Handwritten notes are tedious to retrieve, information is static, and notebooks are very easy to lose or damage. Our guide shows you how to use Microsoft OneNote to format, organize, and save your class notes.
Like most people, I grew up keeping notes for a single-subject school, a notebook organized by the college. Even though those notebooks were way ahead of their useless peers, they still had flaws. Notebooks are prone to damage and loss, it’s hard to find certain notes, and I can’t help but run out of pages about three-quarters of the year. Digital note-taking apps solve the problem, but only if you break some of the rules beforehand. This guide details how to set up OneNote for taking school notes and provides some tips on how to overcome sometimes frustrating app limitations. Parents can follow these same guidelines for setting notes for children who are too young to do it themselves.
This guide focuses on OneNote (specifically the OneNote app for Windows 10 that requires a Microsoft 365 account). Note that you can download the free version of OneNote which doesn’t require a Microsoft subscription either. That version is more similar to other Microsoft Office applications in terms of style and features. The OneNote mobile and macOS apps are more similar to the OneNote app for Windows 10.
I chose OneNote for this guide because it is cross-platform, flexible, supports many types of input (such as touch, handwriting, and stylus), and syncs to the excellent cloud storage service (OneDrive). One of the features I didn’t cover was the OneNote Class Notebook tool. This ability of course focuses on education, but requires coordination with the instructor.
You can apply many of the organizational strategies I discuss in this guide to older versions of OneNote and other note-taking applications, such as Evernote or Bear. For more general note-taking suggestions, see our tips for managing your note-taking story. After all, other areas of your life can also benefit from effective note-taking skills.
Define a Structure for Your Notes
Simple OneNote hierarchical structure. At the top level is a notebook, which is broken up into sections, then pages. You can also create custom section groups within sections and subpages at the bottom of the page. Think of notebooks as the largest collective organizational group, and go down one level from there with each step.
For example, you could start by providing a notebook with the name or level of your school (such as Elementary, Middle School, High School, or College). You can use your year or grade level as the section name and then create section groups for each quarter or semester for that year. Then, create a section for each of your classes and use individual pages for notes. If your classes don’t change every semester or quarter, you don’t need to create section groups.
Alternatively, because there is no practical limit to page size in OneNote, you can endlessly update a single page with related information. For example, you could use one page to create a checklist for daily homework assignments, one to take notes, and one to brainstorm project ideas.
However, that setup can fall apart quickly, so it’s best to stick to a strategy that lies in the middle. Maintain an organizational structure, but add ongoing dedicated pages for project homework assignments and brainstorming. Just start the name of this section with a number to make sure it’s always at the top of the list (assuming you’re sorting OneNote pages alphabetically). You can also sort pages chronologically, which is likely an easier way to find notes from different points in the school year. If you can’t find a note, OneNote’s search feature can help you find matching text at any level.
Here’s an example of a OneNote hierarchical view for middle school students:
- Notebook: Middle School Notes
- Sections: Class 9, Class 10, Class 11, Class 12
- Section Group (High School Notes> Year 10): Fall Semester, Spring Semester
- Sections (High School Notes> Year 10> Fall Semester): Astrophysics, Tax Law, AI Architecture
- Pages (High School Notes> Year 10> Fall Semester> Astrophysics): Homework Assignments, Project Brainstorms, Week 1: Travel Between Planets
- Subpage (High School Notes> Year 10> Fall Semester> Astrophysics> Project Brainstorms): Possible Routes from Earth to Proxima Centauri b
You can change the color of each Notebook and Section to help you visually differentiate each one. You can also move, delete, or rename notebooks, sections, or pages whenever you want. This makes it easy to adopt a new structure without having to start over, as you would with a physical notebook.
Keep in mind that you may find to-do list apps, such as Todoist, useful for tracking daily tasks. Task management apps, such as Asana, or even a kanban app, like Trello, may be more useful for tracking ongoing tasks.
Formatting OneNote Pages for Taking Notes
Pages in OneNote can be scary. Unlike Word documents, OneNote pages have some structure rules. You can just click anywhere and start typing. This makes it easy for you to take notes quickly, but random sets of notes are useless when you need to study or search for information.
One layout tip that I found useful was to enable the Rules row. Click View Tab> Rule Lines> Narrow Rule. I recommend using the Narrow Ruled settings because they best match the default font sizes in OneNote. If you prefer a larger font size, try matching one of the other line spacing options. These rule lines also help you ensure that you type in the far-left space on the page. Just click to the left of the red vertical line, and your cursor will move to the far left position on the rule line automatically. After that, you just start typing.
Another practical benefit of enabling Rule Line view is that the page looks more like a physical sheet of paper. Depending on your preference, you can even change the background of each page (light or dark), with various page colors to choose from in each mode. Lines aren’t a permanent part of your document, so if you copy and paste text or graphics from the page, they won’t appear at the destination.
Another problem you may face while writing notes is that all of your text boxes may not be the same size. Unfortunately, there are no tools to align or resize them to the same width. One solution is to create a single box at the top of the page and keep typing your notes there for the entire page.
Alternatively, if you need to stop a text box with a graphic, copy and paste the existing text box to the desired location. As long as there is enough horizontal space on the page, the resulting text box will be the same width as the original. You can then use the Rule Line to align the text box, as it fits into additional horizontal and vertical positions.
