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Note taking

How to take good notes in class

Note taking is not just about recording information that you can reference later. Effective note taking improves your ability to learn during class.

The act of note taking serves several purposes including:

  • Capturing essential information for reference later
  • Increasing retention
  • Synthesizing conceptual information
  • Maintaining focus

What should go in your notes

The key to good note taking: DO NOT write everything down. Quantity does not equal quality. Instead, hone your ability to figure out what is important.

Prepare ahead of time

Just 10 minutes of prep can go a long way toward helping you figure out what to write down in class.

  • Skim summary paragraphs or bullets in your reading assignments prior to the lecture. This will give you a sense of the main ideas and concepts likely to be covered.
  • Look at your course syllabus so you know the topic of the class and how it fits into the course content.
  • Briefly review notes from previous class sessions to jog your memory about what’s been covered so far. This can be done as you’re waiting for class to start.

Different types of information require different amounts of detail

  • Conceptual information: focus on capturing the main points. As much as possible, summarize in your own words. This will force you to process the material more thoroughly and increase your retention.
  • Factual information: write down more details. It’s ok to include what your professor says word-for-word. Just make sure to study your notes within 24 hours for maximum recall. Include keywords, dates, names, and relevant diagrams.

Look for signals from your professors

Your notes need to capture the information that your professor thinks is most relevant. Look for cues that signal important concepts.

  • Professors often begin and end their lectures with an overview of the main points of the lecture. Pay attention to these introductory and concluding statements.
  • Listen for phrases that indicate that they are making a key point such as
    “A major reason why…”
    “There are three main… “
    “The most important…”
    “The thing to know about…”
  • If a professor repeats something several times, it’s probably important.
  • We communicate a lot non-verbally so pay attention to what words or concepts your professor emphasizes with their tone or with gestures.

Include your questions and reflections

When you make connections between concepts, write them down! Also write down questions you have and indicate areas where you were confused. This will allow you to identify the gaps you need to fill later.

How to format your notes

Your notes need to be efficient to write and easy to review.

Be brief. Use bullets and phrases. Do not write in complete sentences.

Organize the information. Use headings to indicate main points. Star, boldface, or underline key concepts. This will make it easier to find information later.

Flag questions. If you are using note taking software, utilize labels, symbols, or highlighting to indicate information that you need to review or revisit. Otherwise, you can use “?” or similar symbols. We recommend that you also review our tips on using accommodations related to note taking.

Prepare ahead of time for diagrams and formulas. If you are using a computer to take notes, have a plan for how you will include information presented visually. This could include using digital drawing technology, having a paper and pen next to you as you type, or learning keyboard shortcuts for symbols.

Leave space. Plenty of white space around concepts and paragraphs will make your notes easier to process visually. You will also be able to fill in missing information more easily.

Try Cornell Notes. Cornell Notes refers to a note taking format.  You leave room on the left side to write down key ideas, concepts, and cues.  At the bottom of the page is space to summarize the information contained in your notes.  This format allows you to synthesize information, which means you learn it better.  It also makes reviewing your notes more efficient, increasing your retention.

Cornell notes

How to use your notes

To get the most out of your notes, use them! Notes will not improve your exam scores lying in a crumpled ball at the bottom of your bag. They need to be organized, reviewed, and combined with other sources of learning.

Review your notes. The more times we see the same information, the more we retain it. Review your notes frequently. If your notes cover mostly factual information, you will increase your retention if you review them within 24 hours.

Fill in the gaps. Regularly look find the points in your notes when you indicated that you were confused. Then find ways to fill in the missing information. You can meet with your professor or TA, ask other students, go to CLUE, re-listen to parts of the lecture, or reference your reading. Concepts build upon each other so make sure to address missing information as soon as possible to avoid a snowball effect.

Summarize and reformat. The notes you took during the lecture were your best guess at what was important. But you had to guess without knowing the full arc of the lecture. When you review your notes, you have the advantage of knowing everything that was covered. This allows you to further synthesize the information. Take a few minutes to write some brief summaries. Not only will this increase your understanding and retention of the material, it will make it faster to review later. It also helps to create a list of key concepts, terms, names, or dates in one place for quick reference.

Quiz yourself. After you’ve distilled the most important information, you can use it to test yourself. Try to quiz yourself in the format in which you will be tested. If you will be writing short paragraphs or essays, ask yourself broader questions. If you’re prepping for a multiple choice exam, ask specific factual questions.