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Note Taking in Nursing School

*Original post released 7/16/20

Taking notes effectively and efficiently seems to be something that just about every student struggles with in nursing school. The sooner you find a method that works for you, the better off you’ll be academically…TRUST ME. For this post, I’ll start off by listing a few general tips about note taking that I’ve picked up. Then we’ll move on to tips for handwritten notes versus note taking with a computer, as well as which method I favor and why!

To kick things off, let’s throw out some general tips for taking good notes. One of my first recommendations is to record your lectures if possible. Always be considerate and ask your professor if this is okay first, although most of the time they’ll mention it early on in the semester if they’re opposed to it. However, asking for permission is always a sign of respect and that WILL be noticed by your professor. My next piece of advice is to quickly determine if you’re better at typing or writing more quickly and which you prefer. There is so much information covered in nursing lectures, so you need to be able to take notes rapidly. If you’re worried about retaining information if you type your notes, keep an open mind throughout this article, stick with me until the end, and then make your decision. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a little biased to computer-based note taking.

Highlighting is great…when it’s used sparingly and appropriately. Have a few colors on standby to use for specifics like labs, vocab, on-the-test info, items that need to be looked up, and key points. If you use highlighters, try to use the same color for the same reason in all of your notes. Use your own shorthand and abbreviate whenever possible to save time when taking notes. If you do this, make sure your shorthand/abbreviations are easy to understand and use. Check out the photo to the right for some examples of shorthand and abbreviations that I typically used in my notes throughout nursing school. If you miss a concept and don’t have a recording or video to revisit later, go to the professor’s office hours and ask them about it! They absolutely love when you come to ask them to explain concepts, because it shows you were paying attention, engaged, and are actively trying to succeed in their class!

Now let’s discuss handwritten notes. If you have access to a powerpoint presentation for the lecture, I suggest printing them out with two slides per page, double sided, without printing a “notes” section. Doing so will leave you room to write additional information in the margins when the professor expands on the points in the slide. If you do need the structure of having a notes section, use it. Printing with the notes section makes the details on slides smaller and leaves you with less room to write. I would suggest printing no more than 3 slides per page with the notes section included. Again, I would also encourage you to keep using the same highlighting format consistently across all of your notes. Always be listening for concepts that are repeated, emphasized, and/or presented in practice questions. These concepts will likely be on your exam. Whenever I would take notes by hand, I made a star next to these concepts for that exact reason. When you go back over the notes later, this triggers your mind to remember that this information was emphasized during lecture.

Let’s say your professor doesn’t offer power point slides for their lecture. In this situation, it’s even more important to use those abbreviations and shorthand to help you get down as much of the information being presented as possible. This is also when it’s extremely important to record the lecture if allowed. Side note: write notes in pen because pencil smudges over time. Find a good pen that doesn’t smear (I like the grey and white Bic pens and the all metal zebra pens). When handwriting notes without any prior outline, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll miss something. Recording the lecture will help prevent the loss of information. Not to mention, it’s always nice to have if you’re more of an audio-based learner. Sometimes, when I didn’t have the energy to devote to more studying and reading, I’d play a lecture recording or pull up a YouTube video on the topics covered in that lecture and just watch/listen. It was less stressful, and I found that I retained more of the information that way anyway. Now, I’m not condoning this by any means…just throwing it out there with our current situation of home and web-based learning. I believe many video streaming services have a screen recording option; however, it also may be disabled by the presenter. If that happens, well…you’re still at home and they can’t see that you *forgot* that your recorder was on. It’s an easy mistake anyone can make 😉

Now let’s discuss note taking with a computer! Even if you’re not the best at typing, I still feel like this is an incredible opportunity to maximize your note taking and studying. Hear me out! It’s the night before your lecture and your professor just uploaded the power point slides for the next class. Most of my classmates never looked at the slides until they were printing them out minutes before class. Sounds familiar right? I’m about to get you out of that habit now. Download that power point and make your own outline the night/day before that class starts. This will let you know what’s covered in the lecture and it keeps the information fresh in your mind for class. This is especially important for those dreaded pop quizzes! I had a professor for Pathophysiology who would almost always do pop quizzes at the beginning of every class. By doing my outlines before lecture, I already had an idea of what would be covered and it helped me ace her quizzes. It was nearly the end of the semester before my classmates realized the quizzes were based on her power point presentations. That gave me a leg up.

