, memes, the pictures in your textbooks, documentaries etc. The possibilities are endless.

My suggestion is that you try different methods for different topics. I had a lot of trouble understanding Quantum theory, all it took was a documentary to help me visualize what was being taught. I’ve used mind maps before for a cell biology class, and I used Quizlet‘s note cards with pictures to help me learn anatomy and physiology. There are now online tools such as GoConqr that allow you to create mind maps in a user friendly fashion, the only downside is that you have to be logged in to their website to access the map.

As always experiment with different methods. Don’t just do things because you are told that it is an effective method because you might be miserable while implementing it. The whole point is to make learning fun, not suffer through it. Now on to the real misery.

#5- Take Notes Ahead of Time

I know what you’re thinking, hell I used to think that too. “Reading chapters ahead of time is for suckers. It’s just one big manure pile of wasted time.”

The truth is that I don’t always read the book for a class. For some classes, skimming is appropriate, for others you don’t even have to buy the text. I’ve taken an entire chemistry class without reading the book, because I simply didn’t have time for it.

If your not going to read the book then you have to realize that you’re going to have to put in twice the effort when you’re in class. You need to maintain focus and work really hard to understand the topic that is being covered. Some instructors will not teach you everything that you need to know, and they may test you on obscure passages in the text. Maybe your instructor sucks (yes it happens), or they just don’t explain things in a way that is personalized to your learning style. The only way that you can remedy this, is to READ THE BOOK!

It doesn’t have to be hard either, I will just go through and skim a chapter making mental notes of things that I will need to know. This takes me about 10 minutes, then I will sit down whenever I have a little free time and start to run through the chapter section by section and write down big points, as well as any vocabulary words.

“Wait -R, what if I’m a slow reader?” It’s easy for me to talk about reading, because I love to do it, but not everyone holds my passions. That’s why we now have a Resources page where you can link to different outside resources to help you learn any number of topics. My favorite is Khan Academy. Here you will find short videos that teach you important concepts and problem solving strategies in a broad range of topics. Of course the key is that you have to be willing to write some NOTES!

So What Now?

I know how it feels to want to be better. You’re not the only one that spends their time looking up ways to be more efficient. The hard part is implementing these strategies in a way that works for you. As I put out more advanced articles on note-taking you’ll start to see that you can customize just about anything for your needs. The more you do this, the easier it becomes to build a method. You will end up transferring ownership to yourself and end up nurturing that skill more than if you just follow my advice halfheartedly. Now get out there and start taking some notes!


Thanks for reading guys. As always if your enjoying these articles like us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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