Being a university student, I have taken a lot of notes for my courses. I have not, however, been able to find a method for taking notes that satisfies my desire to use my computer as much as possible, while giving me the flexibility and speed I need when taking notes. Here I have documented the process I have gone through so far in switching to a digital notes system for university.
Let’s first look at the three key reasons why I want to use a computer to take my notes:
- I find typing is far faster than hand-writing, especially when having to copy off of a blackboard or PowerPoint slides.
- Digital organization is far easier and more expandable than paper organization – I have no qualms about keeping schoolwork from high school that I did on my computer; all paper documents, however, have found their way to the trash.
- I’m a geek. I love my computer and love spending time on it; adding yet another place that I can do so productively is always welcome!
Here are my requirements for an ideal note-taking system:
- Diagrams – I should be able to easily and accurately reproduce ad hoc diagrams that drawn by the professor (if applicable to the course).
- Random characters, formulas and numbers – Being in engineering, I’ve had to write down many formulas and Greek characters that are often very complex (if applicable to the course).
- Organized – My notes should be easily and effortlessly organized, allowing quick reference when needed.
- Speed – I need to be able to keep up with professors as they move through powerpoint slides or write on the blackboard at near the speed of sound.
- Accuracy – While moving at the speed mentioned above, I need to be fairly accurate with my spelling and 100% accurate with any formulas or numbers.
- Portability – I should be able to access my notes easily since you never know when a study session with friends might crop up. In the case of digital notes, this access might happen on a device that I do not own (e.g. a university-owned computer)
It can quickly be seen that my reasons for wanting to use a computer deal with requirements 3 and 4 beautifully; better than a traditional system does. How about the rest though?
In the past I had briefly tried Microsoft Word, only to find it was too bloated for my needs; the extra UI associated with making the notes look like a physical notebook detracted from the notes themselves. Also, my notes were not portable being saved in the DOCX format.
I then remembered TextEdit. It has an extraordinarily simple UI and saves plain-text documents for portability. That was all I needed to give it a try. I developed a simple folder structure for organizing the notes, University/Notes/[Course]/[YYYY]-[MM]-[DD].txt, where [YYYY] would be replaced with the year those notes were taken and so forth.
To allow for easy access, I was already storing my “University” folder in my DropBox so naturally my notes were stored there as well. To allow access on the go, I came across PlainText for my iPhone. This beautifully simple app does one thing and does it very well: text editing on iOS while syncing with DropBox.
The first day I started taking notes with TextEdit, I was surprised at just how fast and accurately I was able to type. This isn’t myself gloating, rather it was the effect of systemwide auto-correct implemented in Mac OS X Lion. Having its roots in iOS, it is far more aggressive than what can be found in Microsoft Word or other word processors. This left me with little cleanup to do after a notes session.
Before classes started I knew diagrams would present a major issue – how do you draw with a keyboard? To deal with this, at the beginning of the semester I took notes using TextEdit for as long as I could before encountering an important diagram, at which point I switched to using a traditional notebook for that course. If there weren’t any diagrams, then TextEdit remained.
The other major issue with TextEdit would have been random characters and formulas. As far as I know, there is no easy way to find and enter large numbers of random characters on computers today (though they do have them in the characters menu).1 I’m far enough into my degree that I no longer have any math or physics courses, however in 1st and 2nd year this alone would have killed any dreams of utilizing a digital system.
So in summary, my system with TextEdit handily takes care of 4 requirements: speed, accuracy, organization and portability.
I used this system for two of my five courses last semester (the others had diagrams and/or characters and formulas) and it worked very well. I took more detailed notes while improving my typing speed and accuracy due to the extra practice.
This semester, I am utilizing Markdown, Byword and Marked to help with formatting my notes (and therefore improving upon my organization) while keeping them extremely portable. On my iPhone, I’m currently using Nocs for viewing and editing Markdown since it is free, however if I find I’m doing this often enough (both for notes and blog posts) I will purchase Elements which I find more visually appealing.
I have yet to find the perfect digital note-taking system that can seamlessly handle diagrams and random characters, though my roommate is currently trying a bunch of apps for his iPad that look promising when using a stylus. I truly believe that tablet computing will be the future of note-taking at school since a keyboard is too limiting, though I cannot justify the cost of an iPad to try it myself.