How to Take Notes and Participate in Online Classes

By Brittany Loeffler on April 19, 2020

While practicing social distancing, many colleges and universities have moved their classes online. This disruption can cause many students to feel unmotivated, distracted, and less likely to take notes and participate in class. With everything going on in the world surrounding the coronavirus, it’s easy to push school out of your mind and lounge around at home in your pajamas instead of hopping online to attend your class.

It’s important to still take school seriously as your grades will still be considered when life starts to get back to normal. You may have to reteach yourself how to take notes and participate in class now that you are not in a classroom setting. Here are some tips on how to effectively take notes and participate in your online classes.

via Pexels

Taking Classes Online

There is a difference between taking an online course and now taking an online class. Online courses usually consist of prerecorded videos and presentations that you can study at your own pace. Now that schools have closed their doors and moved their education online, students are still required to meet with their professors at certain times. Many classes are being held through video conferencing software like Zoom. Therefore, you have to be present and do not have the luxury of learning at your own pace.

Staying Motivated

You are probably feeling a lot of emotions right now about what is happening with the pandemic. We are all going through a tough and scary time. However, it’s essential to stay motivated to attend your classes and put as much effort as possible into learning, taking notes, and participating.

Each morning, go about your regular routine before you would go to class on campus. Set an alarm, take a shower, get dressed, and make yourself breakfast. This will put you in the mindset to learn and be productive today rather than staying in your pajamas all day and feeling lazy.

Importance of Good Note Taking

Since these online classes are different from typical online courses, you will still have to take notes effectively because you won’t have material to look back on before exams. There are many methods of taking good notes. The most important things you have to remember is to stay focused, jot down the main ideas, and to remain consistent with your style.

taking notes

Infographic by Brittany Loeffler

Online Note Taking

Since you’re already at your computer watching your professor’s lecture, it would make sense to just take your notes online. By keeping your focus on your computer screen, you may stay more focused because you are not looking back and forth from the screen to your notebook. Not to mention, typing is much faster than writing down your notes. This means you won’t fall behind as easily and can get more information down. There are a few excellent programs where you can take your notes and access them from anywhere.

Google Keep

Google Drive has just about everything you could ever think of for college students. While you may be inclined to use Google Docs, Google Keep program is made specifically to take notes, so you can be more organized and format them better. It’s stored right in your Drive, too. So, you will never have to worry about losing them again.


Made specifically for Macs, Evernote is one of the most popular note-taking applications. You can download it for your computer or your phone and access your notes from wherever you are. It’s easy to use and allows you to keep multiple files organized. So, next time you’re searching for those notes that you took at the beginning of the semester, they are right there for you.


While DropBox isn’t a note-taking application, it is a great place to store your notes. Everything stored in DropBox is in a cloud that you can also access from your phone or another computer no matter where you are. This also gives you the freedom to use whichever software you prefer to take notes on. So, you don’t have to compromise what you like about your favorite note-taking program at all!

Cons of Online Note Taking

There are a lot of benefits to taking your notes on the computer, but there are also some cons as well. Being on the computer, we tend to get distracted very easily. With so many notifications popping up all the time, we are bound to click and check that text or read that breaking news story. It may also be a pain to switch back and forth between the program where you are taking notes and the screen with your class’s video.

Taking Notes by Hand

Many students decide to revert to taking their notes by hand when attending an online class now. When you write down your notes, you are more likely to retain the information compared to simply typing it. It also helps you stay focused because you have to listen and keep up while also writing down important information. So, you aren’t distracted by the popups on your computer screen.

Handwritten notes also give you the freedom to get creative. You can draw diagrams, copy illustrations your professor makes, and more. You aren’t confined to using just words to take your notes. If you re a more visual and creative learner, this is an excellent option for you.

Cons of Taking Notes by Hand

The major downfall when you take notes by hand is that most of the time, your hand can’t move fast enough. You run the risk of missing out on important information, especially if your professor tends to talk too fast. You may feel overwhelmed by trying to keep up, worrying about missing something, or catching up if you realized that you did miss something.

There are a few things you can do to ensure that you can take notes on all of the necessary information by hand, though.

