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Organization and Note-Taking in Online School

From online meetings to taped lectures, slide presentations, and discussion boards, online students face a variety of modes for learning crucial information. Learn the techniques, tools, and tricks that successful online students use to stay organized and take notes.

A male student in the library working on a laptop while wearing headphones.

When it comes to note-taking and organization, online learners face both unique advantages and challenges. With the ability to access course content at any time, online students aren’t forced into frantically scribbling down every third word from their professor’s lecture. On the other hand, without the presence of peers, knowing how to identify the key points can pose a problem. However you spin it, one fact remains the same for both traditional and digital students: excellent organizational and note-taking skills are crucial for school success.

We’ve created this guide to help students build the skills they need to stay on track while they work toward their educational ambitions. From understanding the importance of stellar organization to gathering the strategies and methods you need to succeed, keep reading to learn how to take notes like champ and keep your ducks in a row while doing so.

How Are Note-Taking & Organization Different in Online School?

As a remote student, there are a variety of pros and cons when it comes to note-taking and organization. Depending on the format of the class, it may be harder to retain the necessary information and keep it easily accessible compared to traditional in-class scenarios. On the other hand, the fact that you are receiving the majority of your information in an online, digital format can actually lend itself to easier organizational and note-taking practices. Here are some of the major differences you can expect when it comes to online versus traditional learning.

Note Taking


Many Modes of Receiving Information
Having so many different modes of receiving information, including online class meetings, discussion boards, textbooks, slide presentations, and live and pre-recorded lectures can make note-taking challenging. Students are often unsure whether they should take notes on information that already seems to be in a condensed, main idea-style form. Knowing where to draw the line can be challenging at first.
Organizing Multiple Modes of Information
With course information coming to remote students through all of these different avenues, it can be challenging to keep it all straight. Is it possible to distill all of the different mediums into one type of format, such as a large PDF or Word document?
You Can’t See Other Students Taking Notes
As a remote learner, you won’t have the luxury of seeing when other students choose to take notes. It might seem like an elementary idea, but we often respond to this type of thing when we are sitting in an actual classroom. Remote students, then, need to know how to identify those main points and the significant information on their own, without the visual queue from other students.
Hard to Compare Your Organizational Strategies with Those of Other Students
Even though other online learners in your classes may have developed an excellent note-taking system for their needs, it’s often difficult to compare your methods with theirs from a distance. Compare this to in-person scenarios where your classmates could literally show you their processes for staying organized.
In Pre-taped Lectures, You Can’t Ask Questions
One advantage of in-class note-taking is the personalized additions you can make when your or your classmates ask a question in the middle of a lesson. With pre-taped lectures, you won’t be able to make these additions. You’ll still be able to ask a professor questions on material, but you’ll have to incorporate into your notes retroactively.
Digital Formats Can Be Easy to Organize, Store, and Access
For the computer savvy online learner today, the fact that most or all of their online course materials exist in a digital format is a gift. There are so many ways to effectively organize course materials online today. Various programs and apps, when used correctly, can make it much easier to save and access information than when it’s in hardcopy paper form.
You Can Slow Down & Fast Forward Lectures
With pre-recorded lectures, you’ll be able to pause, rewind, and fast forward. This can be helpful for students who want to hear an excerpt again or take a moment to write notes or think. This feature is also helpful for learners who want to fast forward through information they already know or when they’re searching recordings for particular moments.
Remote Students Enjoy the Comforts of Home
As a remote learner, you have the advantage of working from a comfortable space. An effective work environment is important for studying but also for maintaining organization. This is especially the case if you are working with any hard copy documents. You’ll be able to keep them in designated folders or file cabinets and not have to travel to and from class with them.
Notes Collaboration Can Be Easier
Unless it’s frowned upon by your school, you might be able to pool notes from one or two of your trusted classmates. They could share their Word or Google document with you or scan their hand-written notes into a PDF. This does not mean you can skip making notes of your own, though!
Your Time is Your Time
Online students often have more scheduling flexibility than their on-campus peers. Be sure to take advantage of this component of remote learning and build a study/work schedule that plays to your strengths, keeps you on-task, and allows you to do your best.

