University Note-Taking Organization Systems: Clipboards and Binders and Notebooks, Oh My!

Taking notes in university,

If you’re a university student, you know that you’ll be taking a lot of notes in the upcoming school year.  It is crucial, if you want to succeed as a student, that you find a method of organizing your notes so that when midterms and finals roll around, everything is right where you need it to be!

I went through a few note-taking systems myself, always looking for better ways to organize myself to make my life easier.  University can be very stressful, and anything you can do to make your life easier on yourself is always a good move!  Here are a few of the systems I tried:

1. The Clipboard/Binder System

I carried around a clipboard for each class (the kind that is half-folder, half-clipboard, so it folds and protects your papers).  That way, I saved a significant amount of space in my bag and it wasn’t so heavy to carry everything around (this was mostly a concern when I was in pre-med and had long days with big heavy textbooks to carry around – why add extra weight with all those notebooks or a big binder?).  At the end of the week, I would empty out the clipboards and organize the notes into a big binder (and re-stocked the paper in the clipboards to make sure I never ran out).

The key to this note-taking system is vigilance – you have to date every page, perhaps even number them, otherwise they might get out of order, which can be super frustrating.  You have to make sure to keep up with transferring your notes into a binder, as not only is this a great way to quickly review what you have learned recently, but also because your clipboard will get full and you won’t end up terribly organized.

Binder systems are great for when it comes time to make study notes for midterms and exams – you can just pull out the relevant pages, revise them, type them up, add information from textbooks or things you’ve photocopied, include old assignments…all your information is easily added to and changed.

2. The Notebook System

I’ve done two different versions of this system – either you can use one of those big five-subject notebooks with the dividers built into it, and then you only ever have to carry around one thing, or use a bunch of separate ones.  The five-subject notebooks can be heavy and unwieldy to try and carry around.  I also tend to write a lot, and often run out of pages in a section, which is frustrating.

Instead, I started carrying a notebook for each course.  I started with those small black and white composition books – this was a great way of carrying lightweight books, but still dedicating a full notebook to each course.  And when I inevitably filled up a notebook, it automatically broke up my notes into a certain date range, which often made it easier to find them later.  However, all of those notebooks look identical, and even though I wrote the course code on the front of each of them, it still became very easy to mix them up and grab the wrong book in a hurry.  Additionally, they became a bit cumbersome on those small desks attached to the chairs in lecture halls.  You wouldn’t think a tiny little composition book would be so difficult, but those desks are tiny, and I would have to fold over the book to try and fit it without jabbing it into the person sitting next to me, but the notebook’s spine isn’t really made for that and it wouldn’t lay flat…it was annoying.  That system didn’t last longer than a year.

I made the switch to regular, ring-bound notebooks.  This wasn’t too bad as far as taking up space, and was never any heavier than the five-subject notebook.  Plus, it had many added benefits versus other types of notebooks.  First, I could colour-code my notebooks – for example, I might have to carry a separate folder with sheet music or a Duo-Tang full of journal entries, and I could coordinate the colour of those folders with the colour of my notebook.  Music Education class? Make sure I have three pink things.  History? Two blue.  Much better.  Additionally, since they were so thick, I almost never filled them up, so I could also keep my reading or seminar notes in the same book.  Lecture notes – front to back, reading notes – back to front.  (Seminar notes I often mixed right into the lecture notes, properly labelled of course, or written in a different pen colour to show distinction and mix things up a bit.  The seminar notes were easier to integrate because they were often on the same subject as the previous lecture, or at least were closely related, so it was nice having them side-by-side.  Reading notes I kept at the back of the notebook because, if I fell behind my reading, they might not be at all related to the lecture notes they’d fall beside.)

I retained the use of five-subject notebooks for midterms and exams.  I could arrange them in order of the tests, compile information from various sources, re-create my notes based on an exam study guide, and have all my study material for that week (or month) of hell right in one place.

3. The Laptop System

I started university with an unfortunate laptop.  It was old, it had zero battery life, it was big and clunky, and it was slow.  It wasn’t something I wanted to carry around to classes, and basically it just lived in my dorm room.  It wasn’t until my last to years of undergrad that I had a good laptop that could be carried around to classes.  But the laptop bag I had was large and clunky and didn’t hold many other books, so it was rare for me to want to bring my laptop all the way up to campus every day.

However, there were the odd days when I only had two hours of class or when I had a paper I wanted to work on between classes, so I’d lug it up with me.  I also had some really fast-speaking professors, and if I had tried to rely on handwriting my notes, I would have missed half of every lecture.  So there were certain classes that ended up having lecture notes taken on my laptop.

When it came time to study, I could either write it out in my big five-subject notebook, print out the notes and highlight them, and/or make cue cards.

Teacher’s College

This year, since I have my iPad mini, I’m going to try and use that for my classes.  I purchased a Bluetooth keyboard to make typing fast and easy, and I have the app Evernote to keep my digital notebooks organised.  However, you can bet on a few things:

a) I will still be bringing along a notebook for the first one or two weeks of school, in case one of my teachers has a anti-technology policy or I just find that for some reason I don’t like taking notes on my iPad for a particular lecture.

2) I’m still going to use the big five-subject notebooks for exam notes.  Some things will never change.

c) I wouldn’t be doing this if my iPad wasn’t safely secured in its Survivor case.  It’s only that security that gives me the peace of mind to carry it all over the place just thrown down in my bag.

4) I’ve already invested in highlighters, post-its, and cue cards for study purposes.  Oh yeah, on the ball!

I really hope this article has given you a good idea of how you might like to organise yourself for school.  Maybe I’m just a big anal retentive weirdo who overthinks things like this, but I really do think a solid organization system is key if you want to achieve big things.  After all, like my Mom says, “You can’t get dishes clean in a dirty sink!”  (Which isn’t a metaphor, she really doesn’t like dirty sinks, but I think it somewhat applies here, too. Or I’m being crazy again.)

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