To take the best notes in class, you need a system. There are a lot of great note-taking techniques that can help you identify the key elements of any lesson and organize them in a way that will help you study—but one of the best ways to actually learn and retain what the notes say is by color-coding.
How color-coding your notes helps you study
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Using color can improve the performance of your memory. This isn’t just a throwaway observation: Research has backed it up. One study from 2019 asserted that color, a perceptual stimulus, has “significant impact on improving human emotion and memory” and found “colored multimedia learning materials induced positive emotional experiences during learning and influenced the brain’s information processing.” Positive emotion increased motivation to learn there, but other studies have even more directly linked color to memory, skipping the emotional part altogether. For instance, this literature review from 2013 noted that “there appears to be a basis for associating color and its significant effect on memory abilities.”
Other studies, like this one from 2022, have pointed to how vital the use of color is for students’ self-expression, too, finding it “a key to their being satisfied with the learning process and its success, as well as with their future career growth.” The study found that color-coding important text was most important for students, who could control their color-coding and enhance their own self-study process.
How to color-code your notes
As made clear in the research on the topic, color-coding is as much about self-driven study and expression as it is about memory and retention—which means there’s no right or wrong way to color-code your own notes.
Still, you can use different colors of pen as you take the notes, for instance using red to write out key points and black to fill in supplemental information. Or, you could use highlighters to code certain kinds of info. For instance, yellow can signify key points, blue can indicate things you’re not sure about, green could be vocabulary words, and so forth. The key is to create a system that is uniform and can be used across all your notes so you start associating the different colors with certain ideas or concepts.
In the front of each notebook, make a color-coded directory to remind yourself what each pen or highlighter hue represents, then stick to it.