I know making an outline can seem daunting, and to be honest, I hated them. Once I found a rhythm, however, I learned to absolutely LOVE them. I could keep my material in an extremely organized manner, add in photos, highlight, remove highlights/underlining, underline key points, etc. Take a look at the photo below for an example of how I transform a slide into an outline. I don’t suggest using a pre-made outline format through word because it will take up a lot of valuable extra space. In fact, I even alter my margins to be 0.5″ instead of a full inch. This won’t interfere with three-hole punching your notes either! For every new section of your outline, just tab over once to indent the information and make the rest of the section flush.

Once you’ve got your outline made from the night before lecture, you can easily elaborate on the topics within the presentation that your professor chooses to discuss (see above photo where it says to *insert additional info as given*). This set up also makes it incredibly easy to make flashcards or a study guide when studying for the exam, if that’s how you like to prepare for your tests. For example, using the above photo’s outline, you could make a flash card asking, “What are the signs and symptoms of an infected pressure ulcer?” All of the information below that section could be included as an answer to the question: “fever, increased drainage, pain, warmth, edema, etc.” A tip for making flashcards that have more than one answer? Just add the number of answers in parentheses after the question. Ex: “What are the signs and symptoms of an infected pressure ulcer? (10)” Then, when you’re quizzing yourself or a group, you’ll know how many items you need to come up with to get the right answer. It’s also harder to let yourself peek at the backside of the flashcard when you know how many answers you have left to respond with. You can push yourself a little harder, and that’s only going to help you later when you take your exam.

If your professor doesn’t release power point slides before class, use the same outline setup to type your notes. They’ll just likely be a little less polished. Type as fast as you can to record the information being presented to you. If the presentation isn’t provided, snap photos (or screenshots) of the info if allowed. Again, I’m not condoning this by any means, but there is a button on your keyboard that can *accidentally* be pressed that takes a screen shot of the information being presented via an online class. Also, don’t be afraid to request if the presentation can be shared with the class. You can always spin it as, “There was so much informative content in your presentation! I wanted to make sure I got all the key points from your lecture. I know it would really benefit my classmates and I if we could review your lecture again at our own pace, would you be willing to post or email the presentation?” Phrasing that question in a way that flatters the presenter but also requests access to the information is usually a sure way to get your professor to share the material with you. Always put a positive spin on it, instead of saying something like, “The information was being given too quickly, and I couldn’t keep up. I missed some of the key points and was hoping you’d post the presentation so I could take notes on what I missed.” For all they know, you may have *missed* those key points because you were chatting, looking at your phone, surfing the web, looking at social media, dozing, etc. Trust me, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

I’ll finish off by leaving you with my absolute favorite reason for taking notes via computer. In the ideal situation, you’d have the presentation prior to class. Throughout my program, it was a rare occasion when we didn’t. The reason I love note taking via computer is because you review the materials more than you realize, which helps prepare you better for your exams! Think about it. You’re making an outline of notes BEFORE class. Then, DURING class, instead of scrambling to jot down the slide’s contents, you’re actually listening to the professor expand on the material and you’re recording that information…while everyone around you can barely make it through what the slide itself says. Afterward, you’ve got a FULL outline that not only covers the slides but also the extra info that your teacher thought was applicable and may have even emphasized for your test. Now you’ve basically already made a study guide for that presentation, and it serves as a source for other study methods (Ex: flashcards, study groups, etc.). You put in a little extra effort initially, for an incredible return on your investment later on. Before you even start to study for the exam, you’ve already gone over those notes TWICE! Nursing school is all about studying smarter, not harder. Don’t waste your time and energy on methods that don’t offer the best results. Give it a try, and see if it works for you. I’m confident that you’ll start to see an improvement in how you approach lectures, listen to the lectures, prepare for class, and study for your exams.


Andra Alyse


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