Hand-drawn Brain Topography in OneNote (Thanks for pointing out the typo Central Sulcus by a Reddit reader). Derived work from File:Skull and brain normal human.svg by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator Wikimedia Commons.

Note-taking with OneNote as a Psychology student

Note-taking is an integral skill for every student. A notebook organizes study materials for learners. Gald to be a 21-century student, such study process can be digitalized with a better experience than paper-and-pen. By Microsoft OneNote, students can consolidate, keep track of what they learned. There’re many OneNote tutorial online but they fail to explain a coherent system to manage studies. Here shows my undergraduate experience of my tablet-assisted learning or digital note-taking for college students by OneNote for Mac, iPad Pro, and iPhone, as well as Apple Pencil.

Heads up! I would introduce you a simple and speedy way to build the brain topography map in this article cover. And, please note that I don’t receive any compensation from Microsoft or Apple for this article. I love OneNote and that’s all. OneNote or an iPad may not suit for everyone shoes but the philosophy behind may works.

Thanks @OneNoteEDU for retweeting this article on both Twitter and Facebook (post). Also, I am so glad my alma mater picked up this post and share it on Instagram.

Also, don’t forget to check out my experience to learn to program with Minecraft Education Edition.


1 A new notebook for every semester
1.1 Each page holds only one concept
1.2 Page hierarchy as an outline
1.3 Summarising subpages
1.4 Study schedule by Internal Page link and Tags
2 Visualize your thinking by drawings
2.1 Rubbing/tracing technique
2.2 Creating analogous Sticky note in PowerPoint for OneNote
3 Formats and Diagrams
3.1 Table for Definition of a term
3.2 Single Table cell as a Horizontal Divider
3.3 Self-Q&A
4 Any platform, any device
4.1 On-the-go
4.2 In-the-seat
5 Search for anything

5.1 Scanned content and screenshot
5.2 Handwritten text
6 Keep life-long learning, after graduation
Responses to readers’ feedbacks
Thanks for all your comments
Further reading


* Be flexible. 
Blending technologies are more powerful than “single tool” extremism, like using stunning Microsoft OneNote on smoothing Apple’s iPad Pro, or adding virtual sticky notes on a digital notebook. Desk, park, train, anywhere can be a good place to study.
* Be selective.
Doodling the most important concepts while highlighting the “less” important concepts. Develop your own shorthand/symbol to understand the materials.
* Be creative.
A tool can be something else. For example, a single table cell can be stretched as a horizontal divider.
* Be productive.
Don’t spend too much time on meaningless formatting. Access your cloud-based notes on library computers if you left your tablet home.

1 A new notebook for every semester

1.1 Each page holds only one concept

Try to imagine your course like LEGO bricks. I recommend each note page registers only one particular notion. Merging conflict is effortless when the edits are made on several devices. But more importantly, chunking pages creates an outline on the navigation bar. Title of each note forms a table of content. The sidebar operates as akin as tab dividers in a binder or workbook tabs in an Excel spreadsheet. Each page is one index card that places a single idea.

Such organization serves a better hierarchy to literally scroll through the course. It is a feature I can only found on OneNote. Some app has such similar navigation bar design but they fail to make it intuitive/many time-consuming taps to access. The navigation bar is the most helpful but missing “feature” (or design) among most of the note-taking app.

Inside each page, I favor the two-column layout though I am not a strict follower of the Cornell System. The left column holds the raw materials from professors while the right attaches some reference plus my hand-drawn diagrams.

▲Some personal graffiti to illustrate ligand-receptor interaction in Psychopharmacology (the study of psychological medicine). Do make every title succinct and short.

▼ Organizing notes after the class (2017 insider/beta version of OneNote on iPad)

1.2 Page hierarchy as an outline

Before the class, I would set up pages and subpages based on the given material or course syllabus uploaded by professors. Page title shows the logical relationship between pages. I also enter some Emoji when bookmarking the page title. Once charted, I can fill content inside each page.

