Effective note taking is not recording or transcribing. To do this, it must be an active part of the learning process, which requires that one quickly assimilate the class material and write the fundamental elements in a way that fits the learning style. After properly preparing for a class, streamline your note-taking process. The following steps, along with a quick reorganization and review, can help you take better notes in class.
Part 1 of 4: Prepare for Class
Step 1. Finish your assigned readings before class for the day
Teachers assign readings so that you can be familiar with the topic that will be covered in class. If you finish the readings before class, you will already know many of the background details. This way you can focus on taking notes on the fundamental concepts.
Also, read your notes from the previous class well before class. This will help you quickly get back to where you last left off in class
Step 2. Review course materials and class summaries online
If the teacher provides summaries, PowerPoint slides, or even a basic summary of the next class, use that to your advantage. Think of it as the frame of a house: then you will have to complete it and furnish it with your note taking.
It can be tempting to just print out that class summary or slideshow and find that you can skip the note-taking during it or just jot down a few things here and there in print. However, it is much better to use these materials to structure your notes. This is the best way to process information, since that's the point of taking notes after all
Step 3. Consider the pros and cons of taking notes during a class
Many students are more comfortable writing on paper than typing on a computer. However, there are still reasons to consider the tried and true method of putting pen to paper. Some studies indicate that students who take notes by hand may understand and remember class material more than those who write on a computer. With a laptop it can be easier to slip into transcription mode. This happens when you try to write down everything that was said instead of actively discerning what is most important to write. Jotting things down by hand can help you get more attention.
- On the other hand, using a laptop or other electronic device will make it easier to format, save, edit, share, and read your notes (without having to worry about messy typing).
- The note-taking aids available on laptops are almost endless. For example, there is a "Notebook Layout" format in Microsoft Word, etc.; a program that connects the recording of a class to the notes; a program for organizing notes that allows you to join materials of various types and formats, such as emails and PDF files; and there are also collaborative note-taking platforms that allow you to team up with others to do so in real time. These aids can be a lifesaver or distraction for you. Only you can judge which one works best.
- Some instructors and institutions prohibit the use of laptops in class. So don't discount the need to know how to make notes by hand.
Step 4. Sit near the front of the room
Choose a place in the class where you have few distractions. This way, you can pay more attention and take better notes. Find a place where you can see and hear the teacher clearly. You should also be able to see the board clearly. Get to class a little early to make sure you have seating options.
If you find yourself distracting from the noise of other students, some air conditioning vent, or the unfortunate reflection from the projector screen, move discreetly to a new seat if you can do so without causing a significant disruption. If not, take notes as best you can at the time and find another place next time
Step 5. Make sure you have enough materials to take notes
If you take notes by hand, bring paper and extra pencils or pens. If you're taking notes on a laptop or other electronic device, make sure it's charged enough and ready to go as soon as class begins.
Some people prefer to use loose sheets of notes so they can place them on the table or on the floor when they study, while other people find that bound notebooks are more orderly
Step 6. Put the date and topic of the class on your sheet
Make sure your notes have that information clearly for future reference. Write the class date and topic at the top of each page.
If you have multiple pages of notes, include the page numbers as well. This will help you keep your notes in order
Step 7. Consider formatting options for your notes
If you make your notes in the most orderly way from the beginning, it will be easier for you to understand, review and study them. One option is the outline format, especially if the class is clearly structured or presented in such a way. In this format, you will have section headings. Below each section heading, you will annotate ideas with a bullet and supplementary ideas with an indentation and a bullet. This is much better than just writing everything as a new point.
Keep in mind that teachers don't always organize themselves in such a way that a secondary idea follows a main idea. Remember that you may have to rearrange your notes after class
Part 2 of 4: Optimize your note taking
Step 1. Remember to take notes instead of transcribing the class
In order to take better notes, you will need to "actively listen." This means that you simply won't record what is being said. Instead, you will need to engage with the material and determine the essential elements of what is being said.
