Your computer can be a powerful tool to help you organise study notes and documents. This page describes a range of free and commercial software and apps that can support digital note-taking.
Digital note-taking has several advantages:
- Flexible: You can add notes directly to PDFs and other file types.
- Organised: Software can organise and index your study material automatically.
- Searchable: You can search for keywords across all your notes in seconds.
- Secure: You can back up notes remotely.
- Collaborative: You can share notes between people without losing access yourself.
Regardless of which programme you use, you still need to be active in taking notes. You need to prioritise the right information, and have a system for editing, condensing, reworking, and connecting notes.
The right software is important, but the right approach is more important.
Finding the right software
The programme or app you choose should be organised, adaptable, reliable, and easy to use.
Before you select a note-taking programme, ask the following questions:
What kind of material will you use?
Do you want software that records your own notes only, or do you want to use software to organise PDFs of journal articles? Do you want to add your own notes to article PDFs? Do you want to save webpages, slides from lecturers, photos, or recordings?
How many files will you use?
Are you planning on having only a few files, or hundreds? A programme with more robust file management and bibliographic management is necessary for larger collections.
Where will you study?
If you will be using several computers or mobile devices, you may want a programme with cloud storage so that the files can be accessed from anywhere. If you are working primarily on a mobile device or tablet, look for a compatible app.
Will you be collaborating?
Some programmes have collaboration tools that allow you to share access and editing rights with other people.
Many lecturers provide study materials in PDF form. This can include journal articles, book chapters, and lecture notes. These programmes let you read PDFs and add your own notes to the PDF file.
These programmes are a good option if you are managing a small (under 30) collection of documents.
- Adobe Reader (free) allows you to read PDFs, but you cannot annotate them.
- Foxit Reader (free) allows you to read and annotate PDFs.
- PDF XChange Viewer (free and paid options) allows you to read PDFs, add your own notes, and highlight passages.
Annotation and file management
These programmes are a good option if you are working with a larger (30-3000!) number of documents.
They allow annotations but also have advanced functions like organising and searching files, remote (cloud) storage, and collaboration tools.
Many programmes in this category can also automatically generate references and citations (bibliographic management). For more on this function, see referencing software.
|Endnote software stores and manages references.|
|Mendeley (free and paid options; also available as iOS app) is the best all-in-one solution; it allows you to organise, annotate, search, and back up documents, including PDFs and other file types.|
|Zotero (free browser plug-in or standalone programme; open source; third party apps) can save, manage, and share PDFs, webpages, images, audio, and other files. It does not currently allow you to annotate PDFs.|
|Diigo (free and paid options; website and iOS / Android apps) allows you to annotate webpages and sync and share those annotations between computers and collaborators. It does not support PDF annotation.|
If you do not need to annotate PDFs, there are several programmes that allow you to organise, categorise, and share your notes.
- Microsoft OneNote (part of Microsoft Office; also available as iOS / Android app)
- Evernote (free and paid versions; also available as iOS / Android app)
Mobile and tablet apps
Many of the programmes above also have app versions for use on iOS devices (like iPads and iPhones) or Android phones and tablets.
- Notability (paid; iOS) allows you to read and annotate PDFs on your iPad.
- UPAD (paid; iOS) enables detailed note-taking on an iPad.
- Note Taker HD (paid; iOS) is another highly rated note-taking app for the iPad.
- ezPDF Reader (paid, Android) allows for reading and annotation of PDFs.
Physical note-taking tools
If you are taking physical notes in lectures, it is possible to automatically record the text (and audio from the lecturer) and send it to note-taking software:
- Livescribe Smartpen (paid; connects with Evernote)