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?
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.
While you’re sharpening your note taking skills, check out our Complete Guide to College Study Skills.
Otherwise, read on for note taking tips that can improve your study outcomes and test preparation...
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.
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.
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:
Taking good notes in class starts before you even walk in the door.
If you did some prep work before class, you’re ahead of the game, but now, it’s time to actually take the notes.
It’s important to focus on the main points of a lecture. But how can you identify what those are?
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 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.
Notes taken using the outlining method are organized by the main points of the lecture, with related details grouped under each point.
Visual learners often do best with the mapping method. Mind maps allow the note taker to identify meaningful relationships between concepts, ideas and information.
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.
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.
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.
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.