And Now For Something Completely Different

When I was an undergrad, the only way that would have made sense to take notes was with a pencil and paper.  Most lectures I had either required extensive derivations, where the board ended up covered in equations and results, usually with boxes drawn around them for emphasis, once the proof was complete.  No digital note-taking software could possibly keep up with that.

Since starting my post-bacc work, I’ve noticed that a lot of students use laptops in class, although most of them are camped on Facebook.  Anyway, I’m wondering if I should give digital note-taking a try.  It seems to be all the rage in medical school, although again, Facebook probably accounts for a lot of that.  Here are the pros and cons I’ve come up with, at least from my perspective:


  • I type a lot faster than I can write
  • Digital notes are searchable, can be tagged, and are available in the cloud via multiple media
  • It seems a lot easier to organize lecture notes if they’re electronic.  This is a big one for me, since one of the problems I’ve had with lecture notes in the past is that I have a hard time keeping them organized.  This is probably why I don’t refer to them as much as I should.
  • Lecture notes are already digital, usually as PDFs – this is new to me, since most classes I’ve had in the past did not give out notes at all, instead relying on the student to deduce from the reading and lecture what was important.


  • Digitally making diagrams during lecture is impractical.  The guy next to me in biochemistry last semester tried to do this and I watched him struggle miserably.
  • Taking notes with something like EverNote or OneNote is new to me – this is going to be a really busy semester for me, with work, school, and all the rest.  Is the learning curve for taking notes with software like that steep?
  • Part of what helps me learn is writing things down or drawing a diagram, schematic, or feedback system.  I’m worried that switching to a different system, which feels a bit more passive, might not have the same effect.

Anyone else have some thoughts or suggestions?  How do you guys take notes from lectures / reading and what works for you?  I’m thinking of testing it out this semester, so any help would really be appreciated.


12 Responses

  1. This is a really interesting topic. I recently tried to completely give up on the paper notes, mostly because I a) hate carrying them around, and b) never refer back to them once the class is over, and end up with piles of paper that need to be disposed of.

    On the other hand, I completely agree that some note taking in class — on paper — can be indispensable. I’ve tried typing notes at the bottom of ppt slides, but I haven’t really found that to be as helpful as being able to draw my own diagrams and circle relevant things on the page, as you suggest (highlighting can help though). So, I’m not sure what the solution is. It probably depends on the class, though. And even when I took my own paper notes in classes like Ochem and Physics, I found myself referring back to the textbook a LOT because I often felt that the text did a better job explaining things than the professors did. This was especially true when there was an accompanying study guide to the text book.

    I have NO IDEA how electronic notes would work for med school. I did my pre-clinicals during the age of the power point printout, and study guide — to be purchased for each block. I recently threw all of that stuff away. Not sure what I’ll do when I go back, though I noticed that Step up to Medicine is available on the kindle now. Maybe that’s worth a try??

  2. I use to write everything out, but then I had the same issue you did. Everything was so unorganized. I also use to write everything on flashcards, but for one test I had like 400 flashcards and I spent so much time making them, I barely had time to go through them. I started this test with just typing notes during class and referencing text books for extra info. I bought some app for my MAC for typing flash cards. Goes faster than writing and I feel like it is faster and much more organized to review. Plus it keeps track of how many times you go through them and which ones are right and wrong. I have a test in two days, so I guess I will see how this plan works.

  3. I got a laptop at the beginning of my second year of medical school and started using it to take notes in class at that time. I found that it was a lot better for taking notes in class than the traditional pen and paper, as I can type much faster than I can write. When it came to studying, I would often still write a lot of things out on paper (and still do) to help solidify information/concepts in my mind and to test my understanding of them.

    There are a few small downsides, as you mentioned. For the problem of not being able to easily incorporate diagrams into notes, I would keep paper and a pen with me and sometimes make supplemental paper notes/diagrams. I kept these in a separate binder along with any paper handouts we got from professors, but these could easily be scanned and saved on a computer. The bigger problem for me was the distraction of things like Facebook, and I just had to exercise a bit of discipline to pay attention to the lecture rather than checking on the latest status updates.

  4. I think this is becoming (already is?) a central barrier to efficient learning, especially taken in the context of med school where the volume is so great. I’ll share a little bit of my own experience.

    My medical school requires the students to purchase a tablet PC. I’m not talking iPad here, but the older laptops where the screen can be flipped around and made to write on (such as this – We were then shown how to use OneNote to import PowerPoints and take notes on the slides/margins using the stylus. It’s not a bad system; it was revolutionary when they started it a few years ago. However, it seems greatly outdated with the growing presence of true tablets.

