A familiar excitement fills your mind as you begin a new school term. This season will be different you tell yourself; the one where you stay ahead of lecture material, take elegant notes, and learn faster. As the lectures begin, you scramble to get all the information you hear into your notes, yet you begin feeling overwhelmed with all the knowledge you are expected to absorb.

Does this situation sound familiar?

Different Approaches to Studying

Taking notes efficiently is a crucial way to cope with the pressures of learning difficult academic content. The mindful note-taking habits you develop now in high school will help you in your journey in medical school and during your career as a physician. So now is a good moment to reflect on what note-taking techniques work for you and which ones you may wish to adapt. In this blog post, we will look at different approaches to taking notes, tips to organize the contents of your notes, and ways of making the most of your notes to aid your studying.

It is important to first realize that different students prefer different ways of learning. Some students are visual learners and learn better through reading (and re-reading notes), so notes are the obvious study approach.

Yet others are audio learners, and may benefit more from listening to a lecturer than from frantically writing down notes. Certain university medical courses offer lecture recordings, which helps you listen through a lecture’s material more than once. Some students prefer taking notes on the computers, which helps you get down more information faster, while others prefer taking notes on paper, which aids in processing information more deeply.

You should aim to gain the most from a lecture according to the strengths of your own learning style. If you find yourself barely recollecting what a lecturer mentioned, while feeling that your notes are poor quality, reflect on how you could change your response during lectures.

Tell a Narrative

A clever way to process the new information in a lecture is to construct or imagine a narrative. For instance, when learning about the mechanisms of cell reproduction, imagine the many steps of how cells go from replicating their deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) strands to physically splitting themselves into two halves. Thus, when a teacher gives you new knowledge, such as a certain protein that aids the nucleus divide DNA strands, you can easily orient the information within a narrative of knowledge you already know. Without a way of conceptualizing new information, a lecture could seem like an overwhelming flood of meaningless facts.

As you gain more medical knowledge, you will find a variety of narratives, ranging from molecular pathways to organ systems to even a patient’s understanding of his/her illness.

A molecular example would be our body’s immunological response to a bacterial infection, which follows a predictable series of events, like basketball teammates running a tactical play.

Another example is that our body breaks down food into nutrients through well-rehearsed molecular mechanisms.

On a human physiological level, our blood flows through our body following the laws of fluid physics. In a sense, these formulas tell a story of blood circulation that repeats and varies itself. Similarly, medical researchers have designed mathematical models to tell the narratives of how our kidneys remove waste from the bloodstream in the nephrons, as well as how nerve cells in the brain communicate with one another.

Developing a keen imagination for noticing and reasoning through these patterns will help you take notes faster and process new information faster.

Make Your Own Pattern to Organize Info

There are a variety of techniques you could explore to help organize your notes as you write them. One helpful approach is to colour-code words. For instance, when learning about human anatomy, you could write new technical terms in blue; anatomical features in red; important details in black, and general info in pencil. Instead of getting confused with your own notes, a colour-coded system could help you recollect your own thoughts and notice important facts faster during revision.

Other ideas include underlining or circling important details. You could even edit your notes as you go through them after the lectures. Explore different ways of coding your notes to help you organize your ideas.

What to Do With Notes

Once you have taken lecture notes and revised them after the lectures, you may wonder how you could explore different ways of making the most of them. One approach that some students may find helpful for memorizing notes faster is to distill the key points of every lecture into shorter lecture outlines. They can then memorize these outlines to grasp the crucial ideas from every lecture. Once they have memorized the basics, they could then link up the details with the big ideas. For instance, in neurology lectures, one could first summarize the key parts of the brain and their general functions.

With this framework, one could then go through the notes again and learn the specific proteins and anatomical structures associated with each brain region.

Helpful techniques to re-enforce your network of knowledge include testing yourself with cue cards. Remember: the key in taking notes is to help yourself learn new knowledge, so explore techniques that work best for you!

Key Points:


  • Reflect on your own learning style, and develop a strategy of note taking that aligns with your own preferences
  • Find a way of weaving facts into narratives when taking notes to process new information faster
  • Explore the variety of ways to use your notes efficiently to memorize faster



The Cornell Note-taking System by The Learning Strategies Center, Cornell University


How Do I Learn Best? by VARK


A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop by Cindi May, Scientific American

Lunan Zhao

Lunan Zhao

Medical Sciences Editor

Lunan is a medical student in Canada and a visiting English student at Mansfield College, Oxford. He is particularly interested in medical humanities, social medicine, public health, as well as knowledge translation, and is excited to be Scholastica Inspires’ Medical Sciences Editor! In his free time, he enjoys exploring the distinct ways that metaphors shape both our literary worlds and scientific imagination, and loves going for jogs.