How to...
Take effective notes

Being able to take clear comprehensive notes, which allow you to understand and learn the presented material for your course assignments or exams, is a vital skill for students at college or university. It can also be a major challenge is you are coming up from school without having had to make your own notes on what was happening in class. The following are simple ideas for creating useful and effective notes from which you can learn more easily.

Five simple tips to take effective notes in a lecture

1. Prepare

Read any background texts that have been suggested, re-read your notes from previous lectures or classes on this course so that you can see easily where this session fits into the overall pattern of the subject. At the very least, check with the course syllabus what topic you’ll be covering in the class and how central it is to the overall theme of the course.

Arrive in good time with all the equipment you’ll need. It sounds obvious but if you arrive late and flustered, only to find that you’ve forgotten your notepad or your pen’s run out of ink, you’re not going to be able to concentrate fully on what’s being said and you’ll miss potentially important items from your notes as well as causing a disruption to your colleagues.

2. Listen

The key to good note-taking is understanding. It is easier to understand a lecture when you’re sat listening to it than it is by trying to re-construct it from half-understood notes afterwards. Simultaneously listening to the lecturer and writing down the key points is not a skill that comes easily to most people but it is important to cultivate this in order to become a really effective learner.

Pick up on the phrases, voice changes and other, sometimes non-verbal, cues that the lecturer uses to communicate which are the key points of the session. These are the most important things to get into your notes, so you don’t want to miss them.

Be an active listener. Think about what’s being said. How do the different points connect with one another? How do the issues raised in this lecture relate to issues that have been discussed in previous sessions, or in books you have read? Make sure that you transcribe your understanding of these connections and relationships into your notes.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If something isn’t clear to you, ask for it to be explained. 75 per cent of your learning happens in class so it’s important to understand as much as possible at this point. It will also make your class notes much more useful when it comes to revision and assignment writing.

3. Write only what's needed

Not everything in a lecture or seminar session will be of equal significance. There will probably be three or four main points, linked by a common theme, and maybe a half dozen sub-points relating to each of these. The rest of the class may well be illustrations, examples, exercises, student interactions and responses to questions, etc. Don’t get bogged down trying to write down every word or detail. Capture the major points, with sub-headings if necessary, and explain them in your own words if you have time to do so. If you don’t have time, leave a blank space beneath the point in question and a little note or symbol in the margin to remind you to re-visit that point later.

4. Organise your notes

Beautifully scripted and perfectly laid-out notes are not necessary for effective learning but some level of organisation is useful if you are going to be able to make sense of them in the future. Develop a system of highlighting headings and sub-headings (using bullet points, underlining, indenting, etc.) that makes intuitive sense to you and stick with that from lecture to lecture.

Try to be consistent as well with the use of abbreviations and symbols in your notes. If you can develop and use your own system of shorthand, you can speed up your note-taking but this is only a useful technique if you can decipher that code when you come to re-read your notes later.

Don’t try and cram too much writing on a single page, or make your writing so small that it’s illegible. Use as much paper as you need to express all the ideas from the lecture in a clear and readable form. Draw diagrams or use flow charts or mind maps if they help you make sense of your ideas.

Following the Cornell system for writing notes can also increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your note-taking technique. This involves leaving a margin down the left hand side of the page, approximately 1/3 of the total width of the page, and only writing your notes to the right hand side of that margin during class. The third of the page to the left of the margin is reserved for pulling out the key ideas and themes from the notes when you come to review them later.

5. Review

The beauty of the Cornell system is that it doesn’t require you to re-write your notes, thus saving time and tedium! You do need to review your notes, however, within 24 hours of their original creation. Re-reading shortly after writing notes means that you will be more likely to remember and understand them, and the process of pulling out the key ideas from the lecture in the left hand column of your note sheets will therefore be very much smoother.

As far as possible, aim to write the key ideas in the review column in your own words, summarising what have been the main points of the lecture for you. Stress inter-relationships and any other factors that add to your recollection or comprehension of the material.

This left hand column then acts as a short summary of the session that you can learn for use in an examination situation or to ensure that you have fully grasped the issues raised in a lecture.

Re-reading your notes again before the next session brings the process full circle and serves to reinforce your learning and understanding of the subject.