Help this old lady learn how all you hip young kids take notes in class.
September 3, 2016 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Starting grad school in a few weeks and need some suggestions for note taking "apps" or software. I'm more of a pen and paper kind of girl but I know that, realistically, it might be best if I learned to take lecture notes on my laptop or iPad. What do you use for notes?

I'm just now learning about iCloud and how to link it up to all my devices. (don't laugh. I'm the oldest 27 year old ever) Is there an application you can recommend that I could install on my iPad and laptop for note taking and organization that would update and save on both devices? What has worked for you?

Thanks in advance!

Love, grandma.
Sent from my iPhone
posted by twoforty5am to Technology (38 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I head up the Mature Students Association at a law school, so I have some experience with what most older students are doing.

First of all, you should know that studies suggest that taking notes on paper is better for understanding and retention. Even though everyone in my cohort knows that, most of us take notes on laptops anyway.

Here are the most common laptop solutions, order more by how much I like them than by popularity.

Evernote. The new pricing scheme for Evernote means you can only use it for free on 2 devices at a time, but if all you need is laptop and tablet, you're good, and this is almost certainly your best choice.

Microsoft OneDrive -- if you have an Office subscription through your school (or the student versions are relatively cheap) this is an option, as well. There's a note taking application in the suite. It's bloatier than Evernote and I find it does stupider things with formatting that drive me crazy.

Taking notes in your word processor and saving to Dropbox. This tends to work less well on tablets, but if you're going to want your notes in a word processor eventually (this is common for law students, because we need them to prep our summaries for our exams) then it can save effort.

Taking notes in Google Docs. This really works best if you have wifi in the classroom and can be iffy if you don't. There are offline options, but they're not always the best.

AudioNote -- if you want to record your lectures and take notes, AudioNote seems to be the choice.

There are about a million other options, but those are by far the most common.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:42 PM on September 3, 2016 [13 favorites]

I used a notepad and pen, and then just scanned my notes as PDFs.

I'm well aware of the studies that jacquilynne posted above, and they're backed up by my personal experience. Students in class with me who took their notes by hand clearly had a better grasp of the material during classroom discussions, and seemed to have a much easier time with papers and exams compared with those who had a laptop or iPad in front of them the entire class.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:45 PM on September 3, 2016 [13 favorites]

And, for the best worlds, you can't beat an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil. Goodnotes and notability are both great apps for this, but there are many others.
posted by tillsbury at 2:50 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, paper and pen. I teach in a program where all students are required to bring laptops to class. Often there are good reasons for them to have them, and then we use them accordingly. But, quite often writing by hand is better. Few of my students have quick access to scanners, they often just snap images with their iPhones for reference later (or submission on Moodle) the same way they snap images of the chalkboard. (Yes, we still have chalkboards in all our classrooms.)
posted by Gotanda at 2:52 PM on September 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I started grad school at 27 *cougcough* years back. I took notes in a notebook. It really does help with retention. Plus it's real hard to lose a paper version or accidentally erase part. It worked out real great in my classes and for my thesis. Many grad students use paper. It's not old school or cliche. Although the LAZIEST note taking I've seen is taking a picture of the board with your phone. When I don't care, I do this, but it makes me feel sad when I am teaching and students do it.
posted by Kalmya at 2:52 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm taking an undergrad computer science class this semester, and I'm using a notebook and pen. I also bring my laptop and use that to type in code, but for basic note-taking, I like pen and paper better. I would say that most of the kids take notes on a laptop, but I am definitely not the only person with a notebook.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:59 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Dear Grandma,

I take notes in handwriting on my Samsung Galaxy Note, using Squid, an excellent stylus notes app which unfortunately doesn't seem to be available in an Apple version. I highly recommend taking handwritten notes on a tablet. I find I get less distracted than when taking typed notes on a laptop, and I still have to do the intellectual work of parsing what to note down instead of producing a verbatim transcription as some of my laptop-toting classmates do. Plus, when PowerPoint slides are distributed to my classes, I can scribble notes straight on the slides, and I have the advantage of only carrying one piece of technology instead of a bunch of papers and notebooks (I'm not very organized, and this helps a lot).

Best luck in grad school,
A hip young 30 year old
posted by snorkmaiden at 3:01 PM on September 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm a 30 year old student who is also figuring out how technology works for the first time (I just got my first smartphone this summer!). A number of people recommended the Livescribe smart pen for me. You basically take notes on special paper while the pen records the audio of your lecture. You can then upload both the audio and the notes that you took. You are therefore taking notes on paper (with the benefits others have mentioned) but also getting the benefit of having everything uploaded and easily accessible.