Valuable Note-Taking & Organization Skills for Online Students

While it’s important to have the right tools to be organized and take good notes, it’s also valuable to develop skills that will help you succeed in the online learning environment. Here are the essential skills you need for success. For some extra practice, try to sharpen these skills while watching a YouTube lecture or online learning test drive lecture.

Note-Taking Skills


Identify Key Points on the Fly

While you’re taking notes, you will have to identify the significant components and main ideas in lectures or readings as you go. Even if you are viewing a recorded lecture that you can pause, you will still need to develop an ear for finding main points for each section or topic to make ample progress through material. Do not write for the sake of making a note. Make it count.


Write Legibly

This might seem like an obvious one but, if you are the type of student that likes to take notes by hand in a notebook, make sure you write legibly. It can also be a good idea to avoid writing too small. Tired eyes during long nights of studying can have a difficult time with small lettering.


Listen While You Write

Whether you’re taking notes from a pre-recorded lecture or a live online class meeting, you need to learn how to keep your mind’s ear listening to the lecture content while you take notes. When you divert too much of your attention to the act of writing your notes, it’s easy to miss important points.


Translate Your Instructor’s Words Into Your Own

You need to preserve essential vocabulary words and proper nouns, but it’s best to translate your teachers’ words into your own words. This increases your likelihood of remembering the content and makes it easier to review when you sit down to study your notes.

Organization Skills


Keep Your Physical Workspace Clean and Clear

This might seem like a given, especially for college students, but it’s crucial to keep a clear workspace and avoid letting post-it notes, scratch paper, doodles, or other unnecessary work pile up. For those working on a computer, this goes for the computer’s desktop. We’ll discuss digital organization methods below, but it’s helpful in the long run to make sure your desktop remains clear of dozens of overlapping icons.


Developing a Routine

It may not seem like a “skill” to develop but creating a routine is an important aspect of successful college life that takes practice, trial, and error. In order to do this, try to convert all those recurring things on your to-do list into actual clock-time. How many hours will that take? Where does it fit in the routine?


Divide Longer Projects and Assignments into Manageable Blocks

You will encounter a wide variety of assignments and requirements for your online classes. Some will take a few minutes to finish while others, like research papers, may be spread out over several days. One of the best ways to stay on-task and avoid feeling overwhelmed is to plan ahead and divide the process into smaller, manageable blocks of time.


Know Your Limits

If you are a first-year student, you’re going to need to keep a close eye on how much work you can handle each week. It can be helpful to work with an academic advisor, who is often available to you remotely online, to figure out how to best tackle your assignments. Knowing your limits ensures that you manage your schedule appropriately and give yourself the best chance to do the highest quality of work.


Practice Self-Care and Take Breaks

Remember that one important component of your success as a student is tied to recharging your batteries, staying positive, and setting aside some time for leisure activities and rest. More rest and a better mood means you’ll be able to stay on-task and focus when you need to be “on.” These activities can be scheduled into your routines. Since it’s part of the schedule, you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking some time for yourself away from schoolwork.

Note-Taking & Organization Techniques, Methods, & Hacks

Now that you’ve committed to developing your skills, you’ll want to learn and incorporate certain techniques to make you a note-taking and organizational expert. Bear in mind that these techniques are different than the skills that they utilize. In other words, skills are internal, while techniques are the methods to put your skills to the best use. Let’s take a detailed look at some of the best techniques and methods for students today. We’ll also consider a handful of slick hacks that will make your day-to-day work a little more savvy.

