Academic Influence’s Guide to Effective In-Class Note-Taking

Academic Influence’s Guide to Effective In-Class Note-Taking

It’s easy to take in-class notes for granted. After all, we’ve all been scribbling these notes for our entire educational careers? But are you taking good notes?

Key Takeaways

  • Effective note taking is an essential learning skill, but one that students often take for granted. Better note taking can lead to better retention of information and improved test performance.

  • Below are proven note-taking tips including preparing for effective note-taking before arriving in class, organizing your notes effectively, and learning to hone in on key facts during class lecture or discussion.

  • Effective note-taking also requires the note-taker to revisit class notes early and often. Recommendations below include an immediate review of notes after class as well as regular reviews well ahead of test-cramming time.

Effective note taking is an important learning skill, whether or attending class in person or online. Taking notes in class may seem like an afterthought. But how often have you spent an entire class taking notes without ever actually reviewing your notes later? Or worse still, how often have you returned to your lecture notes only to find that you have no idea what they mean?!

It’s not enough just to take notes in class. It’s absolutely critical that you learn effective note taking strategies. Your class notes should serve as a major reference when it comes time to study for your next exam or produce your next research paper. But how can you take better notes? Are there note taking techniques that can improve your ability to recall and use information when actually reviewing notes?

Well, like most valuable learning skills, taking good notes is something that comes with practice.

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Why Good Notes Matter

In-Class Benefits

The ability to sit through a lecture and leave with a good set of notes is a vital part of academic success. Not only does it help you remember what the teacher talked about, but it can help you stay focused during class.

When you take notes, you’ll get better at listening in class, have an easier time understanding the material, and be able to better recall what you learned later.

And remember that you should be taking notes outside of class, too. Take notes while you’re doing assigned reading or watching videos as homework. Even consider keeping a notebook app handy on your phone so you can take notes when thoughts, questions, or ideas pop into your head.

Post-Class Benefits

Good note taking can help you to stay organized and save time outside of class. When it’s time to write an essay or study for an exam, you can look back at your class notes, rather than having to read through pages of your textbook or watch assigned videos again to find the information you need. Having good notes to refer back to can make studying seem much less overwhelming and far more effective.

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How to Take Good Notes in Class

The classroom is a busy place. A lecture may be interrupted by anecdotes, class discussions, and questions from your fellow students. These distractions may add to the enrichment of the classroom experience, but they can also make it harder for you to take down all of the information you need.

One good way to combat this problem is to jot down questions or points of confusion as they occur to you. Often, you’ll get the answers as the class period goes on, but if you don’t, you’ll have a list of things to ask the teacher about, either in class or during a professor’s office hours. Another good idea is to read over your notes that night or the next day to make sure that they make sense.

You may be able to spot places where you could make your notes clearer or things you didn’t totally understand and need to ask the teacher to clarify. This is also a good opportunity to add your own words to your notes. Not only will your own words help to bring greater clarity to your class notes, but this process will force you to reflect on your lecture notes. This reflection can be an excellent way to retain new ideas for future use.

Start by applying the following note taking methods while in class:

Come to Class Prepared to Take Good Notes

Taking good notes in class starts before you even walk in the door.

  • Check the course syllabus to find out what the class will focus on that day. Review the reading assignments or other material that the class will cover. Identify the main concepts, and look for the ideas the material covers that fit into the focus of that day’s class.
  • Skim notes from previous lecture meetings to identify how the material presented today fits into the overall theme of the class and spot any points that need more clarification.
  • Always do the assigned reading before class, and take good reading notes. Your reading notes should work to complement the notes you take on class material.
  • Before each class starts, write the topic of the day and the date at the top of the page. File your notes in chronological order, and dedicate either a separate notebook or a section of a larger binder to each course. That way, no notes will get lost!

Effective Note Taking During Class

If you did some prep work before class, you’re ahead of the game, but now, it’s time to actually take the notes.

Focus on Key Concepts

  • It’s impossible to write down every single thing the teacher says, so don’t even try. Instead, concentrate on writing down only the most important concepts.
  • You don’t need to write complete sentences: Use bullet points, jot down important phrases, make up your own symbols as needed, and use abbreviations. You can experiment with an array of note taking techniques. Just be sure you can understand your own notes when reviewing later. It isn’t enough to simply write notes. You must also be able to read them. Keep this in mind as you scribble down ideas at the pace of your professor’s lecture.
  • Remember to leave space to write down questions, highlight points of confusion, or list relevant ideas that occur to you in the midst of a lecture.
  • Write down important dates, keywords, and names. If you don’t quite catch everything about them, circle them and skip a couple of lines. This way, you can look up more information later and add it in.

Find Your Note Taking Style

  • Different students do better with different note taking techniques, so you might need to experiment a bit to find what works for you. But once you do, keep your note-taking system consistent so your notes will be easier to follow when you look back at them later.
  • If you’re attending a lecture online, the approach will be much the same, but you’ll usually have the benefit of being able to go back and rewatch recorded lectures. If this is the case, write down relevant timestamps from the video next to your notes.

What Should You Write Down?

It’s important to focus on the main points of a lecture. But how can you identify what those are?

Learn How to Spot Important Ideas

  • Teachers will often summarize the main ideas of a lecture at the beginning of class.
  • Phrases like “in summary,” “the reason why,” and “the main points are” are signal phrases that the teacher is about to reveal one of the lecturer’s main concepts. This is something that you should probably write down.
  • Write down any new vocabulary words or concepts that are repeatedly mentioned during the lecture.

