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Note Taking

Success in class is likely going to require note-taking. Below are some ways to improve your note taking by improving your listening, writing, organizing and reviewing skills. These should be considered in the context of two questions:

1. Why take notes?

  • Notes provide a record of the topics, ideas and specific information presented by the professor, and what aspects the professor considers most important.
  • Notes can identify areas for further study, provide the basis for what to read, and how best to approach studying.
  • Exam questions will come from the lecture.
  • Notes contribute to learning the material and organize the information.

2 How will you use your notes?

  • After class review your notes. If they are incomplete or unclear, ask a student or the professor.
  • Construct an outline on a separate page with key terms or concepts as headings. You can insert these headings back into your notes as a way to organize them. You've just reviewed your notes twice!
  • Write key terms on separate 3x5 notecards. Flip over and try to write the definition on the back. Continue until you've correctly defined all your terms. Keep these notecards to quiz yourself later.
  • Try to come up with your own exam questions. These will help you remember the material and think about how you might need to know it on an exam.


What do you take your notes on?

Do you use a loose-leaf binder, spiral-bound notebook or laptop? Each approach has trade-offs. Consider the following:

  • Spiral-bound notebook: have one for each course. Think about how you will organize it. You may want to take notes from lecture in the front and notes from the book in the back. Don't forget to put the date at the start of each lecture.
  • Loose-leaf binder: write the date and a page number on each page. Get a 3-hole punch to include any handouts with your notes. Loose-leaf paper provides more organizational flexibility, but can be mixed up if not labeled carefully. Consider using dividers, different colored paper or tabs to help organize it.
  • Laptop: add emphasis for important concepts or words with Bold, italics, or underline. Indent and space to create structure. Insert comments or additional information. Date each lecture so you know where to begin for the next one. Another feature for taking notes on a laptop is the ability to insert pictures, charts or graphs. Always make sure to save your files with names you can identify in locations you can easily find.

Active listening

Improving your listening skills will increase the amount you learn in lecture and decrease the amount of time you will need to study.

  • Sit where you can hear and see clearly.
  • Focus. Put away distractions, especially your cell phone. Almost everything that's on your phone can wait until the end of class.
  • Try to make connections between what is being said and topics you've heard previously or read in your book.
  • Keep your feet on the ground and lean forward. It's amazing how posture affects attentiveness.
  • Search for patterns. How does the professor express important information?
  • Listen for key words and phrases. Anything that is repeated, or written down, is likely to be significant.
  • Read handouts and the chapter before the lecture. This will give you a better grasp of the content because it won't seem so new.


Effective writing

Clarity, accuracy and speed will all affect how useful your notes will be to you. Get key words and ideas, but write them in a way you can best interpret them when it comes time to review. Here are a few tips:

  • Use indentation, bullet points or numbers to organize your notes as you take them.
  • Highlight important terms and key ideas while writing them (CAPITALIZE, underline, make arrows --->, etc.).
  • Abbreviate using symbols, eliminating letters or inventing your own style.
  • Write down examples. They help clarify concepts and often appear on tests.
  • Insert pictures, or draw your own, to show the relationships between concepts.
  • If you miss something or come in late, leave space to fill in later. Ask another student for the information you missed.
  • Be attentive at the end of lecture. A professor may rush to say everything planned. The points they make are important and may be less defined, so take notes carefully and ask if you have questions.


Organize your ideas

You may have heard about the Cornell Note-Taking system as a way to organize your notes. Below are key strategies for using this system to organize your notes:

  • Use paper with a 3" left-margin or draw margin-line yourself.
  • Take class notes only on the front of the page and to the right of the margin.
  • Go through your notes, correct errors or highlight terms after class. Use the margin to write questions about the lecture material (ex. What are 4 major categories of molecules?). Cover up the notes to quiz yourself.
  • Other questions can help you interrelate ideas. The answers will not be contained as simple statements in your notes, but you can find the answers by synthesizing the information contained in your notes, reading the textbook or asking questions in weekly review sessions. The margins can also be used for listing new terms, or for anything else you find helpful.
  • On the bottom of the last page, write a summary of each day's lecture.

Review regularly

Review your notes in order to learn the material and look for ways to improve your note-taking skills.

  • Immediate Review - Review your notes on the day you take them to check for completeness. Write questions and summarize the lecture. The Cornell Method provides a convenient format for doing this.
  • Intermittent Review - Read through your notes once a week or after each unit. The Cornell Method provides an efficient way of quizzing yourself, but you should also look for ways to pull together the ideas for each topic. Can you write a summary, make a chart or draw a diagram that provides an overview of the topic?
  • Exam Review - Anticipate your own exam questions and try to answer them. What is the big picture? What threads connect the major topics?