Effective note taking
5 simple tips to take effective notes in a lecture
Being able to take clear comprehensive notes, which allow you to understand and learn the presented material for your course assignments or exams, is a vital skill for students at college or university. It can also be a major challenge is you are coming up from school without having had to make your own notes on what was happening in class. The following are simple ideas for creating useful and effective notes from which you can learn more easily.
Read any background texts that have been suggested, re-read your notes from previous lectures or classes on this course so that you can see easily where this session fits into the overall pattern of the subject. At the very least, check with the course syllabus what topic you’ll be covering in the class and how central it is to the overall theme of the course.
Arrive in good time with all the equipment you’ll need. It sounds obvious but if you arrive late and flustered, only to find that you’ve forgotten your notepad or your pen’s run out of ink, you’re not going to be able to concentrate fully on what’s being said and you’ll miss potentially important items from your notes as well as causing a disruption to your colleagues.
The key to good note-taking is understanding. It is easier to understand a lecture when you’re sat listening to it than it is by trying to re-construct it from half-understood notes afterwards. Simultaneously listening to the lecturer and writing down the key points is not a skill that comes easily to most people but it is important to cultivate this in order to become a really effective learner.
Pick up on the phrases, voice changes and other, sometimes non-verbal, cues that the lecturer uses to communicate which are the key points of the session. These are the most important things to get into your notes, so you don’t want to miss them!
Be an active listener. Think about what’s being said. How do the different points connect with one another? How do the issues raised in this lecture relate to issues that have been discussed in previous sessions, or in books you have read? Make sure that you transcribe your understanding of these connections and relationships into your notes.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If something isn’t clear to you, ask for it to be explained. 75 per cent of your learning happens in class so it’s important to understand as much as possible at this point. It will also make your class notes much more useful when it comes to revision and assignment writing.
3. Write only what's needed
Not everything in a lecture or seminar session will be of equal significance. There will probably be three or four main points, linked by a common theme, and maybe a half dozen sub-points relating to each of these. The rest of the class may well be illustrations, examples, exercises, student interactions and responses to questions, etc. Don’t get bogged down trying to write down every word or detail. Capture the major points, with sub-headings if necessary, and explain them in your own words if you have time to do so. If you don’t have time, leave a blank space beneath the point in question and a little note or symbol in the margin to remind you to re-visit that point later.
4. Organize your notes
Beautifully scripted and perfectly laid-out notes are not necessary for effective learning but some level of organization is useful if you are going to be able to make sense of them in the future. Develop a system of highlighting headings and sub-headings (using bullet points, underlining, indenting, etc.) that makes intuitive sense to you and stick with that from lecture to lecture.
Try to be consistent as well with the use of abbreviations and symbols in your notes. If you can develop and use your own system of shorthand, you can speed up your note-taking but this is only a useful technique if you can decipher that code when you come to re-read your notes later.
Don’t try and cram too much writing on a single page, or make your writing so small that it’s illegible. Use as much paper as you need to express all the ideas from the lecture in a clear and readable form. Draw diagrams or use flow charts or mind maps if they help you make sense of your ideas.
Following the Cornell system for writing notes can also increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your note-taking technique. This involves leaving a margin down the left hand side of the page, approximately 1/3 of the total width of the page, and only writing your notes to the right hand side of that margin during class. The third of the page to the left of the margin is reserved for pulling out the key ideas and themes from the notes when you come to review them later.
The beauty of the Cornell system is that it doesn’t require you to re-write your notes, thus saving time and tedium! You do need to review your notes, however, within 24 hours of their original creation. Re-reading shortly after writing notes means that you will be more likely to remember and understand them, and the process of pulling out the key ideas from the lecture in the left hand column of your note sheets will therefore be very much smoother.
As far as possible, aim to write the key ideas in the review column in your own words, summarizing what have been the main points of the lecture for you. Stress inter-relationships and any other factors that add to your recollection or comprehension of the material.
This left hand column then acts as a short summary of the session that you can learn for use in an examination situation or to ensure that you have fully grasped the issues raised in a lecture.
Re-reading your notes again before the next session brings the process full circle and serves to reinforce your learning and understanding of the subject.
A few weeks ago, we published an article on study tips to help you ace your exams. In that post, I mentioned the possibility of doing a follow-up article on note-taking, and many of you requested that I make that happen. And I’m happy to oblige. Below, I’ve provided a primer on note-taking strategies, many of which I personally used during my academic career. A lot of this is fairly basic stuff–there are no “secrets” to note-taking success. But hopefully a few of these tips will help you start taking notes more effectively.
For most of your classes (especially lecture-heavy social science courses) I recommend taking notes with a laptop. You can type faster than you can write, it makes organizing your notes easier, and your notes will always be in legible type instead of the chicken scratch you call handwriting.
Use a note-taking program. While you could just use your computer’s default text file editor or word processor program, I recommend using a program specifically designed for note-taking. Below are two that I’ve used with success.
Evernote. I used Evernote during law school for taking notes. If you’re a student, I highly recommend you use it too. Evernote is a robust, free(!) note-taking application that allows you to remember and organize everything your professor throws at you.
Notes you take on the Evernote desktop app automatically sync with your Evernote account online. If your laptop crashes or gets lost, you’ll still have your notes sitting safely in the cloud. If you like to handwrite your notes, but would like to store them digitally, Evernote makes it possible. Just scan your handwritten notes into Evernote, and Evernote will use the magic of image recognition technology to allow you to search for your handwritten notes within the app. It also lets you record your professor using your computer’s microphone (just make sure to ask your professor first if it’s okay to record him or her).
