Do you have difficulty listening to the professor while taking class notes?
Do you have difficulty reading or making sense of your notes after you’ve written them?
Do you find it challenging to stay focused in class?
Do you catch yourself daydreaming or “blanking out” during lectures?
Have you ever left at the end of a lecture and could not remember what the lecture was actually about?
Good note-taking is the key to studying. Writing clear and organized notes can lead to fewer headaches during study periods and exams. It increases the amount of information you learn in class and results in less time spent studying.
The following tips and information will improve your note-taking techniques.
- Why is good note-taking important?
- How can you take good notes?
- Is there more to note-taking than what you do in class?
- How can you learn more about note-taking?
Did you know that the most important or most difficult concepts are usually covered during class time? This generally means that most examination questions are based on what is discussed in class. Since class time is so important for succeeding in your studies, an accurate record of this time is also important. And the best record you can keep comes from what you take down in the form of notes.
Fact: 30 minutes after attending class, you have already forgotten approximately 50% of the information that was provided.
Source (translated from): Bégin, C. (1992). Devenir efficace dans ses études. p. 101
This isn’t to say that your class notes should be your only point of reference. You should also be taking notes when you do your course readings. Maintaining focus and attention while reading a textbook can be challenging, and few people enjoy reading their textbooks twice. To avoid this, take notes while you do your readings to make studying easier. The next section will describe in more detail how to take effective notes, both inside and outside of the classroom.
First and foremost, you need to be physically and mentally alert in order to take good notes. Have you ever tried taking concise, well-organized, and well-worded notes at 8:30 a.m. after only a few hours of sleep? Taking care of your health by eating properly and getting enough sleep will go a long way in helping you to take better notes.
- Prepare your mind for what will be discussed in class by doing your readings beforehand. Having a good sense of what the professor will be covering makes it so much easier to follow along and to stay focused during class. If you find yourself pressed for time, even reviewing the titles and headings of your readings before going to class can make a big difference.
- Leave blank spaces in your notes so that you can add in some of the more subtle details later on. For example, you’ll probably find that some professors jump from one topic to another as they progress through a lecture. By leaving blank spaces, you can quickly fill in additional information when the professor comes back to an earlier topic. Also, blank spaces allow you to add in summaries or outstanding questions for easy reference later on. In short, leave enough blank room in your notes to avoid having to recopy them later.
- Draw tables or charts instead of putting information in paragraph form. This is particularly important for students who are visual learners. Tables and charts are a great way of summarizing a lot of information into a structured whole – a format that is, for some people, easier to remember during exams than entire paragraphs.
- Use indents, colour and spacing to identify the title of every section and sub-section. For example, use a particular coloured pen or highlighter throughout all your notes to identify the major headings of each lecture or chapter. You can go one step further and associate this colour with a particular indent space on your page – purple is always aligned with the left margin line, a yellow highlighted box is always used for summaries and important equations or quotes, etc.
- Use symbols and abbreviations to cut down on the time you spend writing down commonly-used words or concepts. You can create your own abbreviations… but be sure to write them down so you don’t forget what they mean.
While you are in class, make sure you understand what you write down, and if you don’t, ask questions. In fact, the only way to understand your notes is to grasp the matter being discussed. Many students feel that they could take better class notes if they had more time or if the professors spoke more slowly. Asking questions allows professors to pause – something your classmates will most likely also appreciate – and will also clarify ideas for you sooner rather than later.
Here are some additional tips for taking effective notes:
- Date and note the course code on all handouts given to you.
- If working with loose paper, number your pages.
- Use the main ideas that are discussed in class as titles.
- Under each main idea note any secondary ideas.
- Title each section of your notes.
- If demonstrations are done in class, make note of them so that you can use them to jog your memory later.
- Write information in a logical order. Most common is the use of cause → effect.
- Note the titles of theories, laws, and other base elements required in order to understand a chapter. If you have time, write down their definitions.
- Write down statistics, references, dates, and proper names.
- Always make note of examples to put the knowledge you have gained in a context you will understand later.
- Write everything in your own words.
One of the most challenging things about successful note-taking is remembering to review your notes after you’ve written them. Once you’ve learned to incorporate the tips and techniques suggested above into your note-taking practices, expand your routine to include the following quick and easy review techniques:
- Take 15-20 minutes to make sure that what you wrote down in class or during your readings makes sense. It is easier to review your notes the same evening as your class rather than a few days later because the information will still be relatively fresh in your mind.
- Compare your notes with those of a classmate. This will give you a chance to make sure that you understand the concepts that are presented. It will also ensure that your notes are complete.
- Read your notes more than once. Repetition is the easiest way to memorize something. Reading your notes over and over will ensure that you never have to study an entire course at once.
Below are some helpful external links which you may want to visit:
- The University of York’s website explains the Cornell note-taking method.
- The art of taking notes is explained in more detail at this Lifehack website.
Back to Study Skills to find other helpful guides.