ADHD Study Skills: How to Take Notes

Editor’s Note: This week’s post was written by Award-winning Professional Organizer,
Judith Kolberg.

The first step to effective note taking is focused listening

Maybe it’s the school season, or that its “conference season”; whatever the reason, taking note and note taking is on the agenda. Note taking is no small task.

  • It starts with taking note — listening intently to the talking-head and getting a grasp on what is said.
  • Then it involves writing down both the most pertinent ideas and the relevant details and ignoring extraneous material.
  • Finally, good note-taking results in actually using the notes in the appropriate context.

Inattention and distractibility make note taking hard for everyone

Even people without ADHD find it difficult to take note and note-take. Inattention, which makes the ADHD brain struggle to focus long and hard enough to get information into the brain in the first place, and distractibility, which moves attention away from the task at hand, conspire to make taking note really tough. And figuring out as you listen and write what is important and what is not is also challenging.

Note taking Tips for the ADHD Student

  • Don’t look: Consider not looking at the speaker, but instead looking down at the paper or your laptop or whatever it is you are taking notes on. Sometimes knocking out some of the visual of looking at the speaker, can reduce distractions.
  • Use the handouts! These days, most speakers and teachers give handouts with the central concepts already on them. Write on the handouts. Use highlighting. Add your own comments or thoughts. Since you did not create the handouts, you have to put your own imprint on them so they live and breathe and work for you.
  • Share notes with a friend: Let someone else handle the details; go for the main concepts and ideas. You can often get the details from someone else’s notes, an audio recording, or a written transcript.
  • Use shorthand: Develop a simple short hand but be certain you understand it! You might write the word “details” like this “dtails”. The letter “t” can stand in for “the”. A long phrase that is repeated, like “note-taking” can be written out once, and thereafter written as “n/t”.
  • Try Mind Maps: Consider taking notes graphically by using mind maps. Click here for more information.
    Consider using note-taking software. Click here for more information.

Using Your Notes Effectively

Just a word about using your notes: separate your notes out by topic or subject and you’ll be able to utilize them better. Say you went to a conference on ADHD and took notes about medication and on memory and on ADHD humor. Separate them, make the topic prominent, and stick your notes where they will be used next. For instance, put the medication notes in a file to bring to your next doctor appointment to discuss with your doctor. In your calendar, on the date of the doctor appointment write “bring notes”. The notes on memory might just be for your own edification so call then “Don’t Forget” and file them under “ADHD”. Maybe you’ll want to use the ADHD humor notes in your next presentation. Stick the notes in with your presentation material. In other words, put notes where they are most likely next to be utilized.

Have you ever tried recording important lectures? Do you have your own shorthand? Have you ever asked someone to share notes with you? Let us know what note taking strategies have worked for you.

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  1. R. Arnold

    Thanks for this insightful article, as I am currently collecting methods and suggestions from various reputable sources, in hopes of using what I am learning as a Psychology major to develop better ways for students of all ages who have difficulty maintaining focus and attention to not only take useful and purposeful notes and increase their productivity.

    Overall, as a non-traditional student, I found the process of being a first time adult college student who also worked full time quite intimidating. As I also have ADD (diagnosed in my early 30s), I have worked diligently with my therapist to find the best ways to organize myself, improve my time management, and stay on top of my studies without causing myself undue stress or anxiety. Several years later, I am very comfortable with the various methods I have developed to assure I am on the right track.

    In certain college courses, I have found that using multi-color index cards was the best method for taking notes. When a professor provides a Powerpoint lecture in advance, I would generally pick one important topic per index card, and copy the text from the slide onto it’s own card. I then have time to write my own notes when that slide is discussed in class, and I can also prepare questions to ask if the material was unclear when I first reviewed or after the professor has gone over that topic. This keeps all the specifics of that particular topic in a quick and portable reference.

    When a class has several different learning objective or subcategorization, this is when the colors can be helpful (such as blue for “vocabulary”, pink for “historical persons”, yellow for “theories”, and so forth). If I want to review only vocabulary, I would then pull the blue cards out. I can also create flash cards by folding the card in half, or use the unlined side to draw a diagram or doodle something to help me visually.

    In my general note-taking, I have modified my own system that was original based on the Cambridge method. I prefer to adjust on a per-class basis, as I find that the original method I was using didn’t always work well with the curriculum or how the professor was teaching. I also use several colors of pens to help separate the topics discussed in class. I use the far right side of the paper to make side notes (such as additional suggested readings, etc), and always make a note next to the date as to whether I was on time for class. This helps me to know whether I missed any important information if I am tardy for a lecture, and remind me to review on my own any material missed. I can also track whether I have a consistent issue with being on time for a particular class, and see if that is affecting my grades and find a way to fix the issue. The top section by the date is also a place where I make bold notation of any upcoming assignments, quizzes, or tests. I’ve tried many methods using tabs, post-its, and so forth, but the more simple the process, I find I have the best results. I also found a nice multi-pen with a pencil included which helped me switch between colors quickly, and provides me with a pencil in hand as well (very valuable for my science courses!), but I am still trying other brands to find more consistent results as certain colors of ink aren’t as good as others in these particular pens.

    As a side note, when taking online courses, I found it exceptionally useful to print out the entire curriculum worth of content (if possible, some classes may not unlock all of the future lectures but at my schools I have had access immediately to the entire course). I print out the overview of each section, the lecture materials, and any other information such as assignments or additional reading, and separate into a binder for quick reference. It takes a little while to get it all set up, but that’s the benefit of doing it before the course is even underway. This can also be helpful as it allows me to highlight any specific information from the lecture that I might need to focus on for discussion questions or assignments. I also prefer to do any assignments for online classes as soon as possible during the week, rather than leaving it for later. Having the assignments done usually makes the rest of the discussion posts very easy, as I have already read and finished the supporting projects and don’t have to spend as much time going back and forth in order to contribute to the other student’s posts (as per the required participation schedule). Online classes are definitely a different sort of dilemma for students with focus/attention issues!