A Practical Guide to Taking (Pretty) Notes

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This past week, I entered into my last semester of my M.Ed. It’s fascinating to look back at how on my journey a student: from moments of stress and burnout to embracing and enjoying being a student.  One particular aspect was discovering the fun of note taking. In doing so, something that had once been a burden became empowering. The start of the new semester is a great time to try out some new study techniques, so I thought I’d share a bit about how I learned to love note taking.

My junior year of college, like many other university students, I studied abroad. As an English  and French literature major, I decided to do a direct enrollment in Paris. Some of my French classmates at the University of Paris took the most immaculate notes. Always in pen, with flowery script, their notes were kept regulated with rulers and whiteout. I definitely admired their notes, but as a messy American, I was also intimidated by how neat their notes were. As a Type B human, the idea of using a ruler to take notes makes me even more stressed! Indeed, gorgeous notes can be found across the studyblr universe, with Pinterest articles boasting the best systems of note taking. Just looking at the flurry of suggestions and bevy of beautiful penmanship can make anyone anxious. For years, I avoided these posts and articles. I have enough pressure in my life without worrying about how nice my notes look.

However, as I’ve developed my love of bullet journaling, I’ve come to realize that I can use aesthetics to motivate myself to make my academic life happier. When I started graduate school, I started using artistic notes to help myself focus and to feel creative in class. Often, lectures aren’t a place that naturally inspire creativity, so it helped me to have aesthetic outlet in class. Looking back, I realize that I listen and study better while taking my artsy notes. My notes aren’t perfect, neither guided by rulers, nor touched up with whiteout, but they’ve helped me truly learn my best!

Here are a few practical tips to making your notes more artistic (no rulers required):

  • Use your titles. I personally like to keep all my notes in one notebook (then I only have to focus on keeping track of one notebook, not several). The top of the page is a great place to write the name of the class, date, and maybe the subject. I like to note it with a doodle of a few vines or a few little doodles. I’ll then go through and add some color as well. However, the most important thing should be that you can find your notes when you need them.

  • Use some color. This is probably obvious, but color makes a difference with notes. I recommend finding some highlighters that you really love. I know I used to hate the garish color of normal highlighters, so Zebra Mildliners have made a huge difference for me. I’ve also heard great things about Stabilo highlighters. As I take my notes, I get weirdly excited to use my highlighters, so it motivates me to add color to subtitles and other important parts of my notes as I take them. It then saves time later on when studying because I see where the important parts are.

  • Use a little washi. I like to keep a small roll or two of washi tape inside my pencil case. Then, when I receive a small slip of paper or handout, I tape it into my notebook. This helps keep me more organized, as well as giving me more context to add to my notes.

  • Use a few little doodles. Once and awhile, I’ll add some doodles to my notes. As someone with anxiety, large classrooms can become a stage for unsettling panic attacks. Doodling can help me calm down by giving me something to focus on and something to do with my hands to ground me. And, according to a recent study, people apparently remember their notes better when they doodle.

  • Use your quotes. One of my favorite things to do while taking notes is to embellish a quote from the lecture or reading that I think is really important. I usually use a few of my favorite fonts to embellish the quotes and some color to make it pop. Sometimes the quotes will take up a few lines, but other times, I let them have a page of their own. Having my quotes bolded like this makes it easy for me to find important ideas as I’ll flip back through my notes.

There a few disclaimers that I feel like I have to include. The first is that your notes should always be what you feel comfortable with. As a teacher, this is something I often address with my students. This is all about your learning experience, so it should be what feels both personal and healthy for you. If the idea of taking artistic notes makes you more stressed than soothed, don’t do it! And seriously, if you really like rulers, use one! Or maybe try a few techniques and see what sticks for you. Take time to discover how you learn best and what keeps you most engaged in class. My second disclaimer is that your notes don’t mean anything unless you use them. One study technique or note taking technique isn’t going to turn you into the perfect student, so make sure that you use your fancy new notes alongside healthy studying strategies, snacks, and lots of rest.

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M. A. McCuen is a secondary English literature teacher and grad student in Omaha, Nebraska. Originally from Michigan, she graduated with a BA in English and French from University of Notre Dame in 2016 where she spent a semester studying at the University of Paris Diderot and interning in Ireland. After graduation, she spent a year teaching abroad on Wexford, Ireland, before beginning her M.Ed at Creighton University.