Note-Taking Techniques

The Cornell Method

What is it

The Cornell Method of note-taking involves dividing your notebook page into three sections: the note-taking area, recall area, and summary area. The note-taking area is designed for all of the longer form notes and general writing you’ll do while listening to a lecture. The recall area contains a list of cue words or keywords that categorize the main points in the note-taking area. Lastly, the summary area contains a written summary of all the main ideas and significant points on the page. It helps you locate notes on specific topics later on, especially when you’re studying for exams.

What are the advantages?

  • Provides a consistent format with easy-to-read sections on every page.
  • Helps you locate topics quickly and improves memory recall when you return to the notes later on.

Don’t Write Down Everything

What is it

While studies show that robust note-taking leads to higher information retention rates, you still don’t need to write everything down. In your own words, hit those key points and significant components of each topic covered in the lecture.

What are the advantages?

  • You’ll have less content to read when you revisit the notes, avoiding burnout and spending less time on nonessential information.
  • You will be able to keep up with real-time note-taking as you listen to a lecture and avoid falling behind or having to stop and start a lecture video.

Create Notes as You Go, Especially When Reading

What is it

A lot of your note-taking will take place while you’re doing the required readings for a course. Even if you’re going to make more extensive notes after you finish reading, taking notes as you go helps you keep track of the main points and remain focused on the task at hand.

What are the advantages?

  • Increased focus and attention to the readings.
  • Develops a keywords or main ideas list on the fly, making it easier to add more extensive information later.

Review & Annotate

What is it

Some of us make one pass through readings or a lecture and then move on. While this works for some students, it’s best to review course material a second time even if it’s a quick overview. On your second time through, you can add additional notes or commentary on what you wrote the first time. Sometimes referred to as annotations, these little additions can be useful because you’re revisiting content after you’ve had a chance to read the whole passage or hear the lecture.

What are the advantages?

  • You’ll be able to correct things you misread or misheard during the first pass through.
  • While adding annotations, you’re improving the detail of your notes while increasing your retention of the material.

Voice Recorded Notes

What is it

It might seem like a lot of extra work but creating an audio recording on your smartphone or computer can be extremely useful. If you record yourself reading notes out loud, you’ll be able to listen to them while you do chores, drive your car, and go about your day. You don’t need to do this for every assignment and may be most useful when you’re preparing for an exam.

What are the advantages?

  • Allows you to study while getting other things done simultaneously.
  • Increases retention by using your auditory memory skills.

Organization Techniques

Color-coding for Notes & Files

What is it

Whether you’re using hardcopy folders or digital files, it can be an excellent organizational technique to color-code them. This allows you to locate course materials and notes quickly without much energy. Even if you use a few colors per class, which could separate significant topics or simply divide the class’s semester into blocks like “beginning, middle, and end,” you’ll be able to find what you need more quickly. Most PCs and Apple computers today can offer you similar color-coding options for files and folders, making it simple to do digitally as well.

What are the advantages?

  • Saves time and energy in the long run.
  • Color-coded materials can help improve your retention of materials.

Make a List & Stick to It

What is it

Old-fashioned to-do lists are still widely used for a reason: they work! Each week create a list of all of the things you need to do, both academic and otherwise. Some organizational experts recommend that you use the “Two Minute Rule”: knock out all of those items on the list that take two minute or less immediately and move forward from there.

What are the advantages?

  • Keeps your weekly goals out in front of you.
  • Helps you avoid procrastination.

Egg Timer Method

What is it

Time management techniques can help you make quicker progress than you may realize. One of the ways to stay on top of things, and to avoid spending too much time on one thing, is to use the egg time method. Any timer on your phone or a watch will do. Before you begin an assignment or studying, determine how much time you can afford to spend on it that day. Set the timer, get to work, and stop when the time is up.

What are the advantages?

  • Progress quickly down your weekly to-do list.
  • Diversify your day and make serious headway by tackling more activities for shorter periods of time.

Use Consistent File Names with Correct Spelling

What is it

When labeling and organizing your files and folders on your computer, be sure that you use a consistent system. For example, you might want to try a file extension that contains the class code, week of the semester, main topic, and date: F111_04_Research Methods_10152022. This way, your file is easily searchable on your computer. As soon as you type in “F111,” all of the files you’ve generated from that class will be sorted in front of you.

