Take Effective Notes

What are “effective notes”? They are notes that cover all the important points of the lecture or reading material without being too detailed or too limited. Most important, effective notes prepare you to do well on quizzes or exams. Becoming an effective note-taker takes time and practice, but this skill will help you improve your learning and your grades in the first year and beyond.

Note-Taking Formats

You can make class time more productive by using your listening skills to take effective lecture notes, but first you have to decide on a system. Any system can work as long as you use it consistently.

Cornell Format.

Using the Cornell format, one of the best-known methods for organizing notes, you create a “recall” column on each page of your notebook by drawing a vertical line about two to three inches from the left border. As you take notes during a lecture—whether writing down ideas, making lists, or using an outline or paragraph format—write only in the wider column on the right; leave the recall column on the left blank. (If you have large handwriting and this method seems unwieldy, consider using the back of the previous notebook page for your recall column.)

The recall column is the place where you write down the main ideas and important details for tests and examinations as you sift through your notes as soon after class as is feasible, preferably within an hour or two. Many students have found the recall column to be a critical part of effective note taking, one that becomes an important study device for tests and exams.

Outline Format.

Some students find that an outline is the best way for them to organize their notes. You may know what a formal outline looks like, with key ideas represented by Roman numerals and other ideas relating to each key idea represented in order by uppercase letters, then numbers, and then lowercase letters. If you use this approach, try to determine the instructor’s outline and re-create it in your notes. Add details, definitions, examples, applications, and explanations. You can combine the outline and Cornell formats.

Paragraph Format.

You might decide to write summary paragraphs when you are taking notes on what you are reading. This method might not work as well for class notes, however, because it’s difficult to summarize a topic until your instructor has covered it completely. By the end of the lecture, you might have forgotten critical information.

List Format.

The list format can be effective in taking notes on lists of terms and definitions, facts, or sequences, such as the body’s pulmonary system. It is easy to use lists in combination with the Cornell format, with key terms on the left and their definitions and explanations on the right.

Once you have decided on a format for taking notes, you might also want to develop your own system of abbreviations. For example, you might write “inst” instead of “institution” or “eval” instead of “evaluation.” Just make sure that you will be able to understand your abbreviations when it’s time to review.

Note-Taking Techniques

Whatever note-taking system you choose, follow these important steps:

  1. Identify the main ideas. Well-organized lectures always contain key points. The first principle of effective note taking is to identify and write down the most important ideas around which the lecture is built.

    Although supporting details are also important, focus your note taking on the main ideas. Such ideas can be buried in details, statistics, anecdotes, or problems, but you will need to identify and record them for further study.

    Some instructors announce the purpose of a lecture or offer an outline, thus providing you with the skeleton of main ideas followed by the details. Other instructors develop PowerPoint presentations. If they make these materials available on a class Web site before the lecture, you can print them and take notes on the teacher’s outline or next to the PowerPoint slides.

    Some lecturers change their tone of voice or repeat themselves for each key idea. Some ask questions or promote discussion. If a lecturer says something more than once, chances are that it is important. Ask yourself: What does my instructor want me to know at the end of today’s class?

  2. Don’t try to write down everything. Some first-year students try to do just that. They stop being thinkers and become stenographers. As you take notes, leave spaces so that you can fill in additional details that you might have missed during class but remember later. Take the time to review and complete your notes as soon after class as possible.

  3. Don’t be thrown by a disorganized lecturer. When a lecture is disorganized, it’s your job to try to organize what is said into general and specific frameworks. When the order is not apparent, you will need to indicate in your notes where the gaps are. After the lecture, consult the reading material or classmates to fill in these gaps or ask your instructor. Most instructors have regular office hours for student appointments, yet it is amazing how few students use these opportunities for one-on-one instruction. Asking questions can help your instructor find out which parts of the lecture need more attention and clarification.

  4. Keep your notes and supplementary materials for each course in a separate three-ring binder. Label the binder with the course number and name. If the binders are too bulky to carry in your backpack, create a separate folder for each class stocked with loose-leaf notebook paper. Before class, label and date the paper you will be using for taking notes. Then, as soon after class as possible, move your notes from the folder to the binder.

