Organizing Academic Notes

This post is the second in a series about note taking. Reading the last post is a precursor to understanding the importance of this one. In it, you read about the practice I adopted during my college years…taking notes on scrap paper and later in the day cleaning up, organizing, and recopying the notes in a pristine outline form. The practice increased retention and decreased the amount of time required for studying.

In today’s world, what’s the best way to go about organizing academic notes? Where do our digital devices fit in the grand scheme of things? From reading the last post, you know my bias is towards pencil and paper as being the best tool for trapping information in the classroom. When it comes to organizing those notes and the related class material, the story changes.

Analog Input/Digital Organization

When it comes to organizing those notes once the class session is over, the power of technology helps insure correct spelling, provides for easily searchable notes, and allows easy insertion of already existing digital material into those notes. When you want pristine, nothing beats a digital device for being able to insert, reword, reformat, etc.

You eliminate the need for the sentence scribbled in the margins or the phrase marked through in a paper notebook. As you augment the class lecture with thoughts from the text, a PowerPoint the professor sent to the class, or a reference from the web, the power of copy/paste makes the process easy.

Setting Up Your System

The first decision to make is whether you are going to use a productivity suite such as Microsoft Office or whether you are going to use Google Drive. The institution or the professor may drive that choice. If the professor is making available related resources in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, then Office is the logical choice. If these materials are being shared in Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides, using Google Drive becomes your choice.

Start by creating a folder called “Current Classes.” Inside it, create a folder for each class. Create one folder and name it “Current Projects.”Organizing Academic Notes 2


The Current Projects folder is a place to store assignments which are “works in progress.” Simply opening the folder gives you a clue as to what papers or other assignments are in progress but still need work. When you complete an item in that folder, you will move it to the one for that class.

Inside the folder for each of your classes, create three folders:

Class Notes

You will visit this folder after every class meeting. This is the place where you will take the hand-scribbled notes from class and turn them into a logical work of art that will pay dividends when you study for the test, your final, or your graduate-level comprehensive exams.

I recommend one file for each large block of time. Don’t create a new document for every class meeting. Group at least one unit together as a single document. After the next class meeting, come back to this document and add to it. Print the pages which have changes. Hole punch them, and put them in your binder. When you go to class, you will have a set of neatly-typed notes.

If the class is divided into quarters, you might want to have one document for each of the quarters. In many cases, one document for the entire course will suffice. Again, you will only be printing the pages which are new or have changed since the last time you updated the notes.


In addition to your class notes, you will have other small assignments. Gather all of these completed assignments into this one folder.


Do you have a term paper or other large project? You will likely have the finished paper along with other supporting material. This folder gives you one place to house it all.Organizing Academic Notes 3

When the Class Has Ended

After you have used this system for the first academic year, semester, or however long your classes last, you will create one more folder. Call it “Completed Classes.” As you might imagine, you will drag the folder for each of the classes from the Current Classes folder into this one. You can leave the Current Projects folder right where it is. After all, when the classes are done, there are no more “works in progress.”

When the next round of classes begins, create a new folder for each class in “Current Classes.” Create your three folders (Class Notes, Homework, and Projects) in each one. You are ready for classes to begin. You are setting yourself up for success!

What I have outlined for you is the process I used during three graduate-level programs. Those first notes were stored on floppy disks (measuring 5 1/4 inches for those who remember back that far). The state-of-the-art computer was an Apple IIc. Much has changed in terms of the technology available to us since then. Little, however, has changed in terms of logical methodology. What worked for me then will work for you now.

To sum it up…take those academic notes on scrap paper and fully attend to the class. Be fully a part of the class. Pencil and paper allows for better interaction. Clean up those notes digitally. Print a copy to have with you in class. Have a good system of folders to keep everything in the right place. It’s so easy it will actually work.

Where Do We Go from Here?

We start out taking notes in elementary school, and the teacher tells us what to write and where to write it. We move on to a point where we know we are supposed to be taking notes, but it becomes our responsibility to figure out what to write and how to organize it. That’s what this post and the one before it have addressed.

Starting with the next post, we will examine note taking in the world of work. It’s a place where we are even more on our own and where the stakes become higher. When the student fails to take good notes, the student fails an exam. In the adult world, failure to document costs money, lawsuits, and jobs. Stay tuned as we explore the process.