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Study Effectively

Why take notes in lectures?

Even if your instructor provides you with slides and recordings of lectures, taking notes is an essential step to learning course material. Taking notes can help you:

  • remember material
  • identify what you don't know or understand
  • make exam preparation easier because you have condensed information into an easy-to-read format.

How should I take notes?

Before the lecture:

  • When possible, read the assigned textbook material before class and take notes. You’ll be able to listen better in lecture because you won’t have to write down information that’s already in your notes.
  • Skim through your notes from the previous lecture. Reviewing will help you get back in the mindset of the course and will help you better understand the new lecture and make better decisions about what to record in your notes.

During the lecture:

  • Remove as many distractions as possible. If you're learning online, close the door to your room or put a sign on your computer to let others know not to disturb you. Close all tabs on your laptop except those that are related to your course. Turn off notifications on your phone, or put your phone in another room.
  • Remember to put the date at the top of your notes. This will help you organize your notes later in the semester.
  • If you're listening to a pre-recorded lecture, take notes while you're playing the lecture instead of counting on going back to the lecture later when you're preparing for exams. Taking notes while listening will help you stay alert and will help you save time, because you won't need to play the lecture again. Another option is to listen to a short chunk of the lecture (about 5-15 minutes), press pause, and then write notes summarizing what you've learned.
  • Wondering if you should take notes by hand or use a laptop? See our information below.

After the lecture:

  • Review your notes, rewrite any especially messy parts, fill in gaps, and file them in a place you'll find later.
  • It may be helpful to meet with a friend once a week and discuss your notes. Your friend might be able to help you fill in some gaps in your notes, and you may likewise be able to help him/her.
  • If you take notes from the textbook after the lecture, use the back of each page of lecture notes for corresponding textbook notes. You'll be less likely to spend valuable time taking textbook notes on a topic already covered in lecture, and you'll have a compact set of integrated notes ready to review for the midterm or final.
  • At the end of each week, write a summary of the week's lecture and textbook notes. This integrated summary can become the basis for your review for midterms and exams.

If the lecture is too fast or if it's difficult to concentrate

To keep on track when it's difficult to keep up with the lecture or when you can't concentrate, try these strategies:

  • Complete assigned readings before lecture to help you determine where the focus of the lecture will be.
  • Focus less on recording every detail of the lecture and more on the major themes and ideas which your instructor thinks are important. If you are worried about missing details, focus on recording what you don't know rather than what you already know or can find in the textbook.
  • Pay attention to verbal cues like "Note that...,” the repetition of key phrases and terms, a change in the instructor's voice, or non-verbal cues like facial expressions to identify important topics.
  • Try the Question-Evidence-Conclusion Structure format for your notes. Most instructors think in terms of questions. To find the big ideas, you must first find the questions and then find evidence to reach your conclusion. Your notes should consist of ‘question/conclusion’ combinations - separated by points of evidence that support the conclusion. Try to fit all the facts/observations from class into this structure.
    • There is no right or wrong way to break up a lecture into ‘question/conclusion’ combinations; just find a structure that works for you.
    • Students often find the Question-Evidence-Conclusion format to be quite helpful for studying!
  • If your instructor speaks very quickly, set aside time right after class to write down what you can from memory. 
  • If you can't concentrate, try eating a protein-filled snack right before or during lecture. If your lecture is online, take a quick walk before the lecture to boost your concentration.
  • If your lecture is online, turn off your camera and do some stretches every now and then. Or, keep your camera on, if possible, to increase your engagement.
  • In some cases, it may be helpful to compare your notes with a friend’s. Your friend might be able to help fill in some gaps in your notes, and you may be able to help them.

 

Paper or laptop?

Take Notes by Hand

  • In general, taking notes by hand is a more efficient method for helping you learn material.
  • Students who take notes by hand tend to recall lecture information better than students who type their notes (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). 
  • Taking notes by hand means that you will take fewer notes than if you type, but research suggests that handwritten notes help students better process and understand the lecture (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

However, typing notes on a computer means that you can organize and edit your notes more easily and combine notes from different sources in one document. If you prefer to type your notes:

  • Be selective about what you record, as if you were writing by hand.
  • Close all of your other tabs and notifications on your computer to reduce distractions.
  • Always write in your own words; cutting and pasting from slides or other documents won't help you understand or recall the information.

Note taking methods

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