For example, my major is psychology so that a heart Emoji ❤️ is my always first choice to identify each branch of the topic. Some title comes with prefix in a single Chinese character, like “堂” for “class”, to indicate some information that is not available to the absentee. Besides, there’s no need to generate a mind/concept map as the page title itself shows the structure.

The pages also prominently quantify how many notes I need to conquer. I can decide to what proportion of note page to engage for each study section.

▲ Psychological analysis involves a lot of scary statistics
Draw to support the comprehension of statistic vernacular into plain language. Let’s say I’ve come up with a level to understand the contrast.

▼ Emoji prefix of a note page title
Unmounting an Emoji on the page title in OneNote for Mac (by holding Control–Command–Space to include Emoji and other special symbols on macOS). I am a fan of Emoji.

▲ Opening Microsoft’s OneNote on Apple MacBook

1.3 Summarising subpages

Pages per concept organize as a vertical map. I also recap for a group of related concept page. It doesn’t matter to make this condensed page superordinate or not. Few minutes ahead of the test, I can just skim through those distilled parts. Be aware to avoid unnecessary embellishment.

▲ Promoting a new summary page to incorporate all the factors that controlling drug metabolism in Psychopharmacology. I also coined some abbreviation, like Ez as Enzyme, for easier retention.

▼ The variation here synthesizing the three theories of the human auditory system in the last subpage. Highlighter is good but doodling is better as it forced active reflection.

▼ More marginal diagram created by Apple Pencil to explain the etiology (cause), course and intervention for Alzheimer’s disease in Abnormal psychology, alongside the handouts.

▼ Or, typing some bold words to grab the main point for the adjacent content helps, given that the topic has a lower priority in the examination. Promptly, I can collate my typed keywords by my professor’s clean slides. Highlighters can do the same trick.

1.4 Study schedule by Internal Page link and Tags

OneNote is also a great planner. Meta-notes are beneficial for learners to know their study progress. I develop this “dashboard” for tracking my revision status. When I got stuck somewhere, I would get that page link and paste it onto the dashboard page to later follow-up. With some customized tags, like yellow triangle icon, inform me to go over again from the textbook or seek for professor and classmates for help. The internal links can even connect to other pages from other notebooks. Log pages monitor all the learning pages and subpages.

▲ Copy Link to Page and paste that internal link on the “dashboard” page
Page links can compensate for the disadvantage of the traditional linear structure.

▼ Psychopharmacology, external link bridging the constructive previous-made note from the course Abnormal psychology from another semester notebook.

2 Visualize your thinking by drawings

a picture is worth a thousand words

Visualizing the concept is an appreciated approach to gain insight from ideas. Just draw out the relationship and it fulfills the purpose. Translating the facts into drawings forces one to actively process and associate different information which definitely promotes semantical memory (and kinesthetic memory).

▼ A tangible visual metaphor to understand the death of neurons (apoptosis of brain cell). Infinity of sticky notes and inks are available, no tree is cut.

2.1 Rubbing/tracing technique

Drawing helps thinking. I am not a designer but I am managed to draw the brain as you can see in the article cover. Some more complicated object can be achieved by a technique called rubbing. See the example below to sketch a coin by placing a reference image underneath. Images can be found online, especially from Wikipedia and Pinterest. Delete the image once completed. The finished vector product can be rearranged, and resize depends on you. Sketchnoting is useful but you should never be overdoing it. Select the most worthy part to sketch instead. Google outline icon and pick a few icons that you can swiftly draw today.

Like a physical sticker, you can just glue that Hong Kong $10 JPEG into the note. Don’t forget to check out how to make a sticky note for OneNote in the latter section.