What are the advantages?

  • Locate your files in a hurry with specific titles and searchable content.
  • You’ll be able to revisit these notes later on, even years later, without any confusion as to when or why you made them.

Centralized Cloud Location

What is it

If you’re worried about your computer crashing or just want a backup of your work that can be accessed from anywhere with wifi, check out cloud storage. While this is much more common today than only a few years ago, students are quickly learning that cloud-based storage is a safe place to keep their files.

What are the advantages?

  • You can access your files in the cloud from just about anywhere from any device.
  • They serve as a more reliable and cheaper alternative to external hard drives or thumb drives.

Note-Taking Hacks


Draw Graphs & Doodles in Your Notes

Recent scientific research has shown that students who illustrate points in their notes, with graphs and other types of drawings, tend to retain more information. You might end up using a lot more paper but it’s worth it in the long run.


What Time of Day Is Best?

As an online student, you may have the option to view lectures and tackle schoolwork at any time you choose. If you know that you’re much sharper in the morning, make sure you build your routine around that schedule. If you’re a night owl, make sure you clear out the evenings to get your work done.


Use Dashes & Symbols While Writing Notes

Similar to the recall area in the Cornell note-taking method, it can be helpful to have a series of symbols that flag areas on the page or document for your later attention. For example, if you need to revisit a moment in the lecture to clarify a point, you can leave a small symbol of your choosing in the text or margins at that point. You can leave light dashes instead of words if you miss a few while trying to write down a quote and clean it up later. You can get creative with this and make it work for you. Just be sure to be consistent and keep your symbols straight.


External Monitor

Using a second monitor is a great way to take notes and view online course content simultaneously. Especially if you need to be watching a whiteboard or reading discussion board posts as you type, this saves you from having to jump back and forth between windows.

Organization Hacks


Use A Printer for Key Documents & Calendars

Even if it’s just a list of due dates, it can be helpful to have a hard copy in case your computer or internet crashes. Professors are used to their students having technology issues, and there is some grace with that, but the more trouble you can avoid and stay on track the better.


“Two-Weeks Out” Method

Two weeks of time is a good buffer to keep between your questions and exams or other impending deadlines. In other words, if you have a question about course content or an assignment that may affect your grade later on, it’s best to ask the question sooner than later.


Make Online Content “Available Off-line”

Doesn’t it always seem like your internet crashes at the times you need it most? One way to keep moving forward on your assignments and gain access to digital notes you’ve made is to make sure you save them with an “available off-line” mode. Popular programs with this easy-to-use feature include Google Docs, Google Drive, and DropBox.


8/8/8 Plan

Some self-care enthusiasts recommend the 8/8/8 plan which means that, each day, you set aside 8 hours for studying, 8 hours for sleeping, and 8 hours of free time. This can be an excellent way to stay sharp, rested, and sane.

Resources & Tools

In this section we provide some excellent resources and tools that you’ll need to put your note-taking and organizational plans into action. From various types of software and apps, to useful social media accounts and hardware, you’ll be able to find what you need here to put your best foot forward as a remote learner today.


Apple Notes: This note-taking app is for writing down quick thoughts and generating lists, but many students use it for class work. It’s easy to use and syncs easily across all your devices.

Evernote: This widely popular program allows you to take notes with text, images, sketches, audio memos, and more. Students enjoy the user-friendly design and built in organizational features.

Five Simple Strategies for Taking Better Notes at Work: When applied to student life, these strategies can help you create more effect notes in groups, one-on-one, and brainstorming scenarios.

Google Keep: This web- and mobile-based note-taking program integrates easily with Google Docs and makes it simple to share and collaborate with others.

Microsoft OneNote: Excellent for note-taking, collaboration with other users, and organizing a variety of files types, this free program comes as an app or web-based version.

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