  5. Download any notes, outlines, or diagrams, charts, graphs, and other visuals from the instructor’s Web site before class and bring them with you. You might be able to save yourself considerable time during the lecture if you do not have to try to copy complicated graphs and diagrams while the instructor is talking. Instead, you can focus on the ideas being presented while adding your own labels and notes to the visual images.

  6. Organize your notes chronologically in your binder. Then create separate tabbed sections for homework, lab assignments, returned tests, and other materials.

  7. If handouts are distributed in class, label them and place them in your binder near the notes for that day. Buy a portable three-ring-hole punch that can be kept in your binder. Do not let handouts accumulate in your folders; add any handouts to your binders as you review your notes each day.

Taking Notes in Nonlecture Courses.

Always be ready to adapt your note-taking methods to match the situation. Group discussion is becoming a popular way to teach in college because it engages students in active participation. On your campus you might also have Supplemental Instruction (SI) classes that provide further opportunity to discuss the information presented in lectures. How do you keep a record of what’s happening in nonlecture classes? Assume that you are taking notes in a problem-solving group assignment. You would begin your notes by asking yourself: What is the problem? Then you would write down the answer. As the discussion progresses, you would list the solutions that are offered. These solutions would be your main ideas. The important details might include the positive and negative aspects of each view or solution. The important things to remember when taking notes in nonlecture courses are that you need to record the information presented by your classmates as well as by the instructor and that you need to consider all reasonable ideas, even though they might differ from your own.

When a course has separate lecture and discussion sessions, you will need to understand how the discussion sessions or SI classes relate to and augment the lectures. If different material is covered in lecture or discussion, you might need to ask for guidance in organizing your notes. When similar topics are covered, you can combine your notes so that you have comprehensive, unified coverage of each topic.

How to organize the notes you take in a class discussion depends on the purpose or form of the discussion. It usually makes good sense to begin with the list of issues or topics that the discussion leader announces. Another approach is to list the questions that participants raise for discussion. If the discussion explores reasons for and against a particular argument, divide your notes into columns or sections for pros and cons. When conflicting views are presented in discussion, record different perspectives and the rationales behind them. Your teacher might ask you to defend your own opinions in comparison to those of other students.

Taking Notes in Science and Mathematics Courses.

Many mathematics and science courses build on each other from term to term and from year to year. When you take notes in these courses, you will likely need to refer to them in the future. For example, when taking organic chemistry, you might need to refer to notes taken in earlier chemistry courses. This practice can be particularly important when time has passed since your last related course, such as after a summer break. Taking notes in math and science courses can be different from taking notes in other types of classes.

Using Technology to Take Notes.

Although some students use laptops for note taking, others prefer taking notes by hand so that they can easily circle important items or copy complex equations or diagrams while they are being presented. If you handwrite your notes, entering them on a computer after class for review purposes might be helpful, especially if you are a kinesthetic learner. After class you can also cut and paste diagrams and other visual representations into your notes and print a copy that might be easier to read than notes you wrote by hand.

Some students, especially aural learners, find it advantageous to record lectures, but if you do so, resist the temptation to become passive in class instead of actively listening. Students with specific types of disabilities might be urged to record lectures or use the services of note takers who type on a laptop while the student views the notes on a separate screen.

Review Your Notes

Most forgetting takes place within the first 24 hours of encountering the information, a phenomenon known as the “forgetting curve.” So, if you do not review your notes almost immediately after class, it can be difficult to retrieve the material later. In two weeks you will have forgotten up to 70 percent of it! Forgetting can be a serious problem when you are expected to learn and remember many different facts, figures, concepts, and relationships for a number of classes. Once you understand how to improve your ability to remember, you will retain information more easily and completely. Retaining information will help your overall understanding as well as your ability to recall important details during exams. The next chapter is devoted to the topic of memory. For now, use these three strategies to work with the material immediately after class in order to remember key points from the lecture. They will pay off later, when you begin to study for your exams:

  1. Write down the main ideas. For 5 or 10 minutes, quickly review your notes and select key words or phrases that will act as labels or tags for main ideas and key information in your notes. Fill in the details you still remember but missed writing down. You might also want to ask your instructor to glance at your notes to determine whether you have identified the major ideas.