- For example, instead of spending time writing down every detail of the various foreign policy actions of a certain president, make an effort to establish the fundamental concepts of his foreign policy in general and to identify the examples as support. In this way, you will have already started the process of learning and understanding (in other words, studying).
- This need for active participation is one reason why many experts advise against recording lectures.
- If you insist on recording classes or if you have a legitimate need, do so. Ask the teacher in advance if it is okay for you to record. The class is considered the intellectual property of the teacher. Also, some institutions have specific policies regarding recordings.
Step 2. Listen to the class introduction carefully
At the beginning of class, don't waste time settling down to be in note-taking mode. You must be ready to do it from the beginning.
- Classes often begin with an explicit review of what will be covered or at least with implicit "clues" as to what will follow. Listen carefully to the beginning of the class in order to know the keys of the context that can help you in your organization and discernment of what will be most important.
- Pay no attention to students who are late or not ready to take notes yet.
Step 3. Copy what is written on the board
Every instructor organizes each class in an outline form, even when it is implicit and follows it loosely. The information included in the class slides will give you a solid idea of how to keep your notes organized.
Step 4. Learn to detect the teacher's cues and clues
The teacher will use vocal patterns, hand gestures, and other prompts to emphasize the important parts of the class. It begins by observing these patterns and gestures in order to be able to discern essential information.
Recognize main ideas by identifying words and phrases that indicate something important to follow. Your instructor won't send you a rocket ship when he says an important new idea or gives an example. However, it will use the signals to convey that it is doing so. Every good speaker does it and you should expect to receive those signals. Some examples are:
- There are three reasons why …
- First … second … third …
- The importance of this is …
- The impact it produces is …
- From this, we can see …
- Learn to identify other clues too. When the teacher develops a key point, they may speak more slowly or aloud, repeat a word or phrase, take a longer pause before speaking again (perhaps even have a glass of water), make more hand gestures demonstrative, stop walking or look more closely at the audience, etc.
Step 5. Make your own shorthand method
Writing in shorthand is a way to use shortcuts so that you don't have to type every word. You can also write notes more quickly - an essential skill when listening to a class in the classroom. However, when taking notes, do not use authentic shorthand like a stenographer. This requires extensive transcription. Rather, develop your own set of shortcuts, abbreviations, symbols, drawings, etc. Even if no one else knows what your shorthand symbols mean, you will know what they mean.
- Use abbreviations and omit unimportant words for efficient note taking. Record only the important words of the point whose idea you need to know. Omit words like "the" and "a" as they do not convey additional meaning to the class content. Create abbreviations to help you write things down quickly, for example, draw arrows to increase or decrease or to show a causal relationship (especially for terms that are used multiple times, for example, RI for international relations).
- Paraphrase everything except formulas and definitions or specific data that you are likely to need verbatim on the exam.
- Underline, circle, star, highlight, or otherwise identify key examples, definitions, or other important parts. Make your own brand to indicate each part.
- Try making diagrams or pictures for concepts that you can't quickly describe or understand right away. For example, draw a pie chart to lightly indicate the relative strength of political parties in a given election instead of writing down such details.
Step 6. Write legibly
Make sure your letters and words are properly and legibly spaced so that you can read them later. Something that is very frustrating is that you cannot read your own handwriting, especially when trying to study for a course exam.
Step 7. Leave space for you to work there later
Don't try to put as much information as you can on each sheet. Leave plenty of white space on your page. Writing in more space will give you plenty of room to review and annotate later. With this style the information will also be easier to read and assimilate when you study.
Step 8. Pay attention to the end of the class
It's easy to lose focus when the clock is nearing the end of class. Other students may begin to collect their supplies and whisper with each other about what's for lunch. However, the conclusion of the class is just as important as the introduction, since it lays out the big picture and the fundamental themes and concepts.
If there is a summary at the end of the class, pay close attention to it. You can use it to review the organization of your notes. If your notes seem disorganized, copy the main points that are in the summary. This will help you when you review your notes later
Step 9. Ask questions
During class, as well as at the end of it, be sure to ask questions about the points you do not understand. When other students ask questions, write down those questions and the instructor's answers. This additional information can answer questions that you also have.
- If keeping the classroom waiting to ask a question (and making students who already have one foot out of the door uncomfortable) is inhibiting you, ask the teacher after class. You will probably see other students doing the same and you will also be able to hear their questions.
- You can also bring a list of questions to your teacher during office hours.
Part 3 of 4: Review your notes
Step 1. Review your notes as soon as you can
Do the review within 24 hours after class. By that time, you may have already forgotten 80% of the class material. Build on what you learned instead of having to relearn the material.
Step 2. Review your notes, don't just rewrite
Look at your class notes as if they were your draft and the review as if it were an edited copy. Create a new version of your notes. This will be useful mainly if your notes are sloppy, disorganized, or almost illegible. Don't just copy your notes as you originally wrote them. Make this part an active review process.
- Use the ideas you jotted down during class regarding structure and fundamental concepts to help you reorganize what you wrote.
- Fill in the weak spots with material from the textbook.
Step 3. Highlight the important parts of the class
When reviewing your notes, you should also spend time highlighting or highlighting important parts of the class. Use different colored pens or markers with repeating concepts to code and color them. Marked notes will be important when you start studying for the exam, as they allow you to remember the essential parts of each class quickly and efficiently.
Step 4. Get the notes of the classes you have missed
If you miss a class due to illness or other reason, you should be sure to get notes from a classmate. Also talk to the instructor so that you can understand the material.
- Do not trust the note-for-sale services. Most universities have a policy against the use of these types of notes. Remember: using purchased notes does not constitute “active learning” that helps with comprehension and retention.
- If you have a physical or other disability that also makes note-taking difficult, talk to your teacher and your institution's student services office about your options. Various options are likely available, including perhaps special class guides, note-taking assistance, and permission to record lectures or tutorials.
Part 4 of 4: Try Cornell's Method of Note Taking
Step 1. Divide the sheet into three parts
The Cornell method is a method where notes are first taken and then the questions in those notes are developed. Draw a vertical line about 2.5 inches (6 cm) from the left margin so that you divide the sheet into two parts. Follow this line to about 2 inches (5.1 cm) from the bottom of the sheet. Then, from there, make a horizontal line, which will be 2 inches (5.1 cm) from the bottom edge.
For laptop users there are programs that can format the word processor in Cornell style
Step 2. Write the main ideas of the class
On the largest part of the sheet that you divided, take notes on the main ideas of the class as you go along. Leave ample space for later reviews.
Add examples, diagrams, graphs, and any other material the instructor presents
Step 3. Ask yourself questions after class
You will use the part on the left side of the sheet to ask your own questions from the class notes. These questions could help you clarify points, definitions, etc. Review your notes in 1-2 days. This will ensure that your recall of the information is very consistent.
- You can develop possible exam questions from this material. What things do you think the instructor will ask on a test?
- When studying your notes for a test, cover the right side of the sheet. See if you can answer the questions you included on the left side.
Step 4. Summarize the class notes at the bottom of the sheet
Use the bottom of the sheet to make a summary of the notes on it. This will help you remember the important aspects of that part of the class.
- If you miss a class, be sure to also write it down in your notes so you don't forget it. This will ensure that you get a classmate's notes rather than miss out on the entire material.
- Have a proper attitude. Listening well is a matter of paying close attention. Be prepared to be open-minded about what the teacher may say, even if you may disagree with him.
- Collect the notes for each course in one place: it can be in a separate notebook or in a part of a notebook. Make sure your notes are organized chronologically and with a title. Consider using a loose-leaf binder instead of a stationary one. This way you can reorganize your notes in the most effective way when reviewing them for exams.