How to Take Notes in Nursing School: 5+ Must-Know Tips
In this article, we're going to give you some practical tips to make sure you know how to take notes in nursing school.
When most people think of nursing school, they imagine the practical application, which is great.
It’s crucial to go into healthcare settings and get experience with different rotations and patients.
However, before that can happen, student nurses need to go through the typical classroom lectures and exams other college students do.
Note taking is a big part of training to become a great practical nurse.
Unfortunately, without the right skills and expectations, the classroom quickly becomes one of the toughest parts of nursing school.
Below are some tips on taking notes that will improve your chances of acing your exams and passing through those lectures with flying colors.
Tips For Taking Notes in Nursing School
#1 | Put Technology to Work for You
What a time to be in school!
These days professors and students have a whole world of technology at their fingertips, so don’t let this critical tool slip past you.
Lots of professors create PowerPoint presentations for their classroom lectures.
If this is the case for you, then you’ve got a straight shot to stellar note taking.
Grab your laptop and download your teacher’s PowerPoint presentation.
This will allow you to see each of the slides. Once you have it, go to “View” and choose “Outline” format to see all of the slides and their content in a typical outline view.
With this information spread out in front of you, it’s now possible to build a study guide straight from your professor’s notes without any need to drastically scribble down what he or she is saying.
To make the most of this, copy the outline of the slides and paste it into your own Word document.
From there, you can add your own helpful notes as the professor gives their lecture.
You’ll have a comprehensive set of notes that only took half the effort.
Now, if you need to do things the more traditional way, don’t worry.
Let’s say you can’t bring a laptop to your class. If the professor has the PowerPoint presentation available to students ahead of time, spend a few minutes printing out the slides at the library.
A format of four to six slides per page should be good.
This way, you have a sheet of paper that shows the content on the slides, but there’s also enough blank space for you to add in your own handwritten notes as you listen to the lecture.
This brings us to our next tip!
#2 | Rewrite Your Notes
In my humble opinion, this is the best way to take notes in nursing school.
This is the primary note taking method I've used in undergraduate and now for my master's degree in nursing.
Yes, this sounds tedious and maybe even useless, but it’s not.
Just think about it for a second.
You have your own notes scribbled on those sheets of paper, or maybe you typed them straight into the PowerPoint outline.
Odds are, those notes are a hot mess, and there is no way you’re going to understand them if you look at them two days from now.
So, your next task is to copy those notes down, rewriting them in a coherent way so you can study from them in the future.
It may seem like a bother now, but you’ll thank yourself later.
The benefits of rewriting your notes is that you'll be able to see them clearly and concisely, making them much better study guides.
Moreover, the more you write down the same content, the more it gets stuck in your head.
You could even think of copying down your own notes as a form of studying in itself.
Just try to copy these notes down the same day or the next day.
If you wait any longer, it will become harder to rewrite the notes because they’ll be scattered and indecipherable.
You want to rewrite everything while it’s still fresh in your head.
#3 | The Cornell Method
Let’s say your professor doesn’t allow laptops in the classroom, nor does he or she supply the PowerPoint presentation beforehand.
You’re seeing all of the lecture information for the first time when you sit down for class.
It’s a less-than-ideal situation, but it’s one that lots of students face, so you’re not alone.
One tried and true method that many people swear by is the Cornell Method.
In the Cornell Method, you use your notebook paper strategically by creating two columns on a sheet of paper.
Draw a dividing line down the paper; make the first column about two inches wide, so you have space to write lots of notes on the right-hand column.
The thinner left-hand side is for the bigger questions that the lecture is addressing, such as “What’s Phlebotomy?”
Then, on the right-hand side you can jot down notes that pertain to that big-picture question.
Odds are that you will be scribbling down notes frantically, so you’ll probably need to rewrite your notes later on.
It’s annoying, but remember it’s another form of studying, so it ends up working out for your benefit.
Your notes look neat and tidy, plus you have retained a bit more information thanks to writing the notes down a second time.
It’s important to note that the Cornell Method is specifically for those who are taking notes on a physical piece of paper.
If you’re using a laptop to write your notes, it’s better to just open up a Word document and start typing as you listen to the professor speak.
Yes, your notes will be a jumbled mess, but this is why we rewrite things, remember?
#4 | Use Abbreviations and Shorthand
A guide on note-taking wouldn’t be complete without mentioning abbreviations and shorthand language.
These two things will become your best friend as you collect more and more notes.
There are shorthand symbols and abbreviations that all students can relate to, and then there are those that are specific to nursing.
First, we’ll look at the more general abbreviations.
Things such as “height” and “weight” are often shortened to “ht” and “wt.”
These are abbreviations that most of us see on food packages, so they’re quite universal. Instead of writing “number,” you might write “no.”
Likewise, numbers are rarely spelled out, so instead of writing “twenty-two,” just jot down “22.”