  2. Recite your ideas out loud. Recite a brief version of what you understand from class. If you don’t have a few minutes after class when you can concentrate on reviewing your notes, find some other time during that same day to review what you have written and tell someone else what you learned in class that day. For many, the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. You will understand something better and remember it longer if you try to explain it. This process helps you discover your own reactions and uncover gaps in your comprehension of the material. (Asking and answering questions in class can also provide you with the feedback you need to make certain that your understanding is accurate.) Now you’re ready to embed the major points from your notes in your memory.

  3. Review your notes from the previous class just before the next class session. As you sit in class the next time it meets, waiting for the lecture to begin, use the time to quickly review your notes from the previous class session. This will put you in tune with the lecture that is about to begin and prompt you to ask questions about material from the previous lecture that might not have been clear to you.

What if you have three classes in a row and no time for studying between them? In that case, recall and recite as soon after class as possible. Review the most recent class first. Never delay recall and recitation longer than one day; if you do, it will take you longer to review, select main ideas, and recite. With practice, you can complete the review of your main ideas from your notes quickly, perhaps between classes, during lunch, or while riding the bus.

Compare Notes

You might be able to improve your notes by comparing notes with another student or in a study group, SI session, or a learning community, if one is available to you. Knowing that your notes will be seen by someone else will prompt you to make them well organized, clear, and accurate. Compare your notes: Are they as clear and concise as those of other students? Do you agree on the most important points? Share with one another how you take and organize your notes. You might get new ideas for using abbreviations. Take turns testing one another on what you have learned. Doing so will help you predict exam questions and determine whether you can answer them. Comparing notes is not the same as copying another student’s notes. You simply cannot learn as well from someone else’s notes, no matter how good they are, if you have not attended class.

If your campus has a note-taking service, check with your instructor about making use of this for-pay service, but keep in mind that such notes are intended to supplement the ones you take, not substitute for them. Some students choose to rewrite their own notes as a means of review or because they think that their notes are messy and they will not be able to understand them later. Unless you are a tactile learner, rewriting or typing your notes might not help you learn the material. A more profitable approach might be to summarize your notes in your own words.

Finally, have a backup plan in case you need to be absent because of illness or a family emergency. Exchange phone numbers and e-mail addresses with other students so that you can contact one of them to learn what you missed and get a copy of his or her notes. Also contact your instructor to explain your absence and set up an appointment during office hours to make sure that you understand the work you missed.

Class Notes and Homework

Good class notes can help you complete homework assignments. Follow these steps:

  1. Take 10 minutes to review your notes. Skim the notes and put a question mark next to anything you do not understand at first reading. Draw stars next to topics that warrant special emphasis. Try to place the material in context: What has been going on in the course for the past few weeks? How does today’s class fit in?

  2. Do a warm-up exercise for your homework. Before doing the assignment, look through your notes again. Use a separate sheet of paper to rework examples, problems, or exercises. If there is related assigned material in the textbook, review it. Go back to the examples. Cover the solution and attempt to answer each question or complete each problem. Look at the author’s work only after you have made a serious effort to remember it. Keep in mind that it can help to go back through your course notes, reorganize them, highlight the essential items, and thus create new notes that let you connect with the material one more time. In fact, these new notes could be better than the originals.

  3. Do any assigned problems and answer any assigned questions. When you start doing your homework, read each question or problem and ask: What am I supposed to find or find out? What is essential, and what is extraneous? Read each problem several times and state it in your own words. Work the problem without referring to your notes or the text, as though you were taking a test. In this way you will test your knowledge and know when you are prepared for exams.

  4. Persevere. Don’t give up too soon. When you encounter a problem or question that you cannot readily handle, move on only after a reasonable effort. After you have completed the entire assignment, go back to any items that stumped you. Try once more and then take a break. You might need to mull over a particularly difficult problem for several days. Let your unconscious mind have a chance. Inspiration might come when you are waiting at a stoplight or just before you fall asleep.

  5. Complete your work. When you finish an assignment, talk to yourself about what you learned from it. Think about how the problems and questions were different from one another, which strategies were successful, and what form the answers took. Be sure to review any material you have not mastered. Seek assistance from the instructor, a classmate, a study group, the campus learning assistance center, or a tutor to learn how to answer questions that stumped you.

Supplemental Instruction (SI) Classes that provide further opportunity to discuss the information presented in lectures.