I've only just started using one thanks to a grant from my university, so I can't personally vouch for them yet (except to say that they're neat), but I know several people who swear by them and say "it's how I got my MA!"
posted by teponaztli at 3:03 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm a 27 year old student & app developer in a computer science program, and I use pen and paper (unless I specifically need my laptop to run labs in class). Can't beat it.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:14 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Retention is better with pen and paper, and allows you to doodle as needed (which can help you to focus). If your laptop is open it's more tempting to do things like check your email or surf the net. I find laptops in small classes especially (which I'm assuming you'll have) annoying due to the typing and the distraction.

Splurge on a larger moleskin and get a few pens you love, after class you can type and organize your notes up (I'd just use word or pages) and save them (I'd use - it will allow you to access your notes on any computer or smartphone via the dropbox app that you just need to sign up for and download onto your computers).
posted by lafemma at 3:23 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nthing everyone who suggested just sticking with paper and pen.

I just finished up graduate school, and while several classmates of mine did use laptops, several others (like me) used pen and paper. For me, pen and paper meant that I could draw quick diagrams/flowcharts, and not having a screen in front of me made it easier to be fully present for the discussion. Bonus: my backpack was much lighter, and I never had to worry about forgetting my charger at home.

Grad school is tough enough; don't make it tougher on yourself by switching to a whole new system when you already have one you're comfortable with.
posted by Tamanna at 3:27 PM on September 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm a 28 year old grad student. Pen and paper is what I use for notes, and also for my own writing, calculations, etc. right up until I need to make it presentable. The only reason I kind of want a tablet is to free myself from printing out and hauling around hard copies of journal articles.
posted by egregious theorem at 3:33 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

They have Moleskines that work with Evernote so you can take notes on paper and easily upload them.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:01 PM on September 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yes to paper and pen for note-taking.

But I've found that my iPad Pro + pencil works just as well for me taking notes as it did when I took them on paper.

I highly recommend then retyping those notes into a Google Doc, and creating a table of contents (it's Document Outline, I believe, and it's in the menu Tools --> Document Outline) for each day's notes. That makes it easy to study, and can be accessed anywhere with a wifi connection or with mobile data. Makes studying easier.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:07 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, sorry, I graduated 4 years ago and while laptops were abundant I always used a pen and paper. If I ever typed it up I would totally forget it. Not to mention being distracted by the internet or formatting.

When you write it - you remember what it actually LOOKS like too and you can do things like drawing arrows, underline, all caps, highlight, doodle, scribble and misspell a word. Easily do bullet points and lists without getting annoyed at something trying to "help" you format. I have a semi-photo related memory so I would literally remember what the page looked like with all the scribbles and whatnot. Little diagrams and graphs. Not to mention you can just take them with you to study and not worry about battery power or printing.

I just kept one notebook at a time. I labeled the class at the top then took notes as needed. When I needed to study or review I just tore those pages out and stapled them together. Then I put them in a folder in my backpack when I was done. Subject notebooks never worked for me because some classes needed more notes than others.

The only thing I'd maybe suggest is something that does handwriting type note taking. Or scan your hard copies in at the end of the week or whatever if you want a backup or to easily share them for a group.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:08 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

When I started med school last year at 31, I started out using pen & paper, but eventually switched to... nothing. Well, I still have paper in front of me, but I found that there was way too much material for me to take effective notes with the traditional method. I had better results just paying attention, and then studying the material further after lecture (often with the professor's slides as a reference to find relevant material in textbooks and other resources). I agree that laptops are distracting. If I've got mine open in lecture, it's because it's a mandatory lecture that I don't care about, and I'm studying something else.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:18 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Microsoft OneNote. It's included in Office. It lets you record the audio and take notes at the same time, and keys the notes to the exact moment in the audio.

