Students: Try This Fantastic Free Tool for Taking Notes

I struggled for many years to find a note-taking method that works for me, because it seemed that no matter how I took my notes, I never wanted to look back at them and it showed in my grades. Eventually, I realized that taking pen-and-paper notes in the traditional form just doesn’t work well for me, and I decided to find another way. Given that most of the work that I already do is created and stored on my laptop, I thought that it would be beneficial for me to take notes on my computer. I tried taking notes this way before using Microsoft Word and Google Docs, but I was always frustrated with how structured these notes had to be and how hard it was to type equations into them. It felt like I wasted more time than was worthwhile trying to make my notes into a format that the computer would accept and that would still be understandable later.

OneNote notes
Recently, though, I discovered Microsoft OneNote [which Northwestern provides to all students free of charge]. It's given me a new method of taking notes on a computer. Many of OneNote's features are aimed at people whose computers have some sort of pen/tablet input, but it can be used just as well by those without. Notes taken on OneNote don’t have to follow any specific structure at all, and they’re automatically synced across all of your devices. Currently, OneNote has apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows and Mac computers. There’s even an app for Android-enabled watches (don’t tell your professors)!

OneNote shapes
One of my favorite features of OneNote is its ability to make shapes. Too often, my professors are making some sort of useful diagram on the board, and my own artistic ability is not enough to recreate it. OneNote has an array of built-in shapes (including graph axes) that allow for the creation of beautiful, accurate diagrams right in your notes. If you’re using pen or tablet input on Windows 10 to handwrite your notes, or even if you’re just using a mouse or trackpad, OneNote also has a feature called “Ink to Shape” that will try to guess what shape you’re drawing and clean it up for you.

Using Ink-to-Shape with OneNote Universal

For the mathematically inclined, OneNote also has an awesome equation editor. One of the most useful features of this particular equation editor is that it will perform some calculations for you. Simply end a line with an equals sign and when you start a new line and OneNote will try to calculate the value of the left-hand side of the equation for you. For example, to create Sample Equation, simply type “P_a (q) y_p = P_b (q) u”, select the entire thing, and then click the OneNote math button button. Even more complex equations are easily possible with Microsoft’s documentation. And, if you’re not using a keyboard to enter your notes, there’s an “Ink to Math” feature that will make digital equations out of your handwriting.

OneNote's Automatic Equation Calculator

PDF editing in OneNote
For those whose professors provide PDFs, OneNote provides a useful tool for mark-up. In any OneNote document, you can choose to insert an entire PDF printout that you can then write all over. Anything that you can do in a normal OneNote document (draw diagrams, make equations) can be done on top of the PDF. This has the added bonus, since OneNote syncs between devices, that you can take PDFs that you may need to reference often and import them into OneNote unedited, and then all of your reference documents will be centrally located along with all of your notes.

One of the major trepidations that I had in trying to switch from taking pen-and-paper notes to taking notes on a computer was that studies have shown that typing notes, rather than handwriting them, results in decreased retention. Luckily for me, I have a pen for my computer so all of my notes can be effectively hand-written. With OneNote, I don’t have to worry about performing worse than if I was taking notes on paper. If you have this functionality on your computer, I highly recommend taking advantage of it.

OneNote’s useful features are endless and there’s no way that they could all be listed here. It’s definitely not for everyone, but starting to keep all of my notes in OneNote has helped me feel more organized and less reliant on paper. If you’re interested, check it out -- it’s free for all Northwestern students!