How to Take Notes Effectively
Note-taking during lectures is one of the most effective ways of processing and retaining information you learn. However, with it being so common nowadays for lecturers to provide lecture notes beforehand, a lot of students are losing one of the basic skills (i.e. note-taking) that can be useful during uni and anywhere else in life. While lecturers may provide notes or PowerPoint slideshows prior to class in response to student demands or in understanding of the difficulties of grasping everything during a lecture, it’s not actually doing the students any favours in terms of performance.
Good note-taking skills are not something you can just have without trying. It’s a skill that is acquired and improved with practice. So, if you tend to approach note-taking with an “ugh, but I can’t keep up and why would I bother? I can just look at the slideshow printouts!” attitude, take our tips and suggestions below to improve your note-taking skills.
Ditch your laptop.
In most lecture halls these days, you’ll see rows and rows of students hiding behind their laptops. And most of the time, when these laptops aren’t being used to browse Facebook or go online shopping, they are used to take notes. Of course, typing is much quicker than handwriting so it makes sense.
However, a study titled “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard” by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer has found that taking notes by hand significantly improves students’ performance on conceptual questions, although there was no difference in their performance on information recall questions. This was thought to be the case as typing notes tend to become “mindless transcription”, often resulting in writing down the lecture notes verbatim.
Don’t write down everything.
Following from the above point of avoiding transcribing the lecture, remember to not write down everything when taking notes. You take notes to remember important concepts and to help you revise better, not to memorise the lecturer’s words. Remember, there are always textbooks and other study materials that are used in conjunction with the lectures to help you learn. This means that you need to understand the big concepts in the lecture and write down important points so that you know what to revise later or what to look for in your textbooks.
Focus. Don’t zone out.
It goes without saying that when you write notes during a lecture, you should actually be awake and paying attention. Taking notes while not paying proper attention can mean you might write down unnecessary parts and miss important points, or end up transcribing the lecture instead.
It’s difficult to continue writing notes during any given lecture if you zone out for a few minutes. You try to catch up on what you missed, and end up missing even more of the lecture. It’s also difficult to look back at these notes later on when you revise. You’ll notice that there are nonsensical gaps in between points and not everything seems to make sense.
Use abbreviations and acronyms.
Speed writing is all about taking shortcuts that you can understand. While you wouldn’t write an essay with abbreviated everyday words, your notes don’t get graded. And abbreviations can be a life saver when you often don’t have the time to spell out words fully when taking notes.
Keep in mind that you need to be able to understand your notes later on, so don’t make up abbreviations or acronyms on the spot that won’t seem obvious to you at a later stage. Stick to common terms in the beginning, but as you practice your note-taking skills more and more, you’ll end up with a list of your own dictionary of nonsensical words that you can understand.
Don’t waste time making it pretty.
One of the biggest mistakes students make when taking notes is trying to make it look nice and neat as they’re writing. You could be a highly skilled note-taker, in which case go right ahead as long as you know what you’re doing. For the rest of you however, stop that. You don’t need to colour code everything on the spot and make it look presentable. All you need to make sure when taking notes is that your writing is recognisable and that you’ll be able to understand it later.
Remember that your notes are only used by you, and you could be missing out on important lecture points by trying to write in a consistent and neat handwriting style.
Still, format your notes.
It may be a waste of time to try and make your notes pretty, but it is definitely helpful to format your notes into distinguishable sections. Use headings and subheadings to show what sections your notes belong to.
Also, use similar and consistent styles for separate sections (like large text sizes for big umbrella section headings), or make a habit of always starting on a new page when moving into a different point. If you underline, highlight or circle, make sure that you use each type of marking for each different reason. For example, underline could mean “important”, highlight is “memorise”, and circle is “double-check”. Sticking to a consistent format means you can always know what you meant when you were writing down the notes.
Leave gaps between notes.
It is inevitable, especially when you first start taking notes, to miss a few points during the lecture. The lecturer might have gone over the point too fast, you might have been held up writing down the previous point, or you could simply have not been able to hear the lecturer.
Whatever the reason, make a noticeable gap in your notes so that you know you missed a point in that section when you revise later. Knowing when the point was made and the information that came before and after it means you know exactly what to look for and when.
Type up your handwritten notes.
Not too long after the lecture, type up your notes. Don’t let it sit there for too long as you would ideally like to revisit the notes while the lecture is still fresh in your memory. This way, any gaps you left or any double-checking you needed to do can be addressed while typing up your notes, and you can fill in any more information that you can remember.
It’s also your opportunity to make it pretty now, so that it’s easier to scan through later on when you need to revise. Colour code, use different fonts or whatever else you might like to do, to make the important information stand out.
Interact with your notes.
Typing up your handwritten notes is one way of interacting with your notes. However, you can restructure your notes or even make quizzes out of them to help the information stick. According to a study that looked into the effect of note-restructuring on students’ exam scores, note-restructuring improved student performance by a full class grade.
Keep your phone away.
You ditched your laptop, and now it’s time to ditch your phone. Put it on silent and put it in your bag, and don’t take it out until the lecture is over. Even during a break during a long lecture, don’t take it out as you might see something that will occupy your mind afterwards.
It’s about keeping distractions away for the period of the lecture, and focusing completely on listening to the lecturer and writing down the important notes. Most of the information you learn in lectures will be new, and distractions are likely to interfere with your learning, recall and comprehension.