Note taking: love it or hate it, it’s one of the easiest and most common ways of keeping up with lecture material.  Despite its ubiquity, it seems that every student—and even every class—needs a slightly different approach for maximum study usage.

If your notes seem to be slipping toward the end of the school year or you’d like to try out something different, ask yourself these questions.

How Do You Take Notes?

Even in 2015, many students prefer to take notes by hand.  Studies have shown that it helps cement information in your long-term memory, and many students appreciate the lack of distractions, simplicity, and options for creativity (read: margins for doodling in) that paper note taking offers.

If you’re a bit more tech-savvy, typing notes on a laptop with OneNote, tablet, or smartphone might be more your speed.  Digital notes are easier to edit, harder to lose, and can be customized as much (though not necessarily as easily) as handwritten notes.  Many students in science, survey, and intro level classes take notes directly into digital flashcard websites like Quizlet to streamline the study process.

What Do Your Notes Look Like?

Most students write down key concepts as the professor presents them in a simple list format.

Other students prefer to summarize the various sections of lectures, which improves memory and synthesis of information, though it is not as technically accurate as writing things as the instructor says them.

Sometimes, the course material is newer and more complicated.  Notes taken in an outline format might serve to get all of the facts and the relationship between them in a short amount of time. Some students take notes on graph paper to align the various levels of their outline.

A related style of note taking is mind mapping.  Mind mapping involves placing concepts in individual bubbles and drawing linear connections between them.  Mind mapping works well for seminar discussions, brainstorming, and professors whose lecture style is not linear.

The Cornell method of note taking is a classic combination of summary, outline, and conceptual note taking.  To take notes Cornell style, the bottom and left side of each page are blocked off.

In the main part of the paper, the student writes down important things that the professor says and writes on the board.  Along the left side, he keeps track of the outline or major topics of the class, and at the bottom he writes a summary of the notes taken on that page.

How Do You Use Your Notes?

This is the most important question to ask when determining how you will take notes. Follow it up with these:

  • Will you study your notes for information, refer to them to complete your homework, or file them away until finals week?  
  • Do you want to have them with you all the time, or do you only need them a few times throughout the semester?  
  • Will you share your notes with others?

By starting with the purpose of your notes for each course, you can figure out what style will be the most useful.