You can try turning on Gridline view for precise visual guidance, but be aware that the text box edges don’t line up with the text edges; the text box has a little bit of padding. If the text box takes up too much vertical space, you’ll need to erase the extra line at the bottom, because there’s no vertical resizing handle.
If you ever accidentally drag an object too far to the left of the red line in the Rule Line view, your page is not broken forever. Just move the object back over the red line and then click the Zoom to 100 or Page Width button on the view tab to re-center your view. The scroll bar at the bottom stops again at the edge of the red line.
Here’s a quick summary of layout tips:
- Turn on Rule Lines to add structure to the page.
- Maintain consistency of text box size by using one or copying and pasting the original.
- Use the red lines to align your notes.
Creating and Editing Notes
I’m not going to cover every OneNote feature here, but rather highlight a tool that can be useful for writing school notes. For example, while OneNote’s excellent drawing tools and input support are common knowledge, did you know that every tag and doodle has a layer and can be moved or deleted afterward? There’s no need to risk the highlighter popping through the page or blurring text in OneNote – everything can be undone.
For extensive organization tools, OneNote lets you create custom tags for classifying notes. Click on the checkbox icon on the Home tab to get started. You can choose from existing tags such as To-do, Important, or Reminder for Later, or you can create a custom tag. Click anywhere in the text box to add a tag. When you go to search for that tag, you need to add quotation marks around it for OneNote to recognize it as such.
You may also want to remember when you took certain notes. OneNote makes it easy. Click into the text box, right-click, and then select the last option in the context menu, which will display your name next to the date and time you first created the text box. OneNote then adds this information at your cursor position.
OneNote further benefits from the built-in tools for translation and editing language settings. There’s also a Smart Search tool for defining terms or exploring topics. Both of these options open in the right-hand pane, so you don’t have to lose your place in your notes.
OneNote has many built-in math tools. Start typing the equation, and OneNote will continue formatting it. The Equation and Math menu options offer additional capabilities. For example, you can format complex equations, create embeddable graphs, and get step-by-step instructions for finding variable values.
Not all classrooms allow you to keep digital devices on your desk during class, but that shouldn’t stop you from using OneNote. For example, you could ask your instructor if you can record a lecture, and then insert the audio recording later. One of the cool features of OneNote is that you can sync the audio recording to your notes, so that the relevant part of the recording plays exactly as you write the note. You can even use a transcription service to convert recorded audio into editable text.
You can ask your teacher for a copy of the slides they presented to your teacher, insert them into OneNote, and then add notes to your class. You can even scan your handwritten notes using a scanning application, such as Office Lens, insert the image into OneNote and copy text from the image via the right-click context menu. For those learning remotely, you can use this same ability to quickly convert screenshots into editable text.
With many students now studying from home due to COVID-19, most of your education will be transmitted digitally. With that in mind, check out our guide on how and why you should create a separate, education-focused account on your PC.
Secure Your Notes
OneNote allows you to password protect any part of your notebook, which is useful if you want to keep your notes from prying eyes, but you shouldn’t forget the password you set. It can’t be recovered. If you forget your password, there is no way to reset access and you will lose all your notes in that section. One solution is to save the passwords of this section in a password manager, which you should use for school. Even so, I don’t recommend using this feature, because the risk seems too great. Also, locked sections can still be deleted permanently without entering a password.
If you want to secure access to OneNote, a better way is to enable two-factor authentication on the Microsoft Account you are signed in with. That way, you can ensure that you are the only one who is signed into your account.
Even though your OneNote notebooks are all automatically synced to your Microsoft account’s OneDrive storage, you may still want to back up your notes from time to time. Unfortunately, the OneNote app for Windows 10 doesn’t include any manual backup options. The free Office-centric version of the application includes local storage options.
Instead, you can go to OneNote for the web and go to your notebook pages. Right-click on the notebook you want to save, and select Export notebook. Store this export in a safe location for emergency access. If you want to add this export back to OneNote for Windows 10, right-click on the Zip file and choose Extract All. Then, right-click on the extracted section, hover over the Open with option, and select OneNote for Windows 10. OneNote may ask you to create a new Quick Notes section before importing the section, but you can move sections and pages as you do so. want. This new section is then synced back to your account’s cloud storage, just like the rest of it.
Exporting notebooks is also useful for students who want to share notes. Unfortunately, OneNote only officially supports sharing at the Notebook level. If you export the notebook and extract each section, you can send the file to classmates to import or copy into their own Notebook.
If you don’t care about adding this section back to your notebook, you can also print the section to PDF format. To do this, open the section in OneNote online (on Windows devices), choose File> Print> Print> Microsoft Print to PDF. Then, just name the download and select a save location.
Either method is much more advisable than trying to keep a physical notebook in clean condition for one school year. Summary:
- Don’t lock sections if there’s a chance you’ll forget the password.
- Set up two-factor authentication on your Microsoft Account.
- Open OneNote online to export your notebook.
Take Note-taking to a New Level With OneNote
OneNote for Windows 10 is sure to have its quirks, but it’s an excellent platform for creating and syncing your notes. The flexibility of OneNote can be intimidating too, so it’s up to you to create a structure that best fits your needs. Right-clicking to create a new notebook may never be as exciting as traveling to the office supply store earlier in the school year, but it’s very convenient. Additionally, digital note-taking apps offer much more versatile formatting and organization tools that don’t involve physically tearing apart the page.