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Need desperate help with organizing/taking notes.

  1. Jan 16, 2014 #1
    Just finished Physics I and II, and getting ready to start Thermo/Stat Mech, Wave/Particle Theory (Modern Physics), ODE, Electronics lab, and a Cryptography elective next week.

    When I look back at how I took and organized notes, I feel that I wasted a lot of time shuffling through loose leaf papers, a wirebound notebook, and a gigantic binder of all subjects (with a three-hole punch always nearby) to keep everything in chronological order. Then not to mention having that stack of papers commingled with scratch paper full of calculations which I should've discarded more regularly.

    I would really like to have a "standard" that will work for everything. I figured that since our Physics labs require the use of Quad-ruled composition books, that maybe I should use them for every class. One for class notes, and the other for doing homework problems (perhaps work out the problem correctly on scratch paper and immediately recopy it into the notebook).

    Some other tidbits to help understand my situation:

    1. I always use pen because I feel it's a waste of time to erase things. Better to cross out and start over again. Might use more paper in the end, but pen just feels right.

    2. I've read some study tips here and think I need to stay on a regimented course of reading the book ahead of time.

    3. I hated taking verbatim notes in class and started taking pictures of the board, which the professor didn't mind. I think it really helped me understand the ideas and concepts better.

    4. I'm not sure if we'll get many handouts for these classes, but guess I could use a small binder to keep them all together.

    5. I seem to always be torn between the enforced linearity of a bound notebook vs the freedom and "ease" of doing stuff on loose leaf.

    6. I also love using blank copy paper for doing work because ruled lines annoy me. Having quad ruled notebooks may impair visibility and clarity.

    In summary, I guess I have this dream of accumulating all my notebooks in a consistent form factor, as if they were on a bookshelf and all looked the same.

    I'd greatly appreciate hearing from anyone that has perfected a system that's worked for them successfully and consistently in courses and elsewhere. Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 16, 2014 #2


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    Well here's what worked for me.

    I always had a specific binder for each course. When I went to class I just carried a clipboard full of blank paper for my notes. Then when I got home, the simple act of taking the notes out to "file" into the binder for each course forced me to review the material anyway. I would usually have a separate section in the binder for my own notes or thoughts.

    This will probably date me, but I used to work out problems on scrap "dot matrix" printer paper - the kind that spooled out and you had to tear along perforated edges. What was great about it was that for those problems that seemed to go on forever, you could just keep writing, fold (or not fold) the paper as needed so see what you had done several pages back. Once I had a solution I would usually write it out in good copy which made it possible to follow without all of my blunders along the way, and sometimes I found that I understood things a little better when I bothered to write them out a second time. I kept returned assignments in the binder. I kept the rough notes in a pile somewhere, unorganized, in case I missed something that didn't make it into the good copy or just to make myself feel a little better by having some physical evidence that I had in fact been working on something.

    With regards to taking pictures in class - I recently heard about a phenomenon where someone showed that people tend to remember less of something they take a picture of it. The study I think mostly applied to memories of vacations, but I can't help, but wonder if that's something that would apply to lectures. That said sometimes you just don't have time to get everything down, or worse, you don't understand the difference between an important squiggle on a graph, and a slip of the hand. I think the key, if you take pictures, would be to make sure you file the pictures in some meaningful way to keep from having to sift through all the hundreds of other pics you took during the semester to find the one you want.
  4. Jan 17, 2014 #3
    I always use two 5 subject college ruled spiral bound notebooks with each section devoted towards a single class: one for note-taking in lectures and one for homework assignments. I do not use loose-leaf paper because I am prone to losing things. I'm a junior now and my strategy has seemed to work so far.

    I use pen for writing notes because it does seem much quicker but for homework, pencil all the way. Pen just gets to be too sloppy.

    This was my game plan for my first two years and worked very well. Now as a junior taking 5 math/physics classes, I just can't devote that much time anymore. Now, I choose about 2 or 3 "core" classes that I try to read before lecture and the others I don't worry about as much. I think this is normal and you will typically have more demanding classes based on the professor, your own strengths, and interests (etc) that you will naturally devote more time towards.

    In my opinion, this is a very dangerous thing to do. It may be okay for the lower level physics classes, but I would be careful in the upper level physics courses. In fact, I used to print off the power point slides and annotate them during the lecture which worked well for lower level. In the upper level classes, it has been all chalk board and much of the time, steps are left out and we are supposed to go back and fill in the blanks after class. I usually write in black pen during lecture and "fill in the blanks" in red or blue ink. This might be difficult to do by just taking a picture.

    Also I think it is good to write things down during lecture. It forces you to organize the information you are taking in, on the fly. This ensures that you are really grasping the information and the IMPORTANT concepts. For example you will often find yourself thinking, "This seems important. I should I make this a new header and underline it". This type of thing is good.

    The 5 subject notebooks have a handy folder at each new section :wink:
    Also, I don't recall many handouts but I guess this varies. The folders are useful for keeping track of assignments that you might have to tear out and hand in, though.

    Again, just my personal preference but I do not trust myself with loose-leaf

    I have a problem with trying to cram entire problems on a single sheet of paper and I think having ruled lines helps me space things out a bit. Though, I have thought about trying blank paper at times...

    P.S. TA's do not appreciate rainbow colored paper :tongue:
  5. Jan 17, 2014 #4


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    I've never taken notes, most of the professors at community college would get upset, or feel slighted somehow by this. I explained that I remember material much better if I'm listening and engaged instead of furiously writing notes that:

    1. Already exists in a text someplace.
    2. Honestly I'd never look at anyway.
    3. Would be mostly illegible, my penmanship sucks.

    They'd generally leave me alone after that.

    At university the great majority of my upper division classes discourage note taking. The notes already exist, typed up by the professor.

    So, I would like to suggest that you analyze if note taking is actually helping you at all. They don't work for everyone.
  6. Jan 20, 2014 #5
    Thanks to everyone for their advice. I've been traveling for the past few weeks and didn't have time to respond. This semester, I'll definitely be reading the texts a lot more to keep myself current and ahead of what's discussed in class. I'm also going to reach out to the upperclassmen to get their perspectives on how the course was for them and if they have any tips. Handouts would be nice, but am not too optimistic that we'll be getting a lot of them. Our professors are fairly traditional, so PowerPoints don't show up a lot either.

    Provided I stay current on the readings, then I should no longer have to take verbatim notes, and just write down key points and concepts to reinforce what I already know.

    Is it safe to say that most of you use lined notebooks over quad-ruled?

    I welcome additional comments and advice. Thanks!
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