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Learning Center

Take Notes

The obvious reason for taking notes is that they provide you with a record of class and book content so that you don't have to rely on memory as you prepare for an exam. But the act of taking notes is also in itself a valuable practice. Recording the content of the lecture involves careful, thoughtful listening that will help you to keep focused on what the professor is saying. Similarly, taking notes on the material in your textbook will keep you focused on the reading. Note taking involves two steps: recording information and making the notes you take useful.

Taking notes in class

Taking notes in class is an essential part of academic success. As you look around at students in your classes, you will observe that some take lots of notes, while some take no notes at all. Seeing students take no notes may mislead you into thinking that it's not really necessary to keep a written record of what is said in class. The only way to assess the usefulness of note taking is to consider not what other students are doing or not doing, but what kind of a student you are, what kind of a student you want to be or could be, and how taking notes can benefit you.

Not all of us are natural note takers. In fact, note taking is a learned skill. So, if you have difficulty knowing how to take notes or when to take them, you're not alone!

Tips on recording information:

  • Sit where you can hear the professor and see the blackboard clearly.
  • Begin by dating your notes, and if relevant, indicate to which chapter in your book the lecture corresponds.
  • Pay attention!!!! Probably the single most important factor in taking good notes is staying alert all through class. This is a win-win situation: trying to take notes will make you pay attention AND paying attention helps you take better notes.
  • Listen carefully to definitions, and try to be as accurate as possible in recording them. Write down the term’s significance, or why it’s definition matters, since simply defining the term on an exam may not be enough.
  • Don't write down every word, but write down what you need in order to be able to understand the information later. Sometimes, you will need to write more than at other times. It's better to take too many notes in class than too few; it's easier to decide something you wrote isn't important than it is to try to find or remember necessary information after the fact.
  • Note questions the professor asks and write down the answers.
  • If you find it useful, take notes on how the professor approaches something, i.e. note the steps he took to doing a problem, not just the answer. What did he/she say about his/her approach? Did he/she say something that made it all make sense? Write that down so you'll remember it later.
  • Remember that the goal is to record the information you need. Try to be neat, but if being neat slows you down, you can recopy them later. Also, experiment and develop a shorthand system of your own so that you can abbreviate certain words and take notes more quickly. For example, if you are studying reactions in chemistry, write RX for "reaction" or EQ for "equilibrium."
  • If your professor draws pictures or graphs and you find them useful, incorporate them into your notes but also add written explanations of why the pictures/graphs made sense at the time. It's possible (and common) that they won't make sense later!
  • Use spatial cues as part of your note taking method. Cues such as indentation, numbers, dashes, capital letters, large writing for important points, underlining for emphasis, or spacing between major points or topics can help you group or separate information.
  • Listen for cues from your professor that identify what he or she thinks is important:
    • "The main point is" - "Remember"
    • "Rule" or "law" - "To repeat"
    • "Important" - "Essential"
    • "Significant" - "In addition"
    • "Other examples" - "Furthermore"
    • "On the other hand"
  • Be alert to other cues that can help you identify important information. If the professor does one of the following, you should include the information in your notes:
    • Writes information on blackboard or points to something already written on board
    • Asks if you have it written down before erasing it from the blackboard
    • Repeats information
    • Slows down and/or speaks more loudly to emphasize a point
    • Reads a passage in class, looks at a particular page, problem, etc.
    • Makes a reference to material from a past lecture
  • During a discussion, listen to not only your professor's questions but also to his responses to your classmates. Be aware that he will very often use students' responses to make or emphasize his own important points. Sometimes, we tend to think that if a classmate is talking or if a discussion is taking place, we can stop paying attention for a while. But that's a mistake, since the professor is listening to students' comments and trying to use them to introduce his points. Moreover, a classmate may ask a question that will elicit important information, clarification, etc. If you weren't listening to the question, you may not hear the answer or it may not seem important to you.
  • Ask questions. If you have been listening and taking notes and paying attention, don't be afraid to ask questions!!! Ask a professor to repeat something, explain it, explain it again if necessary, clarify, etc. If you missed it, so did other students, guaranteed. If you've been daydreaming or doodling, you aren't really prepared to ask questions.

Taking Notes from the Textbook

Even if you attend every lecture, take detailed notes in class, and pay attention to every word, you still need to read your textbook and master the material you have been assigned to read.

As well as provide you with a record of what you think is important from the book, taking notes is a very useful way to help you read and comprehend. A common problem that students have when reading academic textbooks is that they understand but don't retain what they've read. Sometimes, this is the result of not paying enough attention to the reading. Just as taking notes in class forces you to pay attention, taking notes when you read also keeps you focused and attentive to what you are reading. It is less likely that your mind will wander or that you'll be distracted by things around you if you are focused and taking notes. Writing always reinforces reading, so chances are your reading will stay with you longer and in more productive ways if you make written notes.

You can also use your class notes when reading your textbook and taking notes. If you take good class notes and most of the material your professor covered in the lecture comes from your textbook, you can take notes from your book by determining how the book helps you fill in gaps in your notes. Your text can provide helpful examples, sample problems and solutions, provide more detail about the information you received in class, rephrase material in a way that provides you with greater insight, etc.