Other common examples include “esp” for “especially,” “c.” for “circa,” “max” for “maximum,” and “min” for “minimum.”
The cool thing about abbreviations in note taking is they can be totally tailored to you.
Since you’re the only one who’s going to see these notes (unless you form a study group or something), you can make the notes look however you want.
You might find that different techniques work better for you.
For instance, lots of people find it easier and quicker to take notes if they drop the vowels in the words.
So, if they’re writing “Speak to the patient,” they might write “Spk to ptnt.”
Of course, you need to be careful with dropping every single vowel because words start to look pretty similar when you do this!
Another shorthand option is creating maps or diagrams.
Maybe you have a wide umbrella term or idea, such as oncology.
You could write this word in the middle of your page and then use arrows and bubbles to connect linking words, terms, or ideas.
This is particularly nice for people who are more visually minded.
Now, let’s look at some abbreviations that are specific to nursing.
Blood pressure can be written as “BP,” absolute bed rest as “ABR,” and surgery as “surg.”
Nurses often write every as “q,” which makes it easier to quickly write every day (“qd”), every hour (“qh”), or every two hours (“q2h”).
There are loads more nursing abbreviations out there; a quick Google search can bring up a cheat sheet that you can get familiar with.
#5 | Get Visual
We talked about using maps and diagrams to create more visual notes.
Let’s expand on that a bit. Since nursing is a science, there are going to be different cycles and timelines you need to learn.
Visually drawing these out can help you retain that information and visualize it in your head for the exam.
If you have to memorize a cycle or process, such as how to draw blood, it might help to sketch some step-by-step pictures.
You don’t have to be an artist here, but often our brains take in more information if it’s in a visually-appealing form, and there’s nothing visually appealing about scribble scrabble.
Another thing you can do, which isn’t quite drawing, is to use things such as arrows and certain fonts to emphasize particular vocabulary words or concepts.
Think underlines, bold text, writing in all caps, or using dark arrows.
Highlighters get this job done, too; just use a distinct color for each specific concept or idea.
If you want, you can try one of the note-taking strategies above and then transfer it into a more sketched-out version.
You might even want to create a little key or legend at the front of your notebook to write down common nursing abbreviations you find yourself using often.
Not only is this a form of studying, but it can make reviewing the information a bit more enjoyable.
It’s at least better than writing the same thing over and over again.
#6 | Record the Lecture
I never really did this one, but I had plenty of classmates who did.
Recording a lecture is a great for that nursing professor who just speeds through material faster than you could ever write.
After recording the lecture, you can combine it with some of our other tips and write it out later.
You can use it to make a diagram or some other visual. If you're an auditory learner, you can listen to it while you're in the car or taking a walk.
You know the saying there's an app for that, and there is.
You can find recording apps on both the Google Play Store for Android users and the Apple App Store for iPhone users.
If you go down this route, you need to make sure there's enough memory on your phone for the recordings.
Also, make sure your phone doesn't run out of battery in the process.
If you decide to do lecture recordings, I'm a bigger fan of having a dedicated recorder.
Kinda like the Sony Digital voice recorder.
If you're looking for a cheaper version, the Homder Digital Voice Recorder will do the trick also.
A couple of things to keep in mind before going down this route. Make sure the lecturer is OK with nursing students recording lectures.
Also, do a test run to make sure the recorder can pick up the sound.
From my experience, even if the recorder does pick up the lecturer, they tend to struggle to pick up the questions other students ask.
So keep that in mind otherwise you'll get a recording to an answer without knowing what the question was
#7 | Sit at the Front of the Class
This is something that's often overlooked. Many students shy away from sitting in front of the class and instead opt to sit at the very back.
While the advantage is primarily, you get to be overlooked and never called upon, there are serious disadvantages students always overlook.
It's harder to hear and see from the back.
Depending on how your lecture room is set up, you might have a hard time hearing and seeing what's going on.
This pales in comparison to what I believe is the worst part of sitting at the back of the class which is…
There's a lot of distractions.
As someone who has sat at the back of the class on numerous occasions, I know how hard it is to concentrate in a class when you're all the way in the back.
Add a laptop into the picture, and you could be playing games and surfing Facebook all class long.
All of this makes it really hard to take really good notes.
#8 | Pay Attention to What Your Teacher Emphasizes
Most teachers who've been teaching the same class for a while know what's on the test.
Even if they use randomized questions, they know what subjects or topics they want to emphasize.
Many of them will highlight those topics in their lecture. Make sure you're paying attention to the material they emphasize with phrases like…
"this is really important."
"you should know this."
Or my absolute favorite.
"this is going to be on the test."
#9 Find Out What Works for You
Each nursing student is going to study differently. What works really well for somebody else might not work for you.
The same goes for note taking. For those reasons, don't be afraid to keep testing out what works well for you.
Don't be afraid to change it up or try something completely new if what your doing is not working.
Nursing school is hard, but it's doable. It's all about creating good study habits and good note-taking practices.