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Effective Note-taking in Lectures

Why Take Lecture Notes?

Most students take notes during lectures, but why? What is the purpose of taking notes, and how can lecture notes help students learn better and improve their performance on graded assignments?

Note-taking can serve two related purposes: external storage and encoding. The first function, external storage, is probably what most students have in mind when taking notes: to ensure they won’t forget essential information and create a repository they can consult when studying for exams or otherwise reviewing the course material in the future. However, the process of taking notes can also facilitate encoding, or learning the course material in the first place. This can be done by encouraging increased attention and focus during lecture, promoting active engagement with the course material, and/or structuring key concepts and facts. The challenge is to take lecture notes that both facilitate learning and can serve as a useful resource for future review.

Methods of Note-Taking

There are many different methods or formats for taking notes during lectures. One of the most popular is the Cornell Method, while other methods include traditional outlining, mapping, and the “CUES+” Method. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages and may work better for some students or in certain courses. There is ultimately no right or wrong method to take notes, and many students employ some combination of these methods, implicitly or explicitly. However, there are certain strategies students can follow, regardless of their particular note-taking method, to take notes that will help them both learn and remember the course material.

Examples

Sentence Method

Mind Map

Traditional Outline

Cornell Method

Strategies

The key to taking notes that will simultaneously facilitate learning and be useful for review is identifying and recording the most important ideas, concepts, and facts from the lecture in relation to the overall course. Identifying what is most important helps facilitate learning by forcing students to organize and contextualize the material, while also enabling efficient review by generating a repository of ideas and information that is likely most relevant for exams and future recall. Focusing on what is important means that you should resist the temptation to attempt to transcribe everything the professor says; while you might be worried you will miss something important, attempting to produce a transcription of the lecture undermines the encoding purpose of note-taking because it requires minimal active engagement and critical thinking.

Of course, identifying what is most important is often easier said than done. During lectures, students are bombarded with information, frequently at a rapid pace, and few professors self-consciously include information they do not deem important for some reason or another. Identifying what is most important is therefore somewhat of an inexact science and also a skill that must be developed over time; good note-takers are therefore not “born,” but rather “made” through continuous learning and practice, even if note-taking skills come more naturally to some students. The good news, however, is that almost every lecture provides students with an opportunity to build these skills, and there are some evidence-based strategies that students can employ to be identify important ideas and information and improve their note-taking skills, including:  

  • Prepare before the lecture by completing any assigned readings or problems (unless advised otherwise by the professor), reviewing your notes from previous lectures, and any slides or notes provided in advance by the professor. This will help you anticipate information that might be important, draw connections with earlier course material, and identify gaps in your understanding.
  • Listen and watch for cues from the professor and/or in any slides or notes that signal what might be important. These cues include: 
    • Direct statements by the professor such as, “This is an important point”
    • Writing on the board
    • Changes in the professor’s tone of voice
    • Pauses by the professor
    • Pointing or other gestures
    • Repeated terms or phrases
    • Terms such as “In conclusion”, “to sum things up,” etc.
    • Ideas or concepts referenced in the reading or in previous lectures
    • Terms in larger font, bold, italics, underlined, or highlighted in slides or notes
  • In addition to these cues, anything that you don’t understand is important to record in your notes, preferably with a clear reminder to ask the professor, teaching assistant, or another student. If you don’t understand an idea or concept, it is difficult to determine its relative importance for the course, so you should always record things you don’t understand.
  • Think carefully about whether to use a laptop to take notes. Laptops can be useful tools for note-taking, but recent research suggests (perhaps unsurprisingly) they can be distracting, both to you and other students. Furthermore, because most students can type significantly faster than they can write, taking notes by laptop tends to encourage transcribing the lecture word-for-word, rather than critically thinking about what is important—even if students have been advised against transcription.

Using Your Lecture Notes

You diligently prepared for lecture, listened carefully, and produced a set of notes identifying the most important concepts and what you didn’t understand. Now what? How can you use your lecture notes to further your understanding of the material and prepare for exams and other assignments?

  • First and foremost, actively review your notes after the lecture, preferably within 24 hour to maximize future recall. Even if you take good notes, you will generally forget around 50 percent of what you learn without review within 24 hours. You should therefore try to make a habit of reviewing your notes as soon as possible after the lecture.  Some students recopy their notes, and while this can be useful in some cases, it is often time-consuming and may not contribute to your understanding of the material if done in a purely rote manner. As an alternative, you might focus on rephrasing your notes and/or identifying links between important concepts in your notes; it could also be useful to review your lecture notes in conjunction with any reading notes or the readings themselves in order to draw connections between material in the lectures and readings.
  • After reviewing your notes, seek out your professor, teaching assistant, and/or other students about anything you still don’t understand.
  • Consult with other students and compare lecture notes, not as a substitute for attending lecture and taking your own notes, but in order to identify what other students thought was important, interesting, or unclear.

Sources

Kiewra, Kenneth A. “A Review of Note-Taking: The Encoding-Storage Paradigm and Beyond,” Educational Psychology Review 1, no. 2 (1989), 147-172.

Mueller, Pam A. and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25, no. 6 (2014), 1159-1168.

Sana, Faria, Tina Weston, and Melody Wiseheart. “Laptops hinder classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” Computers & Education 62 (2013), 24-31.

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