▼ Tracing a coin in OneNote is identical to do it on a physical paper

The idea of tracing over images instead of just pasting them in is actually very smart, I wouldn’t have thought to use it that way.
by u/pinkiswink on Reddit (post)

▼Combining information from different sources online, such as YouTube, to understand what is happening

2.2 Creating analogous Sticky note in PowerPoint for OneNote

Sticky notes are an integral element in my notebook. I can create a shape on PowerPoint and duplicate such tangible image into OneNote. With Apple Pencil, I can write some cheering words in the note, like “You can do it”.

3 Formats and Diagrams

OneNote features a rich text format editor but I prefer creating some diagrams. The visual element is a better mnemonic strategy than text. (Check out a psychology study conducted by Standford). Human is a visual animal. Bountiful of illustrations cue my memory. Putting the same dull text into visual form aids my study. With infinity choice of color, just “Draw” freely on OneNote.

I like reading magazines in the library. I found they are so appealing mostly because of their infographics. Or, you would not read this article if I don’t add some pictures. That’s why I implement the same design for my notebook.

Organizing information is way more important than considering the format. That said, I recommend some easy and creative techniques below for better encoding or aesthetics purposes.

▼ Versatile option to view notebooks
Left: Accessing own note page about Special Learning Disorder on the iMac in the university library. A Chinese acronym below (讀明串寫計推) manifests all types of children learning problems.
Right: Digital sticky notes help me to remember the diagnostic criteria of ADHD. Every upper corner corresponds to a DSM-V criterion.

3.1 Table for Definition of a term

▲ Hide the border of the inner table break down a strange word

I am trained to digest a lot of up-to-date journals as a psychology student. I always encounter unfamiliar words. A nested hidden border table is a great facilitator for me to breakdown every unknown vocabulary, like this horrifying term “Electroencephalography”.

▲ Alternative use of the table for term definition or concepts comparison

3.2 Single Table cell as a Horizontal Divider

Imagine there’s a 1x1 table or just a single cell. I can extend the single cell horizontally and treat it as a divider with optional text and background color.

▲ Single, horizontal-extended table cell divides two paragraphs, as tested here on the Lorem ipsum placeholder (Wikipedia)

▼ Pair distinctiveness study under Illusory correlations in Social psychology.

▲ A synopsis page of human’s non-declarative memory in neuropsychology. I also adopted some mathematical symbols (Wikipedia) to lay out the relationship, like Delta Δ for changes, Curly bracket {} for membership, and more. Try developing your own form of shorthand.

3.3 Self-Q&A

Every notebook is designed for the exam. Practice some sample question is one way to access own knowledge on the topic.

My university does not provide past paper but I can find some sample questions from textbooks. As mentioned before, “the one page one concept”, enables me to collect more sample exercise within an independent page.

▲ Preparing sample questions
Left: Double click the grey arrow to hide the indented content.
Right: Highlight the answer in black and select to show it. I advocate the first approach as I can even collapse some images and other text formats, while it occasionally mistakenly alter the overall layout.

▼Some photos I retrieve back from Snapchat (Sorry for the unadjusted tilting)
Left: Some virtual sticky-notes in my notes.
Middle: A holistic view I was drawn to understand human auditory perception in Biological Psychology.
Right: The schedule of my sophomore year.

4 Any platform, any device

▲ Well, technically, you can view your notes 😅on your wrist. OneNote offers watchOS app to be run on Apple Watch.

4.1 On-the-go

Not applied for the dormitory, it is time-consuming to travel between the campus, home or work. During the commute, I can rehearse my notes on OneNote on a mobile device. Besides, I can ask Siri to remind me for pages need more attention. Or, I can tap the share button to include related Wikipedia pages to OneNote for reference.

So portable is a digital notebook. It manages all my study progress and makes good use of my travel time. Benefit from the smaller size of note page, learners may revisit and skip a specific page, instead of reading a whole chapter page.

▲ OneNote supports many iOS features. “Remind me about this” to let Siri flag the viewing note into Reminder app. Or, start a new page via the sharing sheet from Wikipedia app

Let’s say I found an image of Dopamine pathway from the search engine. I can then spontaneously drag that image from the search engine to OneNote.

