The Right Way to Take Digital Notes for School

November 12, 2020

By Thomas Clapper


There are quite a few staples of college learning. Two particular skills that you will continuously use are reading and writing. College students must be efficient at reading, comprehending, analyzing, and then taking the text and synthesizing it into a paper. 


Tough stuff.


Through my college experience, I got better and better at taking notes from a textbook and using those notes to write better papers. Though I originally started with handwritten notes, I learned that to keep up, I needed to work smarter.


Use a Digital Filing Cabinet

I moved away from highlighting inside books or writing down book notes on physical paper for three reasons:


  1. Many of my books were from the library, and they frown upon highlighting in their books. 
  2. I would often need to pull quotes from my books and so I would end up typing them for my paper anyway.
  3. I wanted my notes to be searchable, and as I hand-wrote more notes, that became very difficult.


So I moved to a digital filing cabinet where I placed all of my lecture notes as well as my book notes. I could easily organize them based on the class and even mark them if they were part of a specific research project. You can find out more by reading How to Pick a Digital Filing Cabinet for School Notes. The important thing is that if you are comfortable typing notes, it can save you some time.

How My Notes Look

I always start by making a folder or notebook with the name of my class. Then I add a new note that is the title of the book and the author. For example:


Congregations in America- Chaves


This helps me to track down the book later and keeps all my notes in the right place. 


Bonus tip: If you are using a tagging system, you can always tag “book notes” as well as any other tag that will help you find the book later.


Next, I always create the correct citation for the book and place it at the top of the note. In the case with Crown online, they required APA for all papers, so I would create the reference. I would often use a citation creator and just double-check that it produced the correct format. It ended up looking like this:


Chaves, M. (2004). CONGREGATIONS IN AMERICA. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.



This came in handy because every paper referencing a quote or an idea from this book required citation. So why not have the citation ready to copy and paste in my reference section?


Next, as I read the book, I would add bold headers for the chapter I was in to easily see where quotes were in the book. I wrote any quote that stuck out to me in my notes. It is important to remember that you are taking the time to read this book, so you might as well put down any quote you think may be useful. Immediately after the quote, I added the proper in-text citation, which looked like this:


“I mean to say only that artistic activity is a much more common by-product of congregations than either social services or political action” (Chaves, p. 186)


“New forms of religious participation are not taking the place of attendance at weekend worship services” (Chaves, p. 187)


Bonus tip: I would copy and paste the last in-text citation and change the page number to save me from typing the author’s name and parenthesis every time. 


If there was an interesting chart, diagram, or something else that would be impossible to type out, I would take a picture with my phone and insert the image right into the note. I would always add the in-text citation so that I could find it later.


Lastly, if I came across an idea that wasn’t a direct quote, I would write down the summary of the concept without quotation marks. I would still add the in-text citation to make sure I could track down the author’s idea later.


Bonus tip: If you love handwriting your notes and your note app can make handwriting searchable, you can use this method for organizing. But remember, it will be impossible to copy and paste into a paper or discussion post.

One More Precarious Tool

As I studied on my couch, in coffee shops, and even in the passenger seat of a car, I realized that I needed a better way of typing my notes from my books. I scoured the wild world of Amazon and found this nifty device.


It’s inexpensive and saved me the hassle of trying to keep my book open when I attempted to copy word-for-word from the book. I found this solution after trying to use my arm while typing with only my left hand (something that I do not suggest trying). 


By typing out an exact quote, it was convenient when I later wrote my paper, to either insert the direct quote or to find the general pages that the author was talking about an idea so I could go back and reread that section. This especially became useful as I began to use books across my different classes and could easily search for an idea from my search bar. (Remember, work smarter!)

Using the Notes

When an online discussion came up where I wanted to draw a quote from the author, I had an easy way to track down the idea. In my papers, I could easily add quotes to support my ideas and quickly add the citation at the end of my papers by just copying and pasting from my note. 


More importantly, when I had a foggy idea about something I had read and needed to clarify, I had a summary of the whole book in my note. This meant that I could find the general idea in a quote or summary and then go to that page in my book to clarify. I cannot imagine how much longer papers would have taken if I would have always had to skim my book to re-discover an idea.


Finally, my notes are still intact, which meant that when I was working on another class, and I knew something that I had read earlier would relate, I could quickly jump into that note and find it. More recently, I have found the value in the search function. Even when I cannot remember the author’s name, if I type any of the keywords that would be in the quote (i.e., “attendance”), I can more quickly track down the quote. 


Even today, I have a more comprehensive personal file cabinet than ever before. When I want to refer back to my research and studies, I can simply begin typing in the search bar and can find my book, the stat, or whatever else I am looking for.

Beyond Books

This concept works beyond books as well. Whether you find a peer-reviewed article or a website that you can capture part of, this method helps you to quickly organize and recall valuable information. I have used this method beyond school in books that are dense but interest me, such as architecture books that have many key terms. 


School can be a tough place to balance everything. That is why students should learn to use the best parts of technology to help make the process easier and longer-lasting.