For a non-tech solution, nthing sticking with pen and paper -- it got me through law school (and at the end of the semester, I made an outline in Word based on my paper notes).
posted by chickenmagazine at 4:31 PM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing paper and pen! If your professor will be using powerpoint, try to get the slides in advance, print them out (four slides to a page), and take your notes directly in context on the slides.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 4:58 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

You guys are the best!
Thanks for making me feel a heck of a lot better.
Going to go treat myself to some new pretty moleskin notebooks.
Love the idea of scanning my notes in after class, too.
posted by twoforty5am at 5:32 PM on September 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'd guess only 2% of my class (of 300) still takes hand written notes on paper. People that do like hand writing now use a stylus on either a Microsoft Surface Pro or an IPad Pro. You can save the powerpoint slides/pdfs to OneNote/Notability and then markup the slides with your stylus during the lecture. It's the same as traditional paper, except you can convert your handwriting to searchable text and you don't have to print off and lug around a ton of paper. It's much easier to organize and file your notes. You have so many coloured pens and highlighters at your disposal, it's great! Most people have their notes backup to OneDrive or Dropbox etc. so there's less risk of losing them.

Many others do still type notes during the lecture, but if you want to hand write I would highly recommend a surface or IPad Pro, there are so many advantages to hand writing on a tablet, the only major downside I can think of is the expense.
posted by piper4 at 6:01 PM on September 3, 2016

Just a heads up, since several people have recommended audio devices so far: I am sure this is field-dependent, but I don't know any colleagues who teach in the humanities who would be okay with students just straight-up recording all of their lectures and seminars. (Especially seminars, because then you're not only recording the professor but also your fellow students.) Since you are a new student, I would recommend passing on any audio-recording based solutions until you learn the norms where you are.

(Obviously, in some cases students need accommodations related to learning disabilities, or occasional recordings for unavoidable absences, but those will be negotiated on an individual basis.)
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 6:09 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just finished grad school (a master's). I'm in my mid/late 30s. I was the oldest in most if not all of my classes.

I'm a great typist, but I used pen and paper for taking notes. I find it much faster and more flexible than computer-based note-taking. You can easily mess with the layout (draw boxes and circles, add stars and arrows, delete by just drawing a line through things, make sidebars and things on another part of the paper). There's no accidental autocorrect or unnecessary spellcheck reminders. You can quickly refer to previous notes by just flipping back through your binder/notebook, no complicated navigation or file opening.

Seconding the distraction factor: The few times I did need to have a laptop in class, I wound up screwing around on the internet. The ease of "just a quick check" of email or Twitter was too simple, and the temptation of surfing during a boring lecture was very hard to resist. And I'd still give in and do it, even though I hated this behavior in other students! When I sat in rows behind them trying to watch the lecture, their laptop screens would be flashing sports and shopping pages, and it was like trying to ignore those "ONE WEIRD TRICK" animated GIF ads.

Nobody ever commented on my paper note-taking, BTW. Nobody ever said I should switch to a tech solution or poked fun at using pen and paper.
posted by cadge at 6:23 PM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I started my Masters aged 39. What you should do is what works best for you to get the learnings into your head.

Most of my lecturers put their powerpoint presentations online before class - I print the presentation and then take notes onto the printed version with a pen.
posted by girlgenius at 6:41 PM on September 3, 2016

1. Most everyone still uses pen(cil) and paper for taking notes in class.
2. It's the best tool that exists for this purpose.
3. Especially if you're already a pen and paper kind of girl, there is absolutely no reason to change that.
posted by splitpeasoup at 7:00 PM on September 3, 2016

Take notes via pen/pencil, then when you are reviewing your notes type them up and spend a little time formatting them to make them more coherent. My dad taught me that if you review your notes within an hour after class ends, your short term memory will help contribute to any gaps that may have occurred during the note taking process.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 7:22 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Livescribe smartpen. You write in a moleskine, and it gets sent to your phone and is immediately searchable. And, if your professor lets you, it can record the lecture with the amazingly useful feature of letting you tap on your notes later to hear exactly what was said at the moment you scrawled a particular word.
posted by umbĂș at 9:52 PM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

While it looks like there's a pretty overwhelming consensus in here, there's one more thought I want to throw out. I started grad school a few weeks ago and had one professor who from day 1 said laptops were banned in his class. That was because he said he's realized he can get better discussions when they're not around. I've had several other professors say that they will institute a similar policy if discussions start to lag. YMMV, but it seems like the current trend among faculty is pen/paper.
posted by Deflagro at 11:08 PM on September 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I always just used good ol' Microsoft Word for my notes, and then I keep everything in a Dropbox folder. Dropbox is free and you can install it on all your computers, your phone, whatever and even on devices it's not installed on, you can still go online and download whatever you need. Dropbox has really simplified my life.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:15 AM on September 4, 2016

As someone with pretty severe learning disabilities, I must use my computer to take notes. I have accommodations for it. I use google drive for taking notes. Some professors readily make available their power points, and I always save those to my google drive. I also use a paid version Diigo to save and annotate articles- they have something called an outliner where you can organize the notes from various articles in one page. This has been enormously helpful to me when writing papers because I can drag and drop different quotes and notes and organize them into subject headings and make an outline in the same document. Diigo then lets you copy and paste, which I do into my google drive.

