In high school, I diligently packed my Jansport backpack each morning with three-ring binders and gel pens for note-taking and assignments, each pen and notebook coloured coordinated for a specific class. Smudged pencil markings and bold, gel pen-scrawled headings filled my notes. Back-to-school shopping always entailed carefully picking out a new set of pens, pencils, and stationary. First, PaperMate pens, mechanical pencils and erasers shaped like snacks or characters were all the rage. Then, in the 10th grade, I discovered Muji stationery and became obsessed with taking all my notes with black and multi-coloured Muji pens. Finally, in grade 12, mildliner highlighters stole the show, and I think I bought over 30 different colours – pastels, neon, and earth tones. Eventually, September of my first year at Queen’s rolled around, and as I unzipped my pencil case to prepare for the academic year ahead, I stopped in my tracks: how was I supposed to take notes?

Three years into my undergraduate experience, I am still struggling to answer the question: how should university students take notes? If you ask around, everyone has their own method of studying and note-taking they have perfected over the years. Advising new students about how best to learn is tricky for this reason. While a laptop might offer convenience and efficiency, paper and pen have been shown to increase memory and never run out of battery mid-lecture. Taking notes electronically seems to win the popular vote; this is made apparent through the tidal wave of clicking and tapping you are bound to hear upon the commencement of any lecture. So, are my days of gel pen and PaperMate romance over? Should I have spent less time at Staples as a kid and more time playing typing games? 

I made a mental list of pros and cons for each note-taking medium to work through this question. Taking notes on a laptop allows you to copy and paste, insert links and photos or quickly correct spelling mistakes. If you find it difficult to write fast enough to keep up with professors or have difficulty with writing, the choice to take all notes on a laptop may be an easy one for you. Laptops make note-taking more accessible in many ways, but the cons list cannot be overlooked. For starters, laptops are expensive to buy and replace. Also, if you are on campus all day, carrying around a laptop might make you nervous about the risk of loss, theft, or damage. 

Furthermore, being on campus all day might leave you scrambling for a charging port, an issue that would never happen to a notebook. Laptops are also easily damaged in snow or rain and rapidly lose power in the cold. Typing up notes during a lecture, as opposed to writing them by hand, has been shown to lead to lower levels of retention of information. One obvious con of laptop use is that it presents a tempting distraction through its connection to the internet. It’s easy to lose your way when using a laptop for school and end up on Instagram, or copying and pasting notes without actually absorbing lecture content. Finally, if you have to draw or include unique formatting in notes or quickly jot something in the ‘margins,’ this can end up being more complicated on a laptop. 

I’m not even going to weigh in on iPads, tablets, and those fancy electronic pens, as I feel underqualified. I’ll leave those topics to the note-taking masters and bullet-journal baddies out there, who I only wish I could be like. I’m talking about simple note-taking for students of average-artistic ability today. 

While a pen and paper will never run out of battery, it is astoundingly easy to lose a pen and even easier to destroy a notebook. Physical notebooks may be cheap and easy to replace, but their information is not saved anywhere else but on the pages. In addition, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with the speed of lecture content as the years go on, forcing many to switch to typing just to get it all down. If you aren’t a fan of what your handwriting looks like or don’t excel on the spelling front, writing notes by hand is probably incredibly unappealing. I understand how you feel on that one. The most significant incentive for handwritten notes, in my opinion, is that handwriting is something that needs to be practiced and maintained, or else it can be lost. I can still vividly remember learning how to draw all eight letters of my first name, resisting as my mom reminded me over and over again to hold my pencil correctly. It takes many years to learn letters, words, sentences, punctuation, grammar and even more to develop unique diction, style, and handwriting. If you are in a university program that requires you to hand-write exams, this is an instance where your handwriting skills are put to the test, and pages need to be filled in strict time requirements. If you don’t practice writing through activities such as note-taking, these periodic but critical times of handwriting might be difficult. 

In my case, confidently picking a note-taking method has honestly taken me until now, halfway through my third year. Here is what I have decided is the best of both worlds, utilizing the speed and accuracy of the laptop without breaking up with my stationary. In my oh-so-trendy canvas tote bag next semester, I will be packing; one 5-subject notebook, black pens, highlighters, my laptop, and my laptop charger. Even if I can’t get every word my professors say down, not having access to social media or the distraction of a screen in front of me ultimately allows me to gain way more from in-person lectures. To keep it simple, I’m keeping my black Muji pens and colourful mildliner highlighters to quickly separate key terms, headings, and important information with the swipe of a highlighter. Switching to a 5-subject notebook will ensure that I always have the right notebook and can easily cross-reference other classes. On the days I stay on campus to complete assignments, I’ll bring my laptop and charger without worrying too much about battery life or technological failure slowing me down. 

Every person’s ideal note-taking and studying format is different. It takes a while to figure out what tips and tools make you a better student and which things just make your notes colourful and pretty. I hope you find this article helpful if note-taking and studying methods have been on your mind recently due to exams or the upcoming new year, or if you are a high school student with an eye on the future. Wishing everyone at Queen’s the best of luck on exams, may your notes forever be organized and aesthetic.


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