In the screenshot below, Brain-i and Brain-j rows present the brain area where the dopamine pathway begins and ends, as referring some notations in physics (Physics was, is, my most scaring subject for my high-school 😅. What a relief I don’t need to study it for my undergraduate studies).

▼ OneNote is available on iPhone and iPad.
Left: I can switch device by iOS’s Handoff feature (“From Curtis’s iPad Pro” in the bottom of multitasking interface).
Right: On iPad, I can view the OneNote app and a browser app for research side by side.

With an internet connection, I can revise my note anywhere. I like opening OneNote with my phone and memorize for it. Sometimes, I go for lightweight and leave everything at home (even stationary, LOL). I can just access the public computer in the university library.

4.2 In-the-seat

During the train journey, I may keep revising my notes and those latest changes are synced on Mac. You wouldn’t excuse yourself for the physical inconvenience but guarantee every moment is well-utilized. I don’t need to assign a dedicated time for me to study as I am already making it so regular (del: time can be saved for play).

▼ Editing OneNote on the public computer in the library. Online version supports most of the feature as a desktop/mobile app.

5 Search for anything

Other than the aforementioned YouTube video, website links, OneNote accepts texts, formulas, handwritten content, pictures, recordings, and embedded Office files. I treat OneNote as a scrapbook and scan/take screenshot for all the study materials into it. I like the harmonious ecosystem between keyboard-input text and digital drawings.

5.1 Scanned content and screenshot

I am the old-school (lazy) guy to “clip” the given materials or readings into OneNote. Even if the clipped material is an image, I can search for a keyword and extract text from it.

▲ Copying Text from Picture
Right-clicking any image to grasp the text inside it.

▼ Finding “ideal” from cross-cultural psychology
“Alt Text…” shows all the machine-processed text from an image

5.2 Handwritten text

On iPad Pro, I can compose notes by Apple Pencil and every word I jot is readily searchable. OneNote offers a variety of pen and pen color for note-taker to choose from.

▲ Never ignore any “culture” in communication theories in Psychology. The search string is highlighted in Yellow.

▼ Annotating the opportunities derived from conflict

6 Keep life-long learning, after graduation

▲ My life, knowledge outside the classroom are all managed by OneNote. Sensitive information is redacted

As a minimalist, note-taking should be simple but efficient. Be a bit creative can boost the learning experience. All knowledge today comes from every previous endeavor. Traditional note-taking techniques I mentioned, like shorthand and sticky notes, is applicable even in the digital era. Avoid extremism and technology is built for good. The best study system should be adaptive but effortless.

Learning happens everywhere. Learning is more about mindset than methods. Learning is to accept own inadequacy and to strive for excellence.

Remember, school is not the only place for learning.

Responses to readers’ feedbacks

1 Have you tried GoodNotes or Notability? If so, why do you prefer OneNote? by u/anotherBananaBaboon on Reddit (Post)

Yes, I tried them both. I rated GoodNotes 4 for five stars with a comment/suggestion on App Store. I even upgraded my version 4 copy on the same day the developers released the sale bundle for the latest release, version 5.

Actually, I am not exclusive on ON. During the class, I use GoodNotes 5 . Some grid notes you may see in the screenshot are actually clipped from GoodNotes.

Notability provides comparable features as GN, though I bought my copy long time ago. NT has the ability to put different “boxes” inside a note on iPad. Well, I use Notability to manage simple text on iPhone more often.

The reason I choose over ON, perhaps, the navigation bar ON provides.

Also, maybe, ON is the only tool I can view my notes online, especially I want to view them on library bigger screen or 😅I don’t bring my iPad along with me school sometimes.

I also got Readdle’s PDF Expert. I am fond of its cloud storage syncing feature and PDF outline editing that either GN/NB provides.

Ironically, I also tried other powerful services like Notion and Quip as my note-taking system. But they don’t provide a hand-writing feature.

