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Tips For Taking Pretty Notes in Class

Taking pretty notes in class might seem difficult, but with a few tips (and some practice) – it’s easy to make your notes the envy of your class. Taking beautiful notes is a skill that you can learn.

In the first section of this post, I share my best tips for taking creative, engaging, and pretty class notes using simple strategies, easy templates, and a few (optional, but helpful) supplies.

In the second half, you’ll find photo-examples of my method for creting pretty notes.

tke cretive notes in class text on image background.

One of the most frequently asked questions about my artistic pages of class notes is “How do you have time to make those while a speaker is presenting?” In a room where others are struggling to scrawl longhand notes, I’m writing, lettering, coloring, and shading my version of the course notes. How? I think the key to pretty notes taken in class is listening carefully, using repeating patterns, and anticipating what comes next.

Advice for students who want to take pretty notes during school lectures:

Review your syllabus before class

My best tip for taking pretty notes in class is to be ready: Reviewing your syllabus before class. This can help you know what the lecture will be about and can even help you to give you clues to structure your page. Having a format in mind before class will help your note-taking be more fluid and natural.

Notes taken in class with bullet journal style are easier to read.

Have supplies ready

Another important tip for taking pretty notes in class is to be sure that you have the supplies you need handy.

Deciding between taking notes on a tablet or with pen and paper can be a big decision – and it’s one you’ll need to make before class ever starts. I prefer pen and paper when I’m notetaking in class. Your preference might be different and that’s okay! Taking pretty notes isn’t just about learning what the lecturer is talking about, it’s also about;

  • learning to follow your intuition,
  • setting your own pace, and
  • developing skills to make choices on the fly about what will get included in your notes, and what won’t.

Practice reusable elements

paper airplane icon

Even though every class, every lecture, and every page of notes will be different, you can study and practice individual elements that combine on a page.

You can memorize and practice hand lettering fonts, learn to draw antlers, learn how to draw bullet journal banners, build a basic visual vocabulary of icons relevant to your class.

I actually keep an idea notebook of fonts, icons, and layouts in my pen case.

Dozens of pages of psychology notes laid out on a page.

Practice Anticipating the Speaker

Almost all teachers structure lectures in the same way. They move almost seamlessly between information and illustrations.

Good speakers use stories as examples to capture our imaginations. They break up informational lectures with stories and weave them between periods of information presentation.

This rhythm can be helpful to taking pretty notes! When information is coming quickly, focus on catching keywords, ideas, and concepts. When the speaker moves into storytelling mode, go back and embellish your notes.

Here’s my method illustrated using an assigned book chapter instead of a lecture.

Use a Speaker’s Pauses & Stories to Embellish Notes

My best advice for creating beautiful notes during class is to learn to use the rhythm that many speakers use. This gives you time in class to doodle, add color, and create interest in your notes through shading.

For example, when a presenter or teacher is lecturing on vital content, I’m taking notes rapidly with words widely spaced. However, when a speaker moves into a story or begins answering student questions, that’s when I create art in my notes. I’ve learned to use the time when most people put their pens down to embellish the text I’ve just written.

A page of notes on the topic of ethics with a page of doodles tucked behind the pretty class notes.
A page of notes on the topic of ethics with a page of doodles tucked behind the pretty class notes.

Embrace Incompleteness

In my first weeks of graduate school, I began to panic as I realized that, I wasn’t able to capture all the information being presented in class.

As I shared this worry, a kind professor told me that everything I needed to know, really needed, would circle back around during the 3-year program, and he encouraged me to let some things go on the first pass. That advice was important. Eventually, I began to relax in the classroom and trust the process.

I learned to insert into my notes what sticks out to me in a lecture. Usually:

  • the main points,
  • the best examples,
  • key concepts & definitions
  • the evocative quotes

As for the rest? Well, if it doesn’t make it in my notes I trust that it will return to me at some point if it really is important. For instance, if will show up in a test prep study guide or text review.

An interesting thing about making pretty, artful notes is that it helps brains chain information differently than just listening. 1 Because my brain has creatively and visually engaged the lecture, I can often remember information that was taught in the blanks between doodled elements. The visual clues in my notes are often strong reminders of information that isn’t in my notes.

An Example of my Pretty Notetaking Process:

Here’s an example, of how I structure my note-taking process.

The first image of this series was taken about 5 minutes into a lecture. By then, I’ve located what will be my header lettering and begun following the professor’s words. I hear the quote “Experience without theory is blind” and think: “Banner!”

With the end result of a banner in mind, I copy the quote in short lines with wide line spacing, then continue tracking with the information the professor is presenting:

In the next photo, taken about 20 minutes later, you can see that I’ve continued creating content-based text from the lecture, but also found time (probably during a period of questions or a clinical illustration) to go back. I returned to my previously unfinished header and banner and added inked borders and lines.

The final picture, taken at the end of the course, shows how text content continued in this way. Words interspersed with graphic embellishment via shading, color fills, and in this case: ombre shading in the header.

Overcoming challenges to Making Pretty Notes

My most common problems creating doodle notes live during classes isn’t finding the time to embellish my notes, or even locating the creativity to create a layout in the moment without planning ahead- it’s actually confronting my own fear as I sit down with an empty page!

Even though I make these notes for myself, I find myself struggling with expectations and insecurities each time I begin.

My advice to myself- which is also my advice to you, my reader- is to approach each class period’s notes as an experiment. Some things will work, some things won’t work, but choosing to enter creative class notes is a choice to learn visually and to practice over and over again. What I’ve learned, and what I tell anyone trying to make pretty notes is that it’s about process, not product.

Entering any new creative practice with a willingness to try new things, make mistakes, and keep doing it over and over and over absolutely will, eventually, produce work you are proud of.

Psychology course notes created with artful drawings shown in a pretty flat lay photograph.
Pretty class notes decorated with hand-lettered fonts and meaningful icons.

A Final Note: To Recopy or Not to Recopy?

Some creative notetakers return to their notes after class to recopy and neaten their notes, but I generally do not. This is an individual choice that you can decide on your own, based on your own experience taking notes and how you feel about your live notes.

Although many times the notes you take in class are sufficient to study from and as practice for improving your note-taking skills, if you are determined to improve your creative note-taking skills you should consider recopying. To use your notes as a study tool, re-copying your notes can be an effective study technique.

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Sources

  1. Fernandez, K., & He, J. 2019. Designing sketch and learn: Creating a playful sketching experience that helps learners build a practice toward visual notetaking []