Incorporate Active Learning

  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues. When the teacher gestures, points, or emphasizes certain words as they speak, this can indicate important points to write down. This is also a great approach to note taking if you happen to be a visual learner.
  • Listen extra carefully in the last few minutes of class: The teacher will often summarize their important points.
  • If you’re taking a virtual class, watch the lecture straight through, without pausing or rewinding. Focus only on jotting down the main ideas at this stage. You can go back and take notes while rewatching the video at your own pace.

Review Your Notes

  • While it’s important to take good notes, it’s just as important to review your notes effectively. Read through your notes shortly after class so that the lecture material is still fresh in your mind. Make sure, first and foremost, that you understand everything you’ve written.
  • Use your review to think more deeply about the class material. Draw connections between concrete and abstract ideas. Add your own thoughts and add questions or comments to the left column margin of your notebook.
  • Outline notes for better future review. The outline method can improve exam preparation and make it much easier to distill key concepts and sub points during follow up reviews.
  • Identify shortcomings in your own approach to note taking so you can develop strategies for taking better notes in the future.
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Different Formats for Notes

There are five major formats for taking notes (and likely an array of other methods that are informally adopted by students). But ultimately, the method you use to take notes should be the one that makes the most sense for how you learn and study.

The Cornell Method

The Cornell Method includes writing down the day’s date, the topic of the lecture, the essential question posed, an overall summary, and your questions about the material. The Cornell Method is a popular strategy for keeping your notes organized.

Outline Method

Notes taken using the outlining method are organized by the main points of the lecture, with related details grouped under each point.

Mapping Method

Visual learners often do best with the mapping method. Mind maps allow the note taker to identify meaningful relationships between concepts, ideas and information.

Charting Method

Some students prefer to use columns and rows, making a chart to organize the key points of the lecture. This can be a valuable strategy for those who learn best when information is presented with a clear linear flow.

Sentence Method

This simple method of taking notes involves restating the information in short sentences. Most students likely employ some form of this simple note taking strategy. This is an acceptable method for taking notes as long as you do so in an organized fashion.

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Handwritten or Digital Notes

When laptop note taking, you might do a lot more typing than writing by hand, but many of the same note taking tips still apply. Your goals should still be to identify main points, keep your note taking organized, and review your notes promptly and regularly.

However, educational psychology research suggests that the best strategy for how to take notes will vary from one learner to another. Research has shown that writing something out by hand may help you remember the information better. It’s also much easier to get distracted from note taking while using a phone, computer, or another device with access to the internet.

Still, others may learn and retain information far more effectively when typing, particularly because of the potential for greater speed and efficiency. If you take notes better while using a computer or device, it’s a good idea to stick with this approach.

This is actually a major reason why it’s a good idea try a few different techniques both digitally and in the handwritten medium, such as the Cornell Method (*see above) or the outline method. You may be surprised to find that using one of these specific note taking strategies can improve your dexterity in, for example, the digital medium.

In reality, each of us takes notes differently. Great notes are only those notes that you can readily revisit. While it’s valuable to understand the various note taking styles at your disposal, ultimately you will want to take notes using the method and medium that works best for you.

Pros of Handwriting Notes

  • You can draw illustrations and make your own diagrams.
  • Visual learners can easily group information in a way that makes sense to them.
  • You can use various written media, including notebooks, flash cards and sticky notes, to organize your thoughts.
  • You won’t have to deal with digital distractions.
  • Many students learn better when they write by hand.

Pros of Digitally Taking Notes

  • Typing is faster than writing by hand.
  • Digital notes are easier to edit and reorganize.
  • Digital note taking makes it possible to create group notes and collaborate with your classmates on group assignments.
  • Saving notes to the cloud means there’s no danger of losing them if a notebook is misplaced.
  • It’s easier to search for detailed information in a digital file.
  • Some students have difficulty with writing or just have poor penmanship which can be difficult to read and review.
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After Class

Taking notes in class is only part of effective note-taking. Set your notes aside and come back later in the day or the next day to read them over. This is the time to fill in any information you forgot to write down, make sure you understand what you’ve written, and try to think of anything you might have missed or not fully understood. Then, ask your teacher or professor to help you fill in the gaps, either the next time your class meets or during their office hours.

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Additional Research and Other Methods of Note Taking

Students’ Submitted Questions on Effective In-Class Note-Taking

Jayden asks, “How can I determine what information is important enough to include in my notes?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: You want to pay attention to main points and key concepts. Identify the main theme of the lecture or presentation and write down the information relating to these themes. Also make sure you are aware of the points that the professor lingers on; this will most likely give you an idea of what ideas will be tested on subsequent exams or quizzes. Lists, definitions, and questions posed are also important to write down. Remember, even if you’re only able to write down a few words, you can always look up the concepts later or read about them in your textbooks. It’s also important to write down any questions you have so that you can study these concepts in-depth at a later time.

Erica asks, “Are there any note-taking strategies that can help me remember and retain information better?”

Dr. Jed Macosko’s answer: The method or strategy you use will be determined by what works best for you. My advice is to try out each of the methods listed above and see which one fits. You might also want to adopt certain points from multiple strategies. Remember that you don’t have to be locked in to anything, so experiment until you find something that fits.

Lucas asks, “What should I do if I miss something the professor says while taking notes?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: Carry on with your notes and either ask another student or the professor after class. This can be a great way to get to know your professor and show them that you care about the class and the information being presented.

Josie asks, “Are there any note-taking apps or software that can assist me in improving my notes?”

Dr. Jed Macosko’s answer: In the digital age of 2024, many apps have been created. Some of the best out there are RemNote, Evernote, and Notability. Even the simple Apple Notes app has great functionality. You might also want to consider using different apps for your various classes depending on what kinds of notes you need to write (i.e. diagrams and drawings versus straightforward notes).

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