How to Take Notes on Your Notebook Computer

How to Take Notes on Your Notebook Computer


Let’s face it, notebooks are everywhere.  I don’t mean the “College-Ruled, 80 sheet” kind, I mean “Core 2 Duo” kind.  You see them in coffee shops, at work, at school, and more and more often at home.  But, many people still aren’t using their “notebook” to replace their “notebook”.  The goal of this guide is to help you to understand how you can effectively use your notebook computer to take notes in any (appropriate) situation.

First we will cover some basics, like when using a notebook computer or not be appropriate and a few basics on how best to set your notebook to last in a meeting or class.  Then we will talk about software options and input methods. Finally, we will talk about some reasons that it might be better for you to use your notebook computer instead of a paper notebook.

Computers are rapidly becoming more and more acceptable in society. This, however, does not mean that notebook computers are acceptable in every situation.  The most common times to use a notebook for notes are probably in classes (college especially, and gradually high school) and business meetings.  There will probably be other times where notebook computers could be used, but these are the main ones that will be covered here.

Taking Notes in Class

The use of a computer in class is receiving mixed reviews by teachers and professors.  Some welcome technology as a learning aid, while others reject it because it is a distraction.  If you want to take notes on your notebook computer in school, you need to ask each individual professor or teacher.  Your institution have a no technology policy (please respect that) or have no rules on it at all.  I have found that asking a teacher or professor face to face is very easy and effective.  Some say they prefer not to have notebooks, but some slight bargaining might help.

There are several things that you should keep in mind if you need to bargain with them.  First, you will gain nothing by arguing, yelling, or just generally being a jerk. Second, the most effective method is to honestly explain to them why you want a notebook computer in class.  This means that if you want it only for the Internet or games you should not ask them to be allowed to use it in class (this is, after all, why many academic institutions do not like technology in the classroom).  Tell them why you are more effective taking notes with a notebook computer and why it helps you to learn and many professors will ok it.  Sometimes it help if you offer to show them that you are taking notes after class.   Please do not ignore a teacher or professor if they say no to your using a computer.

Taking Notes in Business Meetings

Meetings can be a different ball game all together.  In large meetings or seminars, notebooks are usually a little more acceptable (if needed).  Again, be sure that if the presenter asks that you don’t use a notebook you respect their request.  When you are in smaller meetings notebooks become less acceptable because they start to make you less personable.  As a professional, you should be able to decide when they are or are not appropriate, but my recommendation is that you use them only when they are necessary and do not get in the way of the meeting (or of business).

Basic Hardware Recommendations

If you have gotten this far, I assume you plan to use your notebook computer to take notes, and want some advice.  Let’s start with some basic recommendations. 

First, mute your computer.  If you are in class or a meeting, no one (not even you) needs to hear your computer making noise.  This is a distraction, mostly to others, and is rather rude.  If a message pops up on the screen, you will notice it when you look at the computer. 

Second, turn down your screen brightness.  You don’t need perfect vision of the screen while taking notes.  It should be readable so you can correct some mistakes and make sure everything is running right, but full brightness is often not necessary.  In many note taking situations you will use batteries and turning the screen brightness down will help lengthen your battery life. 

Third, turn off your wireless.  There might be some isolated instances when the wireless is necessary, but as a general rule if you are taking notes you won’t need Internet access.  This will add battery life (though not too much of it) and will help keep your from being distracted by incoming email, instant messaging, or the chance of surfing the net. 

Finally, you probably don’t need a mouse.  Keep it simple.  Take out your notebook; keep the bag in an appropriate location.  It looks more professional and is less of a hassle, plus you won’t irritate others as much. 

So, you have a fully charged notebook and you’re ready to take notes, now what? The first thing is to figure out how you are going to take notes.  There are many ways, and I could not possibly cover all of them here, but I can cover some of the popular and effective methods.  I will cover basic text editors, Microsoft Word (or similar applications), Microsoft OneNote, and Evernote.  From here, you can use one of these, or continue looking for more options.


Basic Text Editor

Basic text editors are usually less than ideal for taking notes.  First, they require that you use a keyboard for entry.   Second, they lack advanced formatting, and what formatting they do have is often difficult to access.  This be sufficient for some people, and if so, continue on to learn more about taking notes.

Word Processor

Word processors are sufficient for most people’s needs.  Word processors allow text with formatting, drawings, and pictures.  Taking notes usually just entails typing and minimal formatting.  In meetings or in some classes, however, these extra features are nice to have.  Say you are in a marketing class and need to make a flow chart, what better way than to use the features in your word processor (like Microsoft Word) and make the flow chart.   be you need to draw a picture of something – once again you can with the features of a word processor.

