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How to Take Effective Notes for Competency-Based Courses

Oct 3, 2023

Taking notes during college courses helps you stay engaged and alert and, even more importantly, improves retention of course material. Everyone has different learning styles and note-taking methods. You might be a visual learner who draws diagrams or pictures to represent complex concepts. Perhaps you can easily memorize technical terms using flash cards. Maybe you’re someone who derives the most benefit from writing down important information during a presentation and then rereading it after class. Whatever your learning style, taking notes is a fundamental step in the learning process.  

When you take notes, you put information into your own words, which helps you fully comprehend the material. Your notes also become a valuable study aid that you can reference in preparation for quizzes and tests. You can save your notes for years and read them periodically to refresh your memory. 

Because courses are online, note-taking for WGU programs might be different than what you’re used to. But make no mistake; effective note-taking is essential to reaching peak academic achievement. Read on to learn practical tips for taking notes in online college courses and discover how you can leverage note-taking skills to make the most of your time at WGU.

Why Taking Notes Is Important

Taking notes will help you absorb the information presented in your courses and remember what you’ve learned. If you implement effective note-taking strategies, you’ll have a greater ability to recall and apply course material during assessments, which could mean that you pass assessments and complete courses more quickly. 

In addition, taking notes helps you retain relevant information and concepts that facilitate career advancement.  WGU courses are career-aligned, meaning that they’re specifically designed to teach you the practical knowledge and skills you need to advance in your career.

Enhances Active Learning

When you write or type notes, you process the information in a new way, identify key points, and make connections to concepts you’ve learned in other courses or environments. Active learning occurs when you’re fully engaged in the learning process, and taking notes during class has been shown to enhance active learning. A study published in the journal “American Journal of Psychology” found that taking notes facilitates deeper comprehension and improves information processing. Taking notes helps you think critically about the information presented in courses, recognize the practical implications of what you’ve learned, and understand how you can apply course material to real-world contexts.

Memory Retention

Taking notes also improves your ability to remember what you’ve learned. Writing or typing notes allows you to actively engage in class instead of being a passive observer, creating a stronger memory in your mind. The act of taking notes also involves repetition, which further reinforces memory. You hear or read the material and then write it down, strengthening the neural connections in your brain and improving your ability to recall the information later on. 

Good Study Reference

Your notes become an essential study tool when preparing for an assessment. It’s often impractical to relisten to entire presentations or reread entire chapters of a book. In fact, doing this can sometimes be so overwhelming that it's counterproductive. 

If you’ve taken notes that summarize the main ideas, define important terms, and explain key concepts, you can use these notes to refresh your memory in preparation for tests. In the event that you come across notes that are unclear or incomplete, you can go back to the original course material to deepen your understanding and fill in any missing information. 

Essential Note-Taking Tips

There’s an art to taking good notes in school. Transcribing every word an instructor says often leads to information overload and takes your attention away from what’s being said. This applies to courses involving non-lecture online experiences as well. But writing too little can also be problematic. The key is to identify main concepts and basic skills and focus your attention on these first. Once you understand the material on a macroscopic level, dig deeper into specific examples to further your grasp of the coursework.

Pay attention to ideas and information that are repeated throughout a course. You can generally assume that if it's repeated, it's important. Course Instructors may even encourage you to write down, underline, or highlight certain information. Following this guidance will enhance your ability to identify the fundamental concepts and need-to-know information while taking notes.    

Be Prepared to Learn

Preparation is fundamental to being an excellent note-taker. Gather the supplies you’ll need to take notes before you begin. Depending on the course and your chosen note-taking method, you may need pens, notebooks, highlighters, graphing paper, tab dividers, a calculator, or other supplies. 

If you choose to use an electronic device like a laptop or tablet, make sure it's charged or plugged in, so it won't run out of batteries in the middle of your session. Sign in to whatever note-taking program you’re using and ensure you have all the credentials needed to access course material and other resources. Preparing all your supplies and equipment before getting started will reduce delays and distractions that weaken your productivity.  

Find What Note-Taking Strategy Works Best for You

Discover the note-taking strategy that works best for you by practicing several different methods and finding a way to take notes that feels natural and maximizes your understanding of the course material. One of the main decisions you’ll make when formulating your note-taking strategy is whether to use a pen and paper or an electronic device. 

There are pros and cons to both methods: Research suggests that the physical act of writing on paper improves the brain’s encoding process and leads to deeper understanding and better retention of the classwork. A study published in the journal “Psychological Science” found that students using laptops were more likely to write information verbatim instead of putting it into their own words, which hindered recall. The researchers noted that laptop note-takers performed worse on factual content and conceptual understanding when compared to individuals who used pen and paper.

However, there are also many benefits associated with taking notes using an electronic device such as a laptop or tablet. Programs like Google Docs, Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, and the Notes app are great for typing electronic notes. When you type notes while listening to a presentation, reading a textbook, or studying for an assessment, you’re reinforcing the material in your mind, increasing the likelihood that you will remember what you learned. Many people type faster than they can write, so this method might be best for you if writing notes on paper is cumbersome or slow. Electronic notes can also be edited, searched, and reorganized more easily than handwritten notes. 

Use Visual Aids

You can also use illustrations, arrows, diagrams, graphs, and charts to visually represent concepts and information. For example, you might use arrows to show the connection between related concepts or express a chronological sequence of events. You could use a Venn diagram to show the similarities and differences between two ideas. These types of visual aids will deepen your comprehension and serve as useful study aids when preparing for an assessment.  

Keep Your Notes Organized

Organization is crucial when taking notes for a college course. You may want to use an outline format with headings and bullet points to organize your notes and prioritize information. Highlighting, underlining, and using other visual elements is also helpful for separating information and emphasizing key ideas. 

You can use symbols and abbreviations to simplify notes and make them less wordy. For example, in an economics class, you might write down “revenue – expenses = profit” instead of using several sentences to explain this concept.

Make sure to date and title each page and keep the pages in order. Whether using a paper notebook or digital note-taking app, keep all your notes for a class in the same place. 

Leveraging Cohorts at WGU

Earning a college degree online doesn’t mean that you're doing it alone. At WGU, you’ll get personalized guidance and assistance from one-on-one Program Mentors who help you reach your academic goals. You can also participate in student groups through Facebook and LinkedIn. Recently, WGU launched the Owl’s Nest, which allows students to make connections and network with others. 

Many WGU courses offer additional connection opportunities called cohorts. Cohorts use a research-based learning model that breaks down complex coursework and gives students a fresh perspective on the material. If you participate in a cohort at WGU, a mentor will email you short homework assignments, videos, and other learning aids. The mentor will conduct live sessions during which you can complete homework, ask questions, and test your knowledge of the course material. 

Students who participate in cohorts gain access to valuable resources and additional assistance with assignments as well as the opportunity to connect with other students. If you’re interested in joining a cohort, contact a course mentor to receive the cohort calendar and appropriate signup links.

There are many different ways to study for online college courses. There are even online platforms that help you manage coursework, set goals, utilize flashcards and other study aids, and work alongside other students. 

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