Notetaking Strategies for Online Learners

In a perfect world, we'd only need to be told something once and have recall of that fact, statement, or idea forever. Unfortunately, very few people (if any) have this superhuman ability, so the next best way to effectively recall the things we've been taught is to take notes.

This is especially true in a college setting as research has found that taking notes results in better performance on exams and tests, especially if proper notetaking strategies are followed. But before we get into the best notetaking strategies for your online courses, let's first talk about how you should take those notes.

Does How You Take Notes Matter?

Some students prefer to keep handwritten notes whereas others would rather take their notes electronically, storing them on their computer or tablet. Which is better for recall? There are conflicting results.

For instance, according to one 2017 study published in the Journal of Economic Education, neither option is superior over the other. However, a 2016 study found different results, indicating that when tablets were allowed in the classroom of an introductory economics course, students' test scores tended to be lower.

Because there is no clear-cut evidence regarding whether handwritten or electronic notes is best, it's important to identify which option works best for you. If you find that taking notes by hand helps you remember the materials better, taking this route will make it easier to refer back to the information being taught. Conversely, if you find that electronic notetaking is more beneficial, do that instead.

The key is to discover your preferred notetaking strategies and find ways to perfect these methods so you're able to not only remember the information presented, but also so you can find it easily when you need to refer back to it. The strategies you use for this will likely depend on what type of notes you're taking.

Taking Notes of Online Lectures and Live Sessions

When taking online courses, some of your materials will be presented via pre-recorded seminars or live sessions with your instructors. What are some good notetaking strategies for these?

First, instead of trying to record absolutely everything the instructor says, try to focus more so on the key points or takeaways, organizing this information in a way that makes sense. For instance, if the instructor begins by saying that there are five ways to perform a specific task, record those notes in bullet form so it's easier to identify them when referring back.

Also, use shorthand whenever possible so you're able to keep up with what the instructor is teaching. Abbreviate longer words (such as recording "business" as "bus") and use acronyms for organizations (turning "U.S. Food & Drug Administration" into "FDA"). There are several YouTube videos that you can use to learn shorthand rather quickly if you don't already know it.

Digital Textbook Notetaking

Some online course materials are textbooks you can download directly to your computer or other electronic device. This makes it nice if you tend to study on your work breaks or while sitting at the park as you don't have to lug a bunch of heavy books with you.

Depending on the program you use to read these books, you may be able to digitally highlight the materials you want to remember most. Some even allow you to write on the pages so you can circle or underline key points, or record brief notes in the margins.

Another option is to simply keep handwritten or digital notes of the information contained in the eBook. Because the materials are presented in writing, it becomes easier to identify the key ideas and organize them effectively.

When making notes from digital textbooks, some online learners need to write the most important information verbatim for it to stick in their memory whereas others do best by simply writing the main ideas in outline form. Again, there is no right or wrong here, but more a matter of discovering what works best for you.

Recording Notes for Physical Books

If you have a physical book for your online course, the first decision you must make is whether you intend to keep that book once the class is complete or if you will likely resell it so you can get some of your money back and another student can use it later.

Textbooks you may want to keep include those that you would likely want to reference later, once you're working in the field. You might also choose to keep textbooks that have certain images or visuals that you feel may be helpful as you progress in your studies.

Should you decide to keep a particular textbook, you have a greater ability to highlight certain passages and write in the book without impacting its resale value. Otherwise, if you intend to resell it once the online course is complete, the book will be worth more if you keep your notes in a notebook or on a digital platform instead.

Additional Notetaking Strategies for Online Learners

Effective notetaking doesn't necessarily stop with recording the information you want to remember. Here are some additional tips to consider implementing when taking online courses:

  • Review and revise your notes. Research has found that students who revise their notes tend to score higher on tests than those who don't. Additionally, the greatest improvement tends to occur when the notes were revised during pauses in the actual lecture versus making the revisions later.
  • Take complete notes. One study found that students who take more comprehensive notes tend to perform better testing-wise, especially when the tests were multiple choice in nature.
  • Incorporate graphics in your notes. Research has also found that using drawings in your notes helps improve recall. So, create graphs, pictures, and other images to help you better remember key ideas.

Finally, if you want more notetaking strategies for your online courses, reach out to your instructors and ask for suggestions based on how they've outlined the class. Saint Leo University professors are dedicated to helping you succeed, so feel free to ask for their input.