Taking Notes

Note-taking strategies that can help you get the most out of lectures

Taking good notes is vital to success in college. Not only do notes serve as a study guide, but the act of transcribing what your instructor says or what you read in the textbook into your own words helps you better understand the course material. When you’re taking notes, your attention is focused on a steady stream of information, and you’re mentally and physically engaged in a process that psychologists call active learning.

How to Take Great Lecture Notes

Many freshmen are shocked by how quickly instructors move through course material and how little time there is to copy down formulas and definitions. Note taking requires practice, just like any other skill. As you progress through your time in college, you’ll find that your note-taking skills improve significantly. You just need to find your own unique note-taking style. Some students like to color-code and underline everything, while others are content to scribble madly all over the page.

There are, however, a few strategies that work across the board:

  • Keep your notes brief. Don’t try to write down everything the instructor says or everything projected via overhead. Focus on the important points. Use point form instead of sentences. You should be thinking about the meaning of the lecture, not frantically copying down sentences.
  • Use your own words. Instead of copying things word for word, transcribe them into language that you’ll understand later (the only exception to this is definitions and formulas). To save time, develop your own system of abbreviations and symbols.
  • Leave space to add information later. If you miss something, leave room to fill in the information later. Don’t get caught up if you don’t have time to copy down a word or sentence - worrying about it can cause you to fall even farther behind. Just leave an asterisk next to the stuff you missed and go back and fill it in after class.
  • Do the readings before you go to class. That way, you’ll have a good idea what the lesson is about and you’ll know which points are important and need to be copied down, and which ones you can skip.
  • Date and number all your pages. Keep your notes together in a folder or binder. At some point, you’re going to drop your notes everywhere (most likely in an embarrassing manner in the middle of the crowded student center) and have to put them back in order.

What’s Important?

All professors give out cues about what information is the most important to copy down. In general, information is important if your instructor:

  • Writes it on the blackboard
  • Repeats it
  • Emphasizes it through tone or gestures
  • Mentions it as part of a series (e.g. “The three causes of this are…”)
  • Includes it in a summary or concluding statement

Printing Notes off the Internet

A new trend in lecture notes is for instructors to make them available on the Internet for students to print out before class. While this is very popular with students, it can also cause problems. Students tend to use these notes as an excuse to become lazy. Many skip class, figuring that they can print out everything they need to know. Printed notes should only be used to supplement your own notes. They allow you to go to class and focus on what the professor is saying, rather than worrying about copying down every word he or she says. Many professors see these notes as only a guide, and they intentionally omit important details so that only the students who attend class get the whole lesson.

The Importance of Review

Soon after your lecture ends, you should go back and review your notes. Fill in any missing details and clarify anything that’s vague. Make sure you understand the meaning of everything you wrote down. If you don’t, go to your professor or T.A., or consult the textbook for clarification. Our brains forget information very quickly, so review should always be done before the next lecture. If you wait until it’s time to study for the exam before you review your notes, you may have no memory at all of what the lecture was about and no hope of understanding anything in your notes that’s still unclear.

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