7 Tips for Taking Notes in Your Virtual Classes

By Naomi Fink on October 2, 2020

This semester is going to be a little different for all of us. Whether your college has transitioned into a hybrid model or is taking place entirely online, there have been a lot of changes lately and it can be difficult to stay on top of things. With assignments, recorded lectures, live recitations, office hours, discussion boards, readings, and more, classes blur together and it becomes harder and harder to keep track of the date, let alone keep track of your courses and deadlines.  

In addition to these stresses, it can be especially challenging to avoid burnout when you’re staring at a screen all day. (Zoom fatigue is a real thing!) One way you can maximize your learning and your time is by developing efficient note-taking habits and study methods for your virtual classes. If you’re having difficulty — and you’re definitely not alone — it may be time to switch up your approach to taking notes. As we enter a new semester and new times, here are seven note-taking strategies and study methods to help you do your best in your virtual classes. 

Photo via Pexels

Create an Outline

If your professor posts their lecture slides online, use them! Professor notes and lecture slides serve as excellent outlines that you can then use as a basis to fill in your own thoughts and explanations as you follow along with the lecture. Prepare these notes in advance by copying and pasting your professor’s slides into your notes and formatting them in a way that makes sense to you. I highly recommend using bullet points to keep things organized and in sync with the flow of the lecture. 

Starting with an outline will also help you keep up with the lecture and take some of the pressure off when you’re actually in class or watching a recording. Instead of scribbling down or typing up notes at top speed, you can focus on the material itself and fill in additional information more leisurely. It might take 15-20 minutes to prepare an outline of your lecture, but doing so may allow you to watch your recorded lecture more attentively and perhaps at a faster speed, saving you time overall. 

After creating your outline, be sure to supplement it with your own thoughts and explanations. What your professor puts in writing is often not enough to do well in a course; you need to pay attention to your professors’ verbal explanations as well, especially if you are unfamiliar with the course content. 

Outlining can be a helpful tactic when taking notes on course readings as well. Skim through the assigned chapter or article for major headings and key terms and definitions. By knowing what’s coming up and which sections are most heavily emphasized, it will be easier to stay focused and avoid taking too many notes. 

Be an Active Reader

In addition to creating an outline of your lectures and readings, it’s important to actually fill in notes while you’re reading. Mindlessly skimming through an assigned chapter or reading isn’t going to help you retain the information. Instead, you need to be an active reader.

Being an active reader means deliberately engaging with your readings in a way that keeps you on task and allows you to pull out information from your readings more easily later. This can take different forms for different people. For example, if you own your textbook or have a hardcopy of your handouts, you might opt to highlight certain terms or add notes in the margins of your readings. Annotating as you read and writing down questions or points of confusion as you read are great ways to quickly find the materials you need later. 

Personally, I like to keep an organized record of my notes separate from my readings so that when I study I can rely on my notes alone without needing to go back and reference readings directly. This means transferring any and all annotations from my textbooks into my notes and/or writing down any notes I have while reading directly into my notes to start with. 

Taking detailed notes on your readings takes longer in the moment but saves you time in the long-run. Very rarely have I had to reread a chapter or go back to an assigned reading while studying — usually the combination of notes from readings and lectures is sufficient. Be an active reader and keep your notes organized to avoid extra reading and last-minute cramming before quizzes and exams. 

Photo via Pexels

Insert Images and Diagrams

Sometimes it’s hard to capture the essence of a reading or finding with words. In cases like these, it can be helpful to add graphs, diagrams, or drawings to your notes to serve as visual reminders or summaries. 

If you’re not particularly artistic, don’t worry! There are a few different ways you can do this. If you’re taking notes by hand and don’t want to draw out the diagram yourself, you can print out the image instead — just be sure to leave space in your notes to add it in later. Alternatively, if you’re taking notes on your computer, you can always screenshot the image or save it to your computer and insert it into your notes directly.  

This method has proven to be extremely helpful for me so far this semester. As a Psychology major, there are lots of studies that are better summed up in graphs than in words, and my notes are filled with inserted images. I use this technique to sum up concepts that I’m less familiar with as well. For example, my geology notes probably wouldn’t make sense to me without the added visual representations. Depending on your classes, I’d highly recommend you try this method out for yourself!  

Split Your Screen…But Not Your Attention 

Splitting your screen is an awesome way to take notes on your laptop while Zooming into your lectures, watching class recordings, and/or doing online readings. It’ll also help you feel more like you’re really in class.