I know you didn't ask about organizing your work, but I think it's an important part of going back to school. I also have a pretty good folder system in my google drive- A main folder for my program, a folder each semester, then each class, then in each class a folder for assignments, notes, powerpoints, and syllabus. I use a taxonomy to name files so when searching for things I can find them. I also make up a template for APA or MLA (I take classes in two disciplines) that I use as the final step in paper writing. One great resource for paper writing is called OWL (
posted by momochan at 7:36 AM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ok, so update: one of the things that I'm doing this weekend is taking my lecture notes and my reading notes and synthesizing them into a Word document. And this is *hard*, because I have a lot of diagrams from lecture, and Word is not good at all with diagrams. I've been using drawing software to draw the diagrams and then inserting that file into my Word document, which is cumbersome. I may just take a photo of the diagram and then insert that. So basically, I don't think I could take notes with word processing software in class, because I need the flexibility to quickly take down things that don't follow typical paragraph structure.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:21 AM on September 4, 2016

For my Ph.D. Program, I just did pen and paper, but lately for notes in meetings and some online classes ve been using Evernote and Penultimate. I hand write the notes in Penultimate and then they go live in an Evernote notebook. They are searchable and easy to refer back to and I get the renter ion value of handwriting my notes.
I tried Livescribe, but the pen itself wrote horribly. A good stylus works way better for me than a crappy pen
posted by teleri025 at 9:55 AM on September 4, 2016

When I went back to finish undergrad at 30 (and into grad school at 32) I absolutely had this moment, when I realized that I had no idea how to be a good student! (Funny how differently we approach school after some time in the working world...) The Cornell Note system saved my life! I still use it when doing research for work or personal projects. Basic idea is that you take notes on the right side, and put topic headings on the left, then go back after class and make summary statements at the bottom. This system was very useful for studying later. Good luck in grad school!
posted by AliceBlue at 3:14 PM on September 4, 2016

Re kalmya, "Although the LAZIEST note taking I've seen is taking a picture of the board with your phone. When I don't care, I do this, but it makes me feel sad when I am teaching and students do it."

Sure, it can be lazy, but it depends. Sometimes I'll snap pics of the board after we've been working on something for a while. Students in my classes usually do it at the end of class or when I do it. It depends what you do with the pics. And, for my students even though they have laptops they still live in their phones.
posted by Gotanda at 5:11 PM on September 4, 2016

Write it down, but then transfer your notes to Powerpoint. You'll retain and generally have a better understanding of the material. This also makes studying for tests a lot easier than trying to read your chickenscrawls from 6 months ago.
posted by xammerboy at 7:05 PM on September 4, 2016

Another vote for good old-fashioned pen and paper note taking. I'm a fast typist, but I find it faster to take notes on a lecture if I'm writing. Just the physical act of writing the information down helps me retain it, too.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:27 AM on September 5, 2016

I've gone back to school for a science degree as an old woman and I find my retention is the best when I write the notes by hand. I swear I have ADHD because having a laptop or my phone at hand is a total temptation to distraction. My notes by hand allows me a lot more freedom to draw molecules and formulas and to put emphasis on stuff. My favorite class mode, however, is to have their slides printed out in a format that has room for my own notes on the sides, then I can sit back and listen instead of frantically writing what they are saying. I've had professors say that recording the lecture is fine and I think that may be what I do for my second semester of organic chem. My sister always recorded her lectures in med school. I can't say enough positive things about writing notes with the Palomino Blackwing pencil. An easy to read dark line created by hardly pressing at all and the eraser lasts for the entire life of the pencil, even through my horrible showing in calculus.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:28 PM on September 5, 2016

I work in a tech job and I use the Cornell notes method. I'm often the only person:
1. Without a laptop in a meeting.
2. Actually paying attention to the speaker.
posted by cnc at 10:04 PM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm another pen and paper person. I back up my notes with cell phone photos, especially if it's something like a lab notebook that might get spilled on. And retype when I need the repetition to get things down.
posted by momus_window at 5:59 PM on September 6, 2016

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