How to Take Notes Effectively in 2017 (for University Students)

For decades, educated human beings suffered from the limitations imposed by pens and paper. Now in this very modern era of 2017, this should see some updates.

Eliminate the Hassle of Bringing Books to Class — Use A Tablet

You are not the Statue of Liberty; you don’t have to take books with you all year round. Go get a big tablet and let everything go digital.

Requirements for a student-oriented tablet should meet the following criteria:

  • The screen should be BIG, if not HUGE. Screen real estate is the best real estate to invest on. Believe me. You’ll thank me when the days comes that you have to read tons of A4-sized PDF documents with 10-point-sized text.
  • Pair it with an active stylus. Write with your index finger may be fun and intuitive, but it’s not an easy task in the long run.

There are some settings I recommend to configure for better distract-free experience:

  • Keep the Do-Not-Disturb Mode on. The DND Mode suppresses all notifications and blocks all incoming calls (if your tablet supports calling). You have your phone for that.
  • Mute it, because accidentally clicking on a music video in a library is just way more a trouble than in your bedroom.
  • Refrain from installing games on it. I know your 12.9-inch tablet probably has got a laptop-standard graphics chip in it, but this lovely gadget is meant for some serious work, isn’t it?
  • In a similar manner, it would be better if you could fire up Parent Control and restrict yourself within a few productivity apps.

Speaking of applications for productivity, I suggest a tablet for work and study be equipped with at least:

  • a sketching app. It should allow for easy moving and resizing of your scribbles. This should serve as your main all-purpose notebook! The ability to resize and move around existing “ink marks” is a huge advantage over traditional paper-based notebooks, for it solves the pain of running out of space while jotting along a meeting or a lecture.
  • a PDF annotation app with electronic editions of your textbooks loaded. Better than your kilograms-in-weight textbooks, electronic documents virtually renders no extra burden to your backpack. Plus, PDFs (if not photocopied bummers) are easily searchable, which is quite helpful, because most of time, instead of reading from front to back, you are hopping right away to the chapters that the professor said would be on the test.

Keep Different Types of Notes in Different Apps

Just like how Spotify still kicks when YouTube can already handle music streaming, different services suit for different purposes. Likewise, for different types of notes, you may find using a variety of note-taking apps gives the best experience.

Use an open-and-type To-Do app to jot down brain sparks.

I collect crazy ideas from wild daydreams and funny conversations with my friends as I go through my days. It is my personal repository of original puns and plot twists.

When I sit down to do some writing, I can easily come back to this treasure of ideas and make use of a few. A To-Do List app makes a great idea collection because I can then strike out used entries to avoid reiterating them in another piece of work.

Use another open-and-type, but password-protected by default, note-taking app for dream diary.

This is for practicing lucid dreaming, a technique that ultimately allows you to control what happens during your least active 8 hours (4 if your are in Engineering) each night. (Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen much progress in this.)

The reason why I recommend to use an encrypted journaling app is that, most probably, you want to keep it to yourself when the dream went erotic or too politically incorrect.

Furthermore, the app should open to a ready-to-type state instantly and relatively look distract-free, so you can grasp the lingering last frames of your dream.

Use a reference manager to index papers that you have read (or pretend to have.)

This is perhaps more relevant to senior students who started writing reports or doing researches.

The pros about using a reference manager is that you can easily cite from your personal library as you write your thesis/paper/essay, etc., and that generating a bibliography from the app is like a breeze. No one remembers APA Style Citation Guidelines anyway.

The cons can be that annotating a paper can be frustrating, or even impossible if you are a Zotero user like me.

Use a plain-text note app to take clippings from the web.

Use a note app that only supports plain text, because under most occasions text styles are irrelevant. It would be sweet if this note-taking app has a web clipper addon for your browser. We will come back to this later.

Personally, I use nvALT for text clippings on a mac, CintaNotes on a PC. Due to historical reasons, I have a massive collection of .txt files from pre-2010 ages, and keeping notes in plain text makes me feel less vulnerable to service shutdowns and policy changes that are common in web services. I do, however, rely on SimpleNote to sync notes across my devices.

