Successful students organize notes

This looks like no brainer:  students should organize their notes.  Then why so few students effectively organize their notes? For several years I asked myself and my students. In this article, I will share what I found. For more reading, you can check the links here, here, here, here, here, and here.

My own experience

Before we continue with my students, I should probably share my own experience as a student. I was visiting all the lectures and writing down almost everything the teachers said. I never used color coding and never summarized books. To be honest, I almost did not read books before Ph.D.  I used the margins of my notebooks to doodle very long puzzles when a teacher was distracted. I never took anybody else’s notebooks and nobody took mine (not very good handwriting).

I did not keep diaries, but before the examination, I often summarized my notebooks into A4 page densely written from both sides in three columns. On my summaries, I used color coding (red, black, blue),  and I often remembered them visually.

My grades were exceptionally high, but never perfect. E.g. I usually scored as the second or the third in my class.

The theory

I am not the perfect super learner you could copy everything from. Instead, I suggest learning from the studies. Separate guidelines address different aspects of notetaking. The theory is pretty generic and possibly can apply to everything.  Following all the recommended concepts will result in huge time investment, so usually, people choose what to follow.

Do not use computers for notetaking

We are tempted to take videos or use computers for notetaking. Having an infinite amount of time and patience this might be a good idea, but our time is limited. We cannot rewatch the captured video several times, gradually improving our notes. So we should write down the notes instead. Understanding that there is no way to rewind is actually a great motivator, as we are more oriented to succeed.

The kinetic and visual aspects of writing something on a piece of actual paper also help to memorize.  In computers, the paper needs to move and we do fix the focus. We should use the same paper to doodle, as doodling increases memorization.

Most students take the notes of the person with the best writing in the class. This is a mistake. You should use the look and feel of your own notes, even ugly ones, to optimize the recall. Staring at the teacher instead of writing or doodling actually reduces the memorization. Even watching video courses, we should probably be taking notes.

What to note?

There is a serious question of what information should be written down. Typically there are several kinds of information. In some systems, the margins are kept to note the headings, while the body of the page for the details.

Typically if a number or a name appears in a lecture it needs to be remembered. Also, we are usually expected to remember the connections between certain things. For example, if we are told 5 reasons for something we should remember all 5.  Other details are usually less important and fill in the storytelling.

In truth, the situation is significantly more flexible than what we are taught. Maybe next year the students will be told differently. However, students are expected to remember what their teachers tell. Not more and not less.

Usually, 3 words define an idea. Students who highlight every single word or choose selectively one word per paragraph do not generate complete ideas.  Every idea includes further details, which can we memorized additionally. If this reminds you of how we teach PAO, this is because PAO is exceptionally good for capturing ideas.

How to summarize structure?

In theory, students are expected to make some sort of mindmap. At the top level appears the name of the course. Under that name, we typically place the main subjects, possibly color-coded. Under them, the main topics, and then a certain number of ideas to remember. For each idea, we are expected to create some sort of colorful visualization.

Practically, mindmaps are typically less effective for memorizing fixed subjects than mental palaces. Its a pity nobody teaches mental palaces at school. Mental palaces are easier to remember, revisit and recall. However, it takes some serious practice to become good using mental palaces.

Revisiting notes

Students are expected to revisit their notes several times. The first time they should review the notes during the evening on the day the notes were taken. The second time, during the weekend, preparing the homework. Then there is preparation for the mid-term exam, and then again review for the final exam. The notes should be reviewed more than once.

In theory, the students should write down questions for each topic, and then answer these questions until all the details are clear. Various questions facilitate recall, allowing to address the subject from multiple perspectives.

In fact, using mental palaces all it takes is retracing the itinerary several times.

Here students make their biggest mistake: they try to review the materials only before the exam. In fact, this is the least productive approach. The best way to use time is to skim through the notes.

The night before the exam

It is crucial to sleep well when preparing for exams, as sleep boosts long-term memorization. Students who stay awake as much as they can to review the materials several times need to review the materials many more times. This is counterproductive. Sleep as much as you can.

Regarding the coffee, it is good to use the coffee in the day of the exam. There are no significant other limitations.

Caring about the grade and what will be on exam is a bad practice, as it defocuses during the learning. We need to be focused only on the material and its inner structure.


Quite often students need to supplement what they learn with books. In books, they are supposed to highlight the main ideas, e.g. 3 words per idea. Only the main ideas are marked – much fewer than the ideas that are actually memorized.

Reading books is the least active and thus the most ineffective form of learning. So it is recommended to supplement book reading by something as active as presentation, for example to other students in a study group.


Ideally, students are supposed to keep plenty of diaries: what the read, what they search, what they eat and what they feel. In fact probably too many diaries. Personally, I never kept a diary as a student for more than a month it takes to change a specific habit or generate a specific report. Not sure I am a good example. Try to find your own balance.

Common issues

We already addressed students who are too lazy to take notes, not enough sleep and no revisiting of the materials prior to a few days before an exam.

Additional common error is not doing the essays yourself. You can hire someone to do the essay for you. I link occasionally to these services as they generate great guest posts. The problem: unless you write an essay you will often forget the subject soon after.

Some students think too much about the structure and the form of their notes rather than their content. This is defocus. Choose one format of notekeeping, even if it is not ideal, and stay with it.

Notes are there to mark what needs to be remembered, fix its structure in our memory and make the learning effort more active.  Successful students are not the most organized students or students with best-written notes. The focus is on activity and understanding rather than shape and pure memorization. Do not focus on the wrong thing…


This example is from Flickr. No copyright infringement is intended.

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