Believe it or not, buried in the murky mists of time, there was an era when students kept notes on pulped pieces of dead tree. It's hard to imagine now in a world piled high with iPads, smartphones, netbooks, and ultra-thins, but eager, studious types would whip out a notepad, pencil and highlighter — and take laborious, wrist-twisting notes.
Today, of course, it's far more efficient to keep notes on a computer. Not only does it cut down on cut down trees, but when it comes to the end of the semester and crunch time for course work and exams, digital notes are much easier to search and sort through. You're not left with folders and reams of antiquated notes come the end of the year, either; you can just back up your notes, create a new folder for a new year and begin afresh.
There are two keys to taking good notes: using the right software and organizing your notes in a sensible fashion.
Apps, apps, apps!
Taking notes on a tablet or smartphone isn't exactly ideal — but if you get your hands on a portable keyboard, it's almost as good as a laptop or netbook. The best and most flexible note-taking app for just about any breed of smartphone or tablet is Evernote (free). There are Evernote apps for iPhone/iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Palm OS and Windows Phone 7.
The main thing about Evernote is that all of your notes are automatically sent into the cloud — and once they're there, you can access them from any web-connected computer via the Evernote app or a web browser. Like most of the apps in this list, Evernote also supports audio and photo notes — rather handy if you want to record your lecture or take photos of any projected notes (but ask for permission first!).
If you're taking notes on a Windows laptop or netbook, you can't go wrong with Evernote — but if you have Microsoft Office on your computer, you might want to try out OneNote, which is probably the best note-taking program in existence. There are OneNote apps for Windows Phone 7 and the iPhone and iPad. There's also a web interface, which might be useful if you have to take notes while you're in a computer lab.
OneNote is similar to Evernote in its functionality, but it also supports the ability to take handwritten notes with a stylus or through capturing an image of what you've written — and rather miraculously, you can still search through the handwritten notes.
Yet again, Evernote works well on Mac — and conveniently it's available from the Mac App Store. If you want something very simple, try Notational Velocity. It's free, but it only supports typed notes — no photos, no audio, nothing fancy. It does sync with Dropbox and Simplenote, however, so you can always access your notes from any web-connected computer or mobile device.
If you attend more than a couple of classes per semester, you'll very quickly build up a ton of notes that need to be properly organized — otherwise, when it rolls around to exam time, you won't be able to find what you're looking for!
Folders and notebooks Start by creating a new folder (Evernote calls them notebooks) for every course that you take. Make sure that each folder includes the exact course code (EE101, CS201, and so on) for each module/course.
Names To make sure you can always find notes easily, use file names that start with the date — 5-1-2011, for example — and then include a few keywords like the subject of the lecture or the lecturer's name.
Tags and categories Most note-taking tools let you tag and categorize your notes. If you use tags such as "needs research" or "my weakest subjects," then you'll be able to find your most important notes much more easily.
How to take better notes
Beyond the right software and the right filing system, the most important thing you can do to improve your note-taking skills is to work on your typing speed and accuracy. Typing speeds of around 60 words per minute are totally achievable with a few weeks of touch typing practice, and accuracy should naturally improve over time.
There are, of course, efficient note-taking techniques worth learning, too; you can write down everything that the teacher says, but that doesn't mean you should.
Taking notes is for fools!
Finally, many lecturers and teachers prepare a deck of slides for a class or lecture. A lot of universities already make these available for download from a website — but if not, it doesn't hurt to ask your lecturer for a copy. Slides certainly aren't the same as proper notes, but they can definitely help with revisions.
These slides are often in PDF format, which you can easily read on any Windows or Mac computer and most smartphones and tablets. If they're in PowerPoint format, you'll need Microsoft Office or a PowerPoint viewer (Windows/ Mac).