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Taking Lecture Notes

The ideas and information presented during lectures constitute the heart of many courses. Understanding and remembering what was presented are necessary steps for mastering the course material, but not sufficient. You must also be able to synthesize the ideas and apply them to new situations. Some topics will be easy for you to learn, while others, because of their inherent difficulty or unfamiliarity, will require more study-time and a greater reliance on reading the textbook and discussing ideas with teaching assistant and other students. Success in this course requires effective note-taking skills, but this does not mean that there is only one correct way to take notes. The purpose of this is to help you think about your current approach. Ask yourself: are there two or three things I could do differently to make my note-taking skills more effective? Presented below is a list of suggestions for improving your listening, writing, organizing and reviewing skills, but these suggestions should be considered in the context of two broad questions:

  1. Why take lecture notes?
  2. How will you use your lecture notes?

These questions may seem obvious, but few students stop to consider them. Take the time right now to answer them for yourself. Well, what did you come up with? Four answers to the first question have been offered repeatedly during previous discussions with students:

  • The notes provide a record of the topics, ideas and specific information presented by the professor, and an indication of what aspects of each topic the professor considers most important.
  • The notes can be used to identify those areas which require further study and can provide the basis for deciding what to read in the textbook and how best to approach studying a specific topic.
  • The exam questions will be drawn from the lecture material.
  • If done well, the act of taking notes contribute significantly to learning the material and reduces the amount of additional study-time needed.

Answers to the second question are much more varied and depend on each student's individual approach. Some typical responses include:

  • After class I make sure my notes are complete and accurate. If something is missing I ask a teaching assistant or another student about it and will add this to my notes.
  • I use my notes on each topic to construct a brief outline in which the sub-headings consist of key terms and descriptive phrase, I then return to my notes and insert these sub-headings in appropriate locations as a way of organizing my notes.
  • I go through my notes and make a list of the terminology. From memory I try to write definitions for each term. For terms that are difficult to learn I construct flash cards by writing the term on one side of an index card and its definition on the other.
  • I use my notes as the basis for writing questions about each topic. Some questions serve to reinforce factual information, while others interrelate ideas. The questions help me to remember the material and so identify the important aspects of each topic before I read the textbook. They also help me anticipate many of the exam questions.
  • I review my notes periodically as the main way I study for an exam.

Getting Started - Plan for the Semester

Do you use a loose-leaf or spiral-bound notebook? Do you take notes in pencil or pen? Do you write using more than one color? Every approach has its trade-offs. Consider the following suggestions:

  • If you use spiral-bound notebooks be sure to have a separate notebook for each course. Think about how you will organize each one. You may want to start taking notes from lecture in the front and notes from discussion in the back. Mark the date on each page, and be sure to skip a few pages for any day that you might miss. You may want to write on one side of each page and have the backs of preceding pages for additional notes or questions to yourself. Have a separate loose-leaf notebook for handouts. Put the date on each handout and make a reference to it in your notes.
  • If you use a loose-leaf notebook it is especially important to write the date and course number on each page. Include any handouts with the appropriate notes. Writing on one side of each page makes it easier to see everything at once if you lay out notes when studying. A loose-leaf format provided much organizational flexibility, but you must decide how to organize your notebook. Will you use sections? different colored paper? tabs for quick reference?
  • Attend every lecture and arrive on time, It’s embarrassing to have to say this, but absence and late arrival are the two most effective ways to damage your grade in this course.

Listening - Be an Active Listener

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

  • Sit in a place where you can hear and see clearly (i.e., sit close to the lecturer).
  • Keep an open mind. Do not decide ahead of time that you are not going to like the lecture.
  • Listen for content rather than style of delivery. Try to transcend any annoying mannerisms of the lecturer.
  • Have an active mind. Because you can think faster than the lecturer can talk, make connections between what the lecturer is saying and other topics relevant to the course or you.
  • Get your whole body into it. Keep your feet on the ground and lean forward. It's amazing how posture affects attentiveness.
  • Listen selectively. Tune out background noise. Concentrate on the lecture.
  • Search for a lecturer's patterns. How does the professor express what he or she considers to be important?
  • Key in on important words and phrases (e.g., "therefore" and "in conclusion"). Anything that is repeated is likely to be significant.
  • Pre-read the text concerning the material to be covered in lecture. When you hear terms in class they won't seem so alien to you.

Writing - Be an Effective Writer

The clarity, accuracy and speed of your writing will affect the usefulness of your notes. Try to get the key words and ideas which provide a meaningful record of the lecture, but write them in a natural way which is useful for review.

  • Use indentation and/or numbers to organize your notes as you take them.
  • Highlight important terms and key ideas while writing them (e.g., CAPITALIZE, underline, make arrows --->, make boxes [ ]).
  • Abbreviate using symbols, eliminating vowels or inventing your own style (e.g., < = less than, w/ = with, abt = about, evmt = environment, carbos = carbohydrates, E = evolution).
  • Use brackets around asides. [For example, when the professor announces in the middle of lecture that there will be a test next week.]
  • Write down examples. They help clarify concepts and often appear on tests.
  • Use pictures to connect terms (e.g., draw a cell and fill it in as the professor tells you about its organelles). Diagrams are also useful in showing the relationships between concepts.
  • If you miss something or come in late, leave a space with a question mark to be filled in later. Don't forget to ask another student or a teaching assistant for the information you missed.
  • Don't burn out before the end of lecture. The end of the period is the time many professors rush to say everything they had planned. The points they make at the end are usually important and may be less well explained, so it is important to take notes carefully. Stay after the bell has rung to finish them if necessary.

Organizing - Be an Effective Organizer

Organizing has two aspects: organizing the paper and organizing the ideas. The first aspect was covered in the section on getting started. For the second aspect try the Cornell Note-Taking system.

  • Use paper with a left-margin three inches wide or draw margin-line yourself.
  • Write only on the front of the page and to the right of the margin when taking notes in class.
  • That day go back through your notes and correct errors, amplify or highlight them. Now use the margin to write questions about the lecture material. Some of these might be "Jeopardy Style" questions for which the answers are contained in your notes (e.g., What are the four major categories of biologically important molecules?) By covering up the notes you can use the questions to quiz yourself on the lecture material. Other questions should be thought-questions which help you interrelate ideas. The answers to these questions 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 the questions in discussion section or the 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.

Reviewing - Review Regularly

Review your notes in order to learn the material and to 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 topic. 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 - Test yourself by asking questions about the material. Answer them orally, or, even better, in writing. By writing the answers you will be more likely to remember them. Quizzing yourself when you study is a good way to anticipate the questions the professor will ask. Build on your questions and summaries for each lecture or topic. Try to make connections between sections of the course. What is the big picture? Try to understand the professor's logic and to construct a hierarchical understanding of the course material.