Tools for digital note-taking

I will not insult you by telling you how to take notes in class. But several facts make me type this post tonight:

  • I have a quite bad writing on top of being tired on some evening classes
  • My handwriting played some tricks on me for the last exam (Management Accounting and Control): I couldn’t read some parts of my notes!
  • And finally Brett and Kate McKay recently wrote a piece about note-taking strategies for academic success. In this last article, the authors advocate for taking notes directly on a laptop with a note-taking software (like Evernote or OneNote)

Dan "Mr. Deliverable" Brown takes some notesRegarding the first two bullet points: I decided to give it a try this year and take my notes directly on my laptop (I know it’s forbidden by Vlerick rules but no professors complained – yet). A good practical tip: use a small laptop (mine has a 13″ screen), it’s really easier to share the table with other students than a larger laptop.

So far, we only had three different classes in 2012 (Organisational Behaviour / Leadership, Corporate Finance and Negotiation skills) and I have to say the experience is very positive. I can actually read everything I wrote! And, when I take less (or no) notes because my vigilance state is going down, there are simply no notes but at least I don’t find scribbles I’m furious I can’t read.

As long as the course doesn’t involve schematics, equations or drawings or, if it does, as long as the slides (where these drawing are reproduced) are provided in advance in electronic format (usually PDF), everything is fine. My way of doing includes the transformation of PDFs into images and I insert those images in the document I will use to take note before a class (it takes approximately 2.5 minutes when you have the right tools).

However there is an issue with Corporate Finance. This course indeed sometimes uses equations or (more often) T-accounts and it’s quite difficult to directly write them down on the laptop (or at least at the same speed as if I was writing/drawing them on a paper). Sometimes, there is a timeline drawn on the board. And this is something I’m currently struggling with …

Regarding the third point, the McKays are right when they consider Evernote as the best note-taking software out there. On top of that, it’s free (as in free beer) and all your notes are synchronised between all your Evernote clients (PC, Mac, Android, iPhone) and even on the web (protected by your credentials). But one important feature that I miss in Evernote is the possibility to directly add free notes or a placeholder and be able to draw inside it in a few seconds. I know it’s possible with OneNote but I don’t have the money for that. So I use MS-Word and try to quickly insert a “draw object” inside the document when needed. That’s not really intuitive: it breaks the usual flow. And it takes some time. But it works. For that purpose, the text document from Google docs is really nice: you can define a draw area quite easily and quickly and add basic shapes in it. The only issue that prevent me from using Google Doc is that the wifi network in the classroom is sometimes hectic. I wouldn’t trust my documents are in a safe state if the network is going down at unexpected times.

I’ll try to continue to type my notes. Let’s see in June 2012 if my writing or my note-taking skills will have improved!

Photo credit: Dan “Mr. Deliverable” Brown takes some notes by Neal B. Johnson on Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)
Edit: sorry for all the mistakes, the post was written at 2AM, as usual :) – I corrected most of them.


3 Responses to Tools for digital note-taking

  1. Pingback: A Serial Entrepreneur’s Guide To Uncovering Awesome Startup Ideas | business ideas 4 you |

  2. Samia says:

    On my Ipad, i use Beesy. a note taking and ToDo apps. Beesy is more a professional app. You can take notes with a business way, and can generate an efficient ToDo list with different tools (tasks) from this app

    If you want to try it google Beesy or the website is



    • Hi Samia,

      Thanks for your link. From what I can see of Beesy, the nice thing is that it integrates a way to draw and type text at the same time. I had the occasion to try an iPad for note taking and in my opinion, the huge disadvantage of typing on the virtual keyboard is that it’s very, very slow (compared to a regular keyboard or handwriting). The solution could be to connect a real keyboard to your iPad but one then loose the portability aspect.

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