Think about it like this: if your courses were taking place in-person, you’d have your notebook or laptop on a desk in front of you, your classmates by your side, and a PowerPoint presentation projected onto the board at the front of the classroom. Your screen is now your professors’ whiteboard, Zoom is now your social sphere, and your notes are potentially also online now. In other words, your laptop is now your academic center, so splitting your screen between various educational needs is huge. 

While splitting your screen allows you to be more efficient, splitting your attention does not. It may be tempting to do other things during class, but odds are you’re not going to absorb as much information and you’ll wind up needing to put in extra work later. Our brains aren’t built for multitasking. The truth is, whenever we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually just forcing our brain to switch back and forth between tasks very quickly. This is mentally exhausting — don’t go down that path. Pay attention upfront and try your best to focus on one thing at a time. 

One way to stay on task is to make sure you’ve set up a proper workspace. Designating a quiet place to work where you won’t be interrupted will make it easier to concentrate on taking notes and be productive in general. Being in a physical work zone will help your brain get into a work zone.  

Make Flashcards 

Flashcards aren’t just for pre-exam studying — they can also be an efficient way to take notes and keep them organized throughout the semester. Depending on your note-taking preferences, there are a few different ways to approach flashcards. 

Go old-school by creating flashcards using index cards and a handy-dandy pencil. Research shows that writing things helps your brain process and consolidate information. Color-code your flashcards by section or PowerPoint if you’re feeling fancy!  

Alternatively, you can utilize online flashcard-making resources such as Quizlet. Online flashcards are great since most of us can type faster than we can write. Additionally, online flashcards can be shared with others. This is a useful feature when sharing notes with friends or study-group partners.  

Another way to create flashcards is to print out your lecture slides (three-six per page), cut them out, and write key terms on the back. This is a quick and easy method that will help you remember the most important lecture points and fill in the blanks later. Bonus: you’ll already have study material prepared for exams.  

When studying, don’t go through your notes mindlessly. Sort your flashcards into piles depending on which concepts you feel most confident in and pay special attention to those that you’re less sure of. Reviewing is important! Practice your flashcards out loud and/or write down any concepts you don’t get right the first time around; engaging your other senses will help your brain process and store the information for when you really need it.

Take Notes by Hand

This may seem counterintuitive since so many course materials are online now, but that’s exactly the point. With so many classes and other aspects of our lives taking place on our computers, many of us are spending exorbitant amounts of time staring at a screen; taking notes by hand is an excellent excuse to give yourself a break from being on the computer.

If possible, try to print out your readings or gain access to a physical copy of your textbook to maximize the effect of temporarily going offline. Weather and social-distancing permitting, you can even take your non-digital work outside with you to get some fresh air without worrying about battery life or screen glares.

Doing work by hand will also help you break up your day. As online classes stretch into online assignments, tests, and social events, taking the time to do something offline, even if it’s studying, will simply feel different — and in the age of Zoom, that difference is important.

Grab a writing utensil and notebook and get to work! See how an hour or two of taking notes computer-free affects you.

Photo via Pixabay

Keep To a Schedule 

Even if you break up your day with handwritten note-taking or socially distanced walks, the days still seem to blur together. Creating a schedule and sticking to it can help you differentiate between days and feel more in control of your time. Calendars and/or planners — whether physical or digital — can be really helpful for this purpose. (I don’t know what I’d do without Google Calendar!) 

Add classes to your calendar and stay on track by approaching your lectures and coursework wisely. If your lectures are live, attend them, and if your lectures are recorded, make sure to set aside time to actually watch them and take notes. Having classes online allows for a lot more flexibility in terms of timing and is a great opportunity to take ownership of your schedule. On the flip side, having online classes also requires a lot more personal responsibility, accountability, and time management skills. It can be really easy to slack off but that certainly doesn’t mean that you should. Make this semester work for you! 

Taking notes isn’t necessarily something we think about consciously very often but as classes adjust to an online platform, perhaps it’s a good time for us to adjust the way we study too. Test out these diverse note-taking techniques and see what works best for you and your virtual classes. Last year I took almost all of my notes by hand. This year I’m finding that taking notes online works better for me. Different methods work for different people for different course content so don’t be afraid to switch it up. Wishing you an academic year of successful note-taking, reflective study-habits, and joyful new beginnings! 

Naomi Fink is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to being a Uloop writer, Naomi is the Marketing Manager at Positive Voices. Some of Naomi's hobbies include hiking, volunteering, yoga, swimming, art, and of course, writing!

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