OneNote. OneNote is Microsoft’s note-taking program. I used it as an undergrad before Evernote came out. OneNote is a decent program, but it’s got a few drawbacks. First is the cost. You have to buy Microsoft Office in order to get OneNote. That will set you back $119. Check your school’s IT department to see if they sell MS Office at a discount. I remember being able to buy it for $20 in law school. The other problem is that OneNote doesn’t sync as nicely as Evernote. Bottom line: Go with Evernote.
Learn to type (faster). If you don’t know how to touch-type, then learn. It will make keeping up with your professor much easier. There are plenty of free, online programs out there that teach you how to type, so start using them. My favorite is keybr.com. It’s free. If you already know how to type, work on getting even faster.
Become familiar with keyboard shortcuts. As you take notes during class, you’ll probably want to bold, underline, or italicize certain points and words. Instead of using your track pad to move to and click the “Bold” button in your toolbar, save time by simply using a keyboard shortcut.
Here are a few keyboard shortcuts that every good note-taker should know:
To bold text: Control+B (Command+B on Mac), then type what you want to bold
To underline text: Control+U (Command+U on Mac), then type what you want underlined
To italicize text: Control+I (Command+I on Mac), then type what you want italicized
To create a bulleted list: Depends on the platform-
- Evernote/OneNote: Control+Shift+U (Command+Shift+U on Mac)
- Word: Control+Shift+L (Command+Shift+L on Mac)
To create a numbered list: Depends on the platform-
- Evernote/OneNote: Control+Shift+O (Command+Shift+O on Mac)
- Word: Control+Alt+L
To find text: Control+F (Command+F on Mac) This is handy whenever you’re reviewing notes and want to find instances where you wrote about a specific topic.
Use text expander programs. If you find yourself typing certain phrases or words over and over again, save yourself time by using a text expander program. Text expander programs allow you to assign predefined keystrokes to complete words and phrases. Whenever you type that keystroke in, the text expander will type out the complete word or phrase.
For example, when I was taking Torts during my first year of law school, instead of typing out “intentional infliction of emotional distress” every time my prof mentioned it, I programmed a text expander so that whenever I typed “iied,” the output would be “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Pretty cool, huh?
Here are some text expander programs for the various operating systems out there:
PhraseExpress (Windows 7)
Texter (All other versions of Windows)
Pen and Paper
To keep students from surfing around during class and force them to actually pay attention, some professors are starting to ban the use of laptops during their classes. If you find yourself in one of these classes, you’ll need to use the note-taking tools your dad and grandpa used: good old fashioned pen and paper.
Even if your professor doesn’t ban laptops, there are some classes where it’s actually better to take notes by hand. Classes that are heavy on numbers, equations, and formulas–calculus, chemistry, physics, economics, symbolic logic, etc.–are best suited for handwritten notes. It’s just too hard to type out that sort of stuff with a keyboard. I also found that pen and paper works best for language classes. Oftentimes you’ll be copying down conjugation tables from the blackboard, and handwriting these are easier than typing them.
Notebook for each class. Have a separate notebook for each class. It keeps things organized. Plus, if you keep all of your classes’ notes in the same notebook and you lose that notebook, you’re pretty much SOL.
Write clearly. If you’re going to handwrite your notes, make sure you can read them later. PenMANship. It’s got the word “man” in it, so it’s manly.
Before the Lecture: Prepare for Effective Note-Taking
Do the assigned reading. The best way to prepare for class is simply doing the assigned reading. Being familiar with the material will better enable you to understand the professor’s lecture and separate out the important points. As you read, take notes of what you think are the main ideas. Highlight, underline, and write in the book’s margins. Write down questions that come up as you’re reading.
Arrive 10 minutes before class and review the assigned reading and notes from the previous class. Try to get to class a few minutes early. Grab a seat near the front of the class and get everything ready. Scan through your reading assignment and the notes you made. Write down any questions you had during the reading that you’re hoping to have answered during the professor’s lecture.
Turn off wi-fi card or block the internet. Surfing Reddit during class will not help you pay attention. Turn off your computer’s wifi card or use one of the internet blocking tools that we covered in this previous post.
During the Lecture: What to Write Down
Only write down the main points of the lecture. Don’t write everything down! Your goal isn’t to transcribe your professor’s lecture word for word, rather it’s to extract and record the main points of it. The trick to successful note-taking is learning how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Your professor will likely go off on tangents during the lecture and spout off stuff that won’t be on the exam. You don’t want to waste your time writing down and studying info that you won’t even be tested on.
So how do you know what the professor’s main points are? Pay attention to cues your professor gives off either consciously or subconsciously. Here are a few cues your professor may give during the lecture. Whenever you see them, it probably means he’s saying something important, so write it down.
- Anytime the professor says, “You need to know this,” or “This will be on the test.” Duh.
- Anytime the professor repeats himself.
- Anything the professor writes on the board or includes in a Powerpoint slide.
- Anything the professor repeats very slowly so that it can be taken down word for word.
- If your professor starts talking more quickly, or loudly, or with more emphasis.
- Watch for language that shows relationships between ideas. These sorts of points are often where professors get their exam questions from:
- first, second, third
- especially, most significant, most important
- however, on the other hand
- because, so, therefore, consequently
Write the professor’s summary at the end of class and his review at the beginning of the next class.