Every semester I have many freshmen enter my Western Civilization survey classes who have never learned to take notes on a lecture. This skill, however, is necessary for success in college since most classes are still lecture based. Here are my suggestions for effective note taking.
1. Engage with the lecturer. As you listen to the lecture, carry on a conversation with the speaker in your head. If something doesn’t make sense, then ask for clarification. When the lecturer asks the class a question, try to answer it. Don’t just sit there waiting for your professor to answer it for you. (Side note: where you sit can hurt or help your engagement; sit up front.)
2. Don’t write down everything your professor says. If you try to transcribe a lecture verbatim, then you are not engaged. If you try to get down every word, then you don’t have the mental resources available to analyze and synthesize the material. When you write notes down, paraphrase and summarize. In order to summarize effectively, you must be engaged. You have to make judgment calls about what to leave out, what to include, and what to substitute. Write down the important ideas. Don’t write down obviously trivial material. Sometimes you should substitute, writing down important ideas or details using words or phrases that your instructor didn’t use.
3. Write more. Some students try to write down too much information, but most students have the opposite problem. Many students show me their notes, and all they have written down is the barest outline. Perhaps they have written the word “Pericles,” but that’s all they wrote about Pericles. And so I ask them, “What exactly is a ‘Pericles’?” They look in their notes, and they have no idea. If something is worth writing down, then you need to write down enough information about that thing so as to remember what it is. After all, that’s the point of notes; they help you remember stuff. If you’re going to err one way or the other, I suggest erring on the side of writing too much rather than too little.
4. View your notes as a work in progress. I mentioned this in a previous blog post, but it needs repeating. When you leave the lecture hall, your notes aren’t finished. In order to get the most out of your notes you should keep working on them as you study. Edit them down. Recopy them. Organize them. Add to them. Improve them. For some reason many people act as though in-class notes are the law of the Medes and the Persians. Don’t give up on your notes. You can always make them better.
5. Study your notes. I shouldn’t have to include this point, but you would be surprised how many students I’ve counseled who didn’t know that they were supposed to use their notes to prepare for the test. They believed that note taking was merely some sort of abstruse in-class exercise and that the notes were taken for their own sake, not for the sake of studying. Oftentimes, students ask me for a study guide before the exam. Your notes are your study guide. It’s a shocking revelation to some students.
Effective note taking isn’t a one-size-fits-all project. Different students will benefit from different styles, but these five general guidelines should benefit everyone. Don’t get discouraged if note taking is hard at first. It is a skill that must be learned and practiced just like any other skill. The more you work at it, the better your notes will be, and your grades will show it.
Could you be a better note taker? Are you an expert already? In the comments, let everyone know what note taking strategies you have used and how well they worked.