Note Taking Tips
By Chris Cherry
Most people think that taking notes is important only so that they can have a record of the lecture to study later. But note-taking is just as vital for helping you to understand the information the first time as it is for remembering it later. The very act of manually writing something down helps to keep that information in your brain. Taking notes can make a massive difference in your grade. Here are some tips for becoming a better note taker.
First, if possible, ditch the laptop and write your notes on a sheet of paper. Studies show that the act of writing down the lecture in your own words is crucial to your retention of the information. Hand writing your notes forces you to paraphrase. If you must use a laptop, then make sure to get the information down in your own words. There are exceptions to this, of course. Definitions should be copied word for word, if possible, as well as quotes from literature (here, having the book handy and underlining or bracketing quotes will save time). But, on the whole, write down things in your own words.
When taking notes by hand, it’s helpful to use sheets of paper in a binder as opposed to a notebook. This will allow you to easily reorganize your notes for later study. Keep your notes from different classes separate, as well. Having different binders for each class helps.
There are lots of different ways to organize your notes. Many people simply write things down in an outline format, with bullet points and indentations:
Some people draw mental maps:
Others swear by the Cornell Method, which involves separating your notes into columns: one for main ideas and key words and another for the details:
No method is perfect, however. All you need to do is figure out what works best for you.
Next, when you’re taking notes, don’t write down everything your professor says. Figure out what the important parts are and write those down. For example, consider jotting notes:
- Any time the professor starts a new topic.
- For definitions of terms
- Any time the professor makes a list
- When the professor writes on the board
- When the professor repeats her or himself
Also, professors usually indicate that something is important by doing things like pausing so that you can copy information down, or even outwardly stating “this is important” or “this will be on the test.” Of course, every professor is different. Figure out how they indicate that things are important—you might even consider asking your professor in office hours which cues he or she relies upon, if the cues aren’t clear to you.
Once again, don’t write these things down word-for-word, but paraphrase and summarize them. The act of summarizing the lecture helps you learn. Don’t worry if you missed something; just skip a couple of lines and keep going. You can ask the professor or another student to fill in the blanks after class.
Also, if your professor uses PowerPoint, don’t just copy down what’s on the slide. You can use the PowerPoint as a structure for your notes, but make sure to write down things that the professor is saying as well. And, if your professor posts the PowerPoints online, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to take notes. It just means you can focus totally on what your professor is saying and not on the slides.
On a similar note, resist the urge to just copy your friends’ notes instead of taking your own. You’ll learn better if you’re interpreting the information yourself. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t use your friends’ notes to fill in blanks that you’ve missed. Just don’t designate one friend as your own personal note-taker.
Finally, take a moment to review your notes at the end of class. Look them over and make sure they make sense to you and that there aren’t any gaps that need filling. It will be easier to do so while the lecture is still fresh in your mind.