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Taking Lecture Notes

TIP Sheet

Class notes can be an important source of help in deciding what to study. Luckily, since instructors want you to succeed, their class lectures are typically loaded with hints about what you should write down. When you take class notes, don't try to reinvent the wheel; instead, learn some methods that already have been tried and tested by successful students.

First, do associated reading before class, not after, so you will have the background information that will help you focus effectively. Instructors usually assign readings ahead of the lecture topic for just this purpose. That way, you already have, coming in, a general context for your instructor's remarks-you are primed to learn.

Next, armed with paper that measures about 8½ by 11 inches (large enough to fit a sensible amount of information), adopt the following note-taking strategies:

  • Reduce distractions.
  • Listen beyond the words.
  • Note what's on the board.
  • Identify supporting details.
  • Build speed.
  • Assure that notes are complete.
  • Review notes promptly

Reduce distractions

Select classroom seats that make it possible for you to see and hear instructors without