I always seeking for an even better system. OneNote is still not yet fully meet all my wishes, though I am using it. Quite ambivalent am I?

Also, check out my early attempt to integrating OneNote and Notability in my note-taking workflow.

2 I am still uncomfortable with a screen and paper-and-pen is cheaper for students. How do you manage such problems? By an anonymous email sender from Hong Kong

Thanks for the technology advancement, we can use the digital stylus. The pen is the best invention in human history. My friends prefer Surface Pen while I, apparently, go for Apple Pencil. What I want to say, it doesn’t matter the instrument but the philosophy behind.

I invest most of my summer(s) break earning for better edu-tools. I once took 7 research assistant jobs a semester but the experience gained more insight for my career. Possess a growth mindset (I’m working hard) but not fixed mindset (I’m smart) makes you a better person. You can always find a way to access educational technologies.

Well, screen fatigue / bad to eye is always a concern for parents and educators. I try Display Accomondations > Smart Invert in iOS accessibility settings to render everything darker and dim a little bit at night for a more enjoyable experience.

Thanks for all your comments

  • This is very impressive as I’m struggling to switch from Evernote to OneNote. Your post (especially the Chinese version!!!) help me a lot!!
    by u/kyuukimi on Reddit (post)
  • This was better than I even expected it to be, thanks!
    by u/justneurostuff on Reddit (post)
  • Thank you for sharing this. I will share your blog post with my students.
    by u/whats_it_to_you77 on Reddit (post)
  • #OneNote manages everything in a student’s life.
    Psychology student Curtis Chan explains how he highly benefits from OneNote’s hierarchical structure, unlimited canvas, advanced formatting, digital ink and cross-notebook hyperlink

    by OneNote Central @OneNoteC (tweet)
  • Whether you’re already a fan of OneNote or you’re just thinking about it, this detailed look of how one student uses it for his undergraduate Psychology class is an incredible showcase of OneNote’s power.
    by Jennifer Gonzalez @cultofpedagogy (tweet)
  • tweet1: This is an EXCELLENT example of real world #edtech in use. Thanks so much for sharing!
    tweet2: This is a great example of note-taking in #OneNote that empowers learning. Def worth taking a look at if you’re a OneNote user or just OneNote curious. Thanks for sharing, Curtis!
    by Jeremy Tucker @IceManTuck (tweet1, tweet2)

Further reading

My Other Articles

This article is created and designed by curtischanct, @blacktc on Wikipedia, or curtischanct on LinkedIn, @curtischanctpsy on Twitter, @fishsunsun on GitHub or curtischanct on Behance.

Reproduction is prohibited prior to email approval. Welcome to share the direct link to social media.

2019–06–04 Relinquishing the paywall distribution.
2019–05–30 Patched some grammatical errors, like the wrong articles and missing full stops/periods. Drafted a takeaway for readers who don’t like read.
2019–05–27 Supplied some bracket for some psychology terminology (like
Psychopharmacology, etiology, etc.), enhanced some screenshot, added back the source File:Skull and brain normal human.svg — Wikimedia Commons which I reproduce the cover image for this article, adjusted layouts
2019–05–25 Keep polishing, fixed conjunctions, supplied more screenshot from my Instagram post archive, added an outline and reframed some headings
2019–05–08 Highlighted some comments from other social media platform, Updated the article cover, added a GIF (experimenting)
2019–05–07 Fixed typo, supplied more screenshot, added numbering for each heading

Curtis’s Digital Life

Reflection of many techniques, tips that increase one’s value in digital era, by Curtis Chan

🐟Curtis Chan Chun Tsong

Written by

讀心理學,鐘意科技同效率相關題材。A Psychology student is hooked on technologies and productivity. #地鐵迷 #非火車迷 #科幻 #電子化 #硬筆書法#手寫 #metro #digital #handwritten #calligraphy

Curtis’s Digital Life

Reflection of many techniques, tips that increase one’s value in digital era, by Curtis Chan

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