I am not a big fan of resource-consuming beasts such as OneNote — at least this was the case in 2011, when I was totally a Microsoft Office kid.

Use a journaling app to take diaries.

Apps like Day One are designed to be your Dear Diary. Some of these applications not only offer Timeline views that allow for quick reviews of your life, but also collect facts about the day and yourself and make automatic entries.

I would not recommend using the same app for dream-journaling. After all, I would rather not risk 78-year-old me mistaking a dragon-slaying fantasy as an actual heroic past. It would be embarrassing to start trying to impress fellow elderlies in the nursing home with something that didn’t happen.

Use Specific Editors for Different Types of Tasks

Say you are a science student working on some formula derivation or data visualization for a project: use Mathematica, for it’s formattable like Microsoft Word and computable like MATLAB.

For the same reason, use Jupyter Notebook if you are in Computer Science and working on some data science with Python.

Mathematica and Jupyter should meet most of the standards demanded by your assignments. In more formal projects such as a thesis, however, you may be required to hand in a LaTeX-formatted document. In this case, I highly recommend LyX as your LaTeX editor.

Mindmap is an essential tool for students nowadays. A decent mindmap editor seems to be a necessity. I use MindNode. It took me months before I realize this app wasn’t made by Apple. It just feels so iWork-y. Cheap and popular alternatives exist, FYI.

Keep one or two text editors around. They should be your default go-to word processor when you are not sure in which note app to store your next piece of work. Choose an editor that does not store stuff — the absence of a note list panel will make you less stumbled by the feeling of having to keep notes organized and consistent. Just focus on writing :)

Personally, I use Sublime Text for everything that does not requires any formatting. Otherwise, I go for Typora, which is a minimal yet feature-rich Markdown editor.

Browser Extensions for Web Clipping

You should have browser extensions/buttons/bookmarklets that do the followings:

  • One for stripping out the textual content of the webpage and saving it to somewhere. You should have a local repository of full-length articles that you may come back to at some time.
  • One for clipping or highlighting only part of the webpage you are reading, because sometimes what makes sense to you may only be a small portion of the whole thing. I use Liner for this case.
  • Another for merely bookmarking the webpage, because sometimes you need non-textual information. Again, for historical reasons (that dates back to primary school age), my bookmarks bar is a mess — 7,000 bookmarks are crumbled in one folder, many of them already dead links, and a bookmark to my citizenship login page may be buried among a few hundreds of 9GAG posts. Last year, I decided to flee away from my responsibilities and use Google Save instead. Feel free to use other bookmarking services such as Pocket, etc.
  • You need a browser extension that saves journal articles to your paper repository. For example, Zotero Connector identifies the journal article you are reading and attempts to save both a snapshot of the page and a PDF of the article to your Zotero library, all with a single click. Sweet, isn’t it?

Back to the First Topic: But I Don’t Have A Tablet!

It’s not extraordinary for a college student to be poorly off, and it’s absolutely fine to admit that you cannot easily afford a tablet. Here are some factors to consider before deciding whether or not a purchase is worth the money:

  • Does the combination of electronic copies of your textbooks and a tablet beat the price of physical textbooks used in your university? The prices of textbooks vary from school to school and from year to year. Make an estimation about how much you gonna spend on buying actual books. Maybe it’s not too bad for your wallet.
  • Do you value very much the potential of spreading out sheets of papers all over your desktop? Remember that a tablet cannot extend its screen estate. Switching back and forth between pages or apps can be an irritating experience.
  • Perhaps your major requires lots of field work where a tablet might render you clumsy? Maybe a palm-sized field notebook does the job better? It might just happen that portability is the king.
  • Durabilities. Screen is a brittle thing.

Anyway, the decision is your own. Take some time to think about this and perhaps discuss with your friends/parents.

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But being a straight-A student is more than taking elegant notes. University is a place where self control makes 99% of the difference, according to a survey that didn’t happen. Therefore, In the next post I plan to talk about time management. Stay tuned ;)