Decide on a Structure

There are different ways that you can take notes effectively. It’s a good idea to stay organized with a specific structure for your notes. You can try different types of structures before you decide which one is best for you. This will keep your notes uniform, and you will be more focused on listening to your professor than on how you should be organizing your notes.

Outline Structure

The classic outline structure is one of the easiest ways to take your notes. It consists of using the main topic of the conversation as the heading and jotting down notes through bullet points underneath. These are easy to read, and the structure comes pretty naturally.

This is easily done with both handwritten and typed notes. The advantage of typing outline structured notes is that you can quickly go back and add more thoughts to previous topics without having to squeeze it in somewhere.

The Cornell Note-Taking Method

Cornell University came up with an effective way to take notes, which they deemed the Cornell Note-Taking Method. This method consists of blocking off your paper into three sections. On the left side of the paper is the cue column. This is where you can jot down the main ideas discussed in the lecture. You can write these down either during or right after class. The rest of the space on the right is used for taking notes during class. At the bottom, leave about two inches of space to write down a short summary of what was discussed.

This structure is most useful when you have to review your notes before an exam.

Diagram Method

We all learn differently; some of us are more verbal learners, and others are more visual learners. For the visual learners, you may take better notes with a word web or other type of diagram you can come up with. There are many ways that you can organize your notes through diagrams, you just have to find the right one for you.

Stay Consistent

Once you’ve found a structure that works for you, stay consistent with your notes. Keep your desired structure for each class, so you know exactly where to look when reviewing your notes. This will also help you take notes faster. Keep any abbreviations you may use consistent as well. The more consistent you can be with your notes, the easier it will be to review them. You won’t waste time trying to figure out what you were trying to say.

Listen for Key Points

When you take notes, your listening skills must be outstanding. It’s important to pay attention to your professor and listen attentively to the key points they are talking about. You can identify these points when you notice the professor change topics, repeat a phrase, or if the professor’s voice changes. If you notice these things, then it is definitely worth writing down in your notes.

Keep It Short

Taking notes means writing down just the key points in a few words. You do not want to write your notes in full sentences. It’s a waste of time and unnecessary. Your notes should not be a word-for-word transcription of the lecture your professor just gave for the last hour. Instead, only use a handful of words to express a concept, just enough for you to understand later on when you are reviewing them.

Review Your Notes

Many students tend to take notes and never look back at them. The point of taking notes is so that you can review them and recall what your professor was teaching. Take some time to review your notes once every other day to keep the concepts fresh in your mind. If you have handwritten your notes, this is a great opportunity to type them up and keep them in a cloud, so you never have to worry about losing them before a big exam.

taking notes

via Unsplash

Participating in an Online Class

Moving classes online has definitely affected how students are participating. For many students, it may be more intimidating to participate because all eyes are on them. They can’t hide in the back of the classroom anymore. There are some ways that you can still actively participate, though.

Video/Live Participation

If sitting in a live video class, you may have the option to click a button to “raise” your hand and let your professor know that you have a question or an answer. You may just be able to actually physically raise your hand and have your professor call on you. Imagine you are still just sitting in a classroom.


There may be too many students in your class, especially if it’s a lecture, that the professor cannot physically see every single one of you on a screen. So, instead of actively participating during the lesson, your professor may ask you to write your thoughts on a forum and respond to other students’ questions and ideas.

Actively Listen

Even if you are not one to raise your hand and speak up in class, you can still participate by actively listening. Show up to class, turn your camera on, and show that you are paying attention. Lean forward, take notes, respond to what your professor has said through body language, and don’t be on your phone. Your professor will notice that you are paying attention and most likely see this as participation.

School Is Still School – Even Online

Even though classes have been moved online for this period of time, it doesn’t mean you get to slack off. It’s more important now than ever to take your classes seriously. Find your preferred method to take notes, whether it be typed or handwritten, decide a structure that works for you, and stay consistent with it. Make sure to review them often to retain the information better. There are different ways to participate in class, too. You can actively speak up, respond to questions in a forum, and show your professor that you are paying attention through your body language. With these practices, you’ll be sure to pass this semester with flying colors.

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