Microsoft OneNote

In my 6 months of use in classes of all types, I have yet to find something that OneNotehasn’t been able to handle (certainly when compared to all other programs).  OneNote does quite a few nice things.  First, it features all of the formatting options that are commonly used by note takers, including bullets, lists, fonts, and more.  OneNote is also designed for notes.  File handling is one major advantage.  First, all of your notebooks are kept in the program and are instantly available.  You can get to any subject and any page within seconds, which is more than the previous two methods can do.  Having all of your notes accessible is invaluable.  Also, not only can OneNote handle basic shapes for drawings, OneNote is fully compatible with Ink based notes (from either a Tablet PC or from a writing tablet).  This opens doors for people that might not otherwise consider using their computers for notes.  For instance, I use OneNote for engineering and math classes, which would otherwise be nearly impossible on a computer.  One more thing that is invaluable is OneNote’s search abilities.  You can quickly and easily search through your notes, it will search the text, ink, and for words in a picture.  This quick access makes OneNote my choice for notes.

Note that it found NBR when I searched, even though it was handwritten!


Evernoteis similar to OneNote in many ways.  It is designed for note taking, and can also accept digital ink.  I prefer OneNote because in Evernote the Text is recognized in a separate place and isn’t as convenient.  The notes are all in a row – at the end of one note the next starts.  You can sort all of your notes in the program, and they are accessible at any time (much like OneNote).  My preference to OneNote is mostly personal preference, however.


There are two main methods of note taking – keyboard and pen.  Keyboards are pretty self explanatory.  You type your notes in your selected program.  Pen is a little bit more advanced.  The pen can be either a Tablet PC pen or a writing tablet pen (such as a Wacom Graphire4).  This allows you to write on the screen and draw pictures.  For some people this be more convenient than a keyboard (such as math classes or because they don’t type quickly).  I personally use a combination of the keyboard and a pen tablet.  When appropriate I write or draw pictures, when I can, I type (I type much faster than I write).  Using a pen is a worthwhile investment.  You can gain the advantages of using a computer without sacrificing your ability to take notes.

Reasons to Prefer Computers

Computers have several advantages for note taking.  First, they make sharing easy.  You can email someone notes very quickly and easily (easier than copying papers and delivering them, or redoing your notes after your class or meeting).  Also, you can keep your notes in one place, nice and organized.  This is invaluable to someone such as myself, as I have a bad habit of losing papers.  Finally, your notes are relatively safe on a computer.  If you keep backups of your computer (as you should) you don’t have to worry about losing a page, or it getting ruined (spilled coffee, anyone? ).  Finally, you can easily search.  This is invaluable to many people.  Instead of having 20 pages of notes and looking for one certain thing, you can type it in and find it instantly.  This makes using notes more likely and more desirable, which are both good things.

Note Taking Advice

Now you are ready to take notes on your computer.  You have gotten your program and you are all setup.  But, how do you take notes?   Here is my basic advice.  First, unless you actually are, don’t try to be a transcriptionist.  If you are not fast enough, you need to be taking notes, not writing everything word for word.  If you do try to take a transcription, you will likely get lost and not follow what is happening.  Paraphrase things, or take notes how you normally would.  Keep your notes organized.  A complete stream of typing isn’t very useful.  But, at the same time, don’t over organize by formatting.  Every second you spend trying to format is a second you don’t spend taking notes.  That said, find the balance between formatting and writing, which will change for everyone.  Make sure you autosave.  If the worst does happen and your computer runs out of power or crashes, be sure to minimize your losses.  OneNote is excellent about autosaving (I don’t know the exact time or exactly how it works, but I have never lost anything in OneNote).  You can change programs like Microsoft Word to autosave more often if you desire.


This guide is intended for you to gain ideas about how you can take notes and adapt them to your own style.  Don’t take anything I have said as gospel, but don’t write me off completely. I have plenty of experience with all of the programs and methods I have talked about. I prefer to use OneNote for my notes. I find it to be reliable and usable.  You can pick your favorite program and method.  Give computers a chance if you haven’t.  They can make a world of difference for many people.  They help me to be organized and keep up in classes.  Plus, with the ability to search I can instantly find what I need to use my notes later. 

If you have questions, comments, other things you want to know please just respond to this article in the forums!





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