    Eventually, I ended up creating my own “books” for each module (we have a systems based curriculum). I would take each lecture’s objectives, put them into a Word document and then fill in notes for each objective, essentially using each objective as an open-ended test question that I would answer based on the lecture. Labor intensive, but worked fairly well.

    One approach many of my classmates took to was using screen clippings to create notecards using something like Anki. For example, a slide would have a title like “Five signs of sepsis” and then list them by bullet point. They would screen clip the bullet points and put them on the “back” of the notecard and then write the question, “What are the signs of sepsis?” on the front. Then they could just flip through the notecards endlessly to study. This is simple enough to do in class, so it is relatively efficient, but you end up with thousands of notecards.

    The sheer volume of info in med school necessitates an electronic solution. Unfortunately, a really good one doesn’t seem to exist. Evernote has some nice features but never seemed truly suited to class note taking to me. OneNote is not terribly difficult to learn and it has some great features like tagging that can help out a lot. But, it also has some bang-your-head-against-the-wall quirks (like every Microsoft product).

    My best advice–which I grant is annoying–is to try a couple things out, pick the one that seems best, and stick with it. They key is not getting caught up in trying everything out there and using one solution once you’ve decided on it. I think I wasted a lot of time trying different things.

    Best of luck!

  5. It all depends on the class. For non-math intensive courses, I love taking notes electronically. If you can stay clear of distractors such as FB, I think that you’ll be fine.

    I second the above posters, do try different methods. You are very bright and will easily adapt.

  6. My former M1 class is really big on the iPad. I still follow them on Facebook, and most of their discussions are about which iPad app they use to annotate the notes. My school isn’t systems based, and in our first year we just have two classes at a time (anatomy/histology & embryology, physiology/biochemistry…). And, our notes are in outline format and handed to us on paper at the beginning of the year- you can also access them via PDF. So most people annotate the notes on the PDF and study from there. I’ve heard them mention neu.annotate (free), iannotate (~$10, you can have multiple files open and switch between the tabs at the top), notability ($0.99)… some buy a stylus to write with ($10) and even get the bluetooth keyboard ($30).

    FYI, the iPad 3 is supposed to be released in February/March.

  7. I’m a traditionalist and really hate the powerpoint/pdf method. I find that I get too distracted online and I really like to write things down in my own words and describe the diagram my way so I’ll remember things-ergo, I only usually print out the diagrams and images and then write down what the prof says about them.

    • I used to be as well and for subjects like math and physics where equations, diagrams, etc. are the standard content, it makes sense. But, as one of the previous commenters noted, the volume of information really does suggest that an electronic approach may be beneficial. I’m a week into the semester and have focused primarily on taking notes using my laptop and EverNote. I’ll post back in a couple of weeks with my thoughts.

  8. I hand write notes in lecture and then type them. From there I merge any type written notes I’ve taken from the book.

    I like the digital format as I can copy and paste graphs and photos (from e-textbooks or Internet study guides I’ve googled) to add to the combined lecture/book notes. This serves as my main study guide.

    I also like how searchable the digital format is.

    I still work problems out on paper or with a whiteboard as I’m a kinetic learner (learn by doing) so that the concepts and ways to work problems stick.

  9. when i started typing my notes in college, i would keep a piece of paper handy so that i could write down any graphs as needed. then i would type something like “see graph number one” on my typed notes so that i would remember the graph existed. that night, i would scan my handwritten notes down and save the pdf image in the same place and with the same file name as my typed notes (example: 2012.01.23 for the typed and 2012.01.23.2 for the graphs). this is all in a “best case scenerio,” of course. 🙂
    i never typed my notes in the lower level classes in college, but it helped me greatly to start typing them in my upper levels when the material got denser/more confusing and the professors started going through it much quicker.

  10. I’m actually a big believer in the digital approach. In my premed courses I usually got the PowerPoints from lecture online (and converted them to PDF handout style, with slides on the left and lines for writing on the right) so that I could annotate them during lecture on my iPad. My app of choice has been Notes Plus for the past year or so, though Notability is also a good one to look into.

    Another big convincer for me was electronic notecards. Easier to manage and organize, and it becomes like a personal, searchable database of terms, definitions, and diagrams. Mental Case is the best way I’ve found to create and manage usable notecards.

    I plan on using my iPad throughout medical school (starting this fall) because it is a good fit for me. Different people definitely learn differently, but this has worked well since I decided to go back to school and pursue a career as a physician. Great blog, by the way; I’ve enjoyed reading for a few months, but haven’t commented till now.

  11. […] And Now For Something Completely Different […]

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