Note Taking

Learning to take good notes is a critical skill for success in college. Most of your professors will assume that you learned how to take good notes in high school, but few high school courses actually require good note-taking skills, so this may be something you’ll have to work on. Not taking notes or taking incomplete or illegible notes is a common problem for beginning students.

Why take notes?

Why should you take notes, anyway? You may see other students around you just sitting in class with their books closed and no pen or notebook out and think everyone else must be able to remember what the professor says without writing it down. Don’t believe it! Many important details of what you are learning will be lost if you don’t write them down. Besides, if you just sit there while the professor is talking, what kind of message does that send? It basically says “what you’re saying is not important enough to write down”— not a message you want to send to someone who decides whether or not to accept your late assignment. So, if you really want to succeed in college, come to class with a pen or pencil and notebook or paper or a laptop if that works better for you, ready to take notes. If you use loose paper, write the class and date at the top, and keep the pages together in a folder. If you use a notebook, label it and date the pages. Experiment with different writing utensils to see what works best for you — ball point pen, mechanical pencil, colored markers, etc.

What should you take notes about?

You should take notes on anything that happens in class — announcements, lecture, discussion, videos, etc. Don’t wait until the professor starts on course material; important information about the class is often given before the actual lecture begins and should be noted at the top of your page. You should also consider taking notes on anything you are asked to read or do outside of class — the textbook, works of fiction, etc.

The 4 Steps of Excellent Note-Taking

1. Listen. The first step is to listen carefully; if you didn’t hear what was said, you can’t take notes on it. Active listening is an amazingly useful life skill — it pays to develop it now. When you’re in class, be in class, not there in body but elsewhere in mind.
Remember Yoda’s complaint about young Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back:” “Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” The more you live in the present moment, the more you will enjoy learning and be successful at it. There are lots of distractions during class that can make it hard to listen well. • It may be too cold or too hot. • The person next to you may be tapping his or her pencil or texting. • A leaf blower may be going outside the classroom. • You may also have thoughts about other things crowding your head — the paper you need to finish today, the cute guy or girl you saw in the hall, worries about paying your bills, and so on. Acknowledge these things, but then consciously put them aside. You paid big bucks to be here, so make the most of it. 2. Decide what to write. Not only do you need to listen well, you have to sift through what you heard, organize it, and figure out how to abbreviate it. Your goal should NOT be to write down everything your professor says — you aren’t a court recorder! Instead, what you want to do is create an outline of what was said. In order to do that, you need to figure out the structure of what you are hearing. As you are listening, watch for clues about the structure of the material being presented. Does the professor pause or change his or her tone of voice to indicate a new subject? Notice transition words or phrases like “OK, now that we understand ____, we can talk about ____.” Pay attention if a professor gives numbers, such as “There are three reasons why ____.” When you get used to listening for these kinds of things, you can get a feel for the underlying structure of what is being presented, rather than just hearing a jumble of unrelated ideas. This will make it much easier to write them down. What can you leave out? If a professor gives an example to illustrate a point, you may not need to write down all of the details. Also, a good professor will often say important things more than once, in different ways, and you don’t need to write it down twice — a star by the first one will help you judge its importance later. He or she may add comments that will help you to understand a concept; but you don’t need to write that down. Watch body language and tone of voice to help you determine the difference between extra information being added and important information being given. Make sure not to fall into the habit of simply writing down whatever the professor writes on the board. When a professor writes on the board, you should certainly copy it, but don’t stop there. What is on the board is often not enough information by itself to understand what is being taught, especially if the information is new to you (and it usually is). Add enough detail that your notes will make sense to you later on when you don’t remember everything else the professor said. On the other hand, if a professor presents detailed slides in a PowerPoint, try to pare it down to the main ideas, rather than trying to copy all of the details. There often isn’t time to get everything, and it is important not to miss main points by trying. Deciding what to write is probably the hardest part of taking notes. You have to learn to listen, process, and write at the same time — not an easy task. That’s why it takes practice. But with practice, you can get better and better at it.
3. Organize it on the page. Once you have decided what to write, you need to organize it on the page so that it will make sense later. There are several common styles of note-taking, but a simple and useful one is shown below.
4. Review after class. Once class is over and you close up your notebook, your job isn’t finished! If you wait until just before an exam to look at your notes again, you may have forgotten so much that they won’t even make sense. As soon as possible, take a few minutes and go over your notes again while the things you heard are still fresh in your mind. As you go through them, fill in anything you forgot to write down but can still remember.

Additional strategies

1. It will help a great deal if you know what to expect each day when you come to class. It’s much easier to navigate unknown territory if you have looked at a map before jumping in the car. You should have some idea about what the professor will cover before lecture begins. Use the course syllabus to find out what subjects will be covered each day. If the syllabus gives pages or chapters in the textbook, skim through it beforehand looking for headings, main ideas, words in bold, etc. Also, pay attention if the professor gives you any indication at the end of class what will be covered the next time. 2. There are several things you can do to make listening easier. • Choose your seat carefully — don’t sit too far back, where you can’t see the board clearly and everyone else in the room can distract you. • Be prepared for the room’s temperature; if it is often cold, for example, bring a jacket. • Make sure to get enough sleep; if you are tired, it is much harder to focus your attention. • Don’t go to class hungry; low blood sugar makes it hard to concentrate too. Carry healthy snacks like dried fruit, granola bars, or beef jerky to eat if you don’t have a chance to eat breakfast or lunch. 3. If you often have a hard time reading your own handwriting, this is definitely something to work on. Slow down, make your letters clearly, and do your best to write legibly. Often just paying attention to it will greatly improve your handwriting. 4. Another useful trick is to use abbreviations. For example, “rxn” is much faster to write than “reaction,” “gov’t” can be used instead of “government,” and “EN” can be used for “electronegativity.” For each class, you can make up your own abbreviations for commonly used words in that course. Just be sure to jot a quick note at the top of your paper so you don’t forget what the abbreviation is for. 5. As you are writing, it is appropriate to add your own comments or reactions to what you are learning. A frowny face 🙁 could indicate that you disagree, a smiley face 🙂 could show that you thought it was amusing, or an exclamation point ! could indicate that something surprised you. You can also mark things you have a question about with a question mark. Then you can go back after class and figure out the answer by looking in the book, asking a classmate, or asking the professor. Use stars, underlining, or different colors of ink to highlight things that you want to stand out. 6. If you learn best by hearing instead of reading, you may want to get your professor’s permission to record the class. Then you can play back the recording again as you go through your notes rather than just having to read them. 7. As you review your notes after class, you may find it useful to compare what you’ve written with what it says in the textbook. It can also be very helpful to get together with other students in the class to go through your notes together. They may have written down something you missed, and you can discuss things you weren’t sure you understood. 8. Rewriting your notes is an excellent way to study. Try typing up your notes or rewriting them as clearly as you can. This can help you to review them thoroughly, and as you think about how to reorganize or restate the ideas, you will learn them much better than if you just read through them. Taking good notes takes concentration and practice. However, the time and energy you put into developing this skill will pay off not only during your college courses, but also in your future career. An employee who takes good notes during a meeting, a doctor who takes good notes with a patient, a teacher who takes good notes during a training session, or a scientist who takes good notes during a conference will all be better off than those who don’t!