How I Take Notes for College
Good note-taking is absolutely critical in college (& in the rest of my life, but that’s for another day). I find it helps me stay focused in class, because instead of just watching/listening(/daydreaming), I’m listening specifically and processing it to write down.
Paper or digital?
It’s been proven people remember handwritten notes better, and I find the limits of the speed of my handwriting helpful in forcing a synthesis/reduction of the class content instead of rote transcription. I’ve also discovered I just want the flexibility of drawing/writing freeform notes. In digital text, it’s difficult to express visual ideas, and I have to conform to an outline/sentence approach that often doesn’t suit the topic at hand. Lots of people love paper notebooks or binders, but they don’t work very well for me. Instead, I love taking notes on my iPad Pro:
- I always have all my notes with me
- I can add relevant images (including screenshots of lecture slides)
- I can search for anything in my handwriting
- I can embed readings directly in my notes
I’ve tried many note-taking systems over the years, but never stuck with one in particular. I love the idea of sketchnoting, but it often feels like a distraction during dense lectures. However, as a web designer, I think a lot about layouts. The system I’ve landed on doesn’t have any strict rules, but I stick primarily to four text styles (titles, subheadings, body text, captions) for building hierarchy.
I use GoodNotes. After trying so many different apps, I strongly believe it’s the best app for handwriting on iPad.
While I’m in class, I try to focus on taking whatever notes make sense for me. Since I publicly publish my coursework already, I’ve considered publishing my class notes too, but I’ve noticed that makes me start focusing on making the notes pretty and comprehensible for an audience instead of maximally useful for my learning.
One potential downside of taking notes on iPad is the readily-accessible ability to get distracted on the internet. In Settings > Do Not Disturb, I enable Silence > Always, so that turning on Do Not Disturb hides notifications onscreen even when I’m using my iPad (I do the opposite on my iPhone). I’ve set up a Shortcuts Automation to enable Do Not Disturb when I arrive at the buildings my classes are in. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of self-control to stay focused, but these systems help.
My GoodNotes setup
I keep one notebook in GoodNotes for each class, then move past classes into folders by college semester/high school year. To organize pages inside each notebook, I use the Outline feature in GoodNotes. I add the first page of each class meeting’s notes or of each reading to the Outline. It lets me pull up readings or previous classes super quickly, which is super handy during class:
I date every page, either as the title or in the upper right, always in ISO format. I keep 3 ink sizes (body, subheading, title) and 3 colors (body = black, caption = grey, accent = coral) in the top bar.
When I have class readings (unless they’re long book passages), I get them as a PDF.
- I typically avoid the Create PDF/Full-Page Screenshots system of iOS, because they create a PDF with the current width of your window, and I don’t want what device/window size I’m currently using to influence the end result.
- For web articles, Share > Print (Cmd-P). If the site has terrible print styling, open Reader (Cmd-Shift-R) then Print.
- For non-text based websites (looking at you, online textbook viewers), sometimes screenshots are the only way to go. I have a Shortcut to create a PDF.
- For printed articles/short book passages, I use the iOS scanner (available directly in GoodNotes, in Apple Notes, or in Files). In the past I used Scanner Pro, but the system one is simpler & good enough.
If articles are one-off or super long, I keep them in PDF Viewer, my favorite PDF reading app. Otherwise, I’ll use the “Copy to GoodNotes” Share extension and append them to the correct notebook.
I often find myself referring to readings while continuing to take notes in class. Here, the multi-window features of GoodNotes come in handy (open the Pages view, drag & drop another page into Split Screen). I’ll often use the Lasso + Take Screenshot to bring in text snippets with my original annotations so I can further annotate them/use them in the context of the class notes.
- Handwriting is generally better than typing for class notes
- GoodNotes on iPad is my favorite way to take class notes on iPad
- Keep a notebook for each class, use the Outline feature, set ink presets to reduce time wasted with menus in class
- Date every page
- Embed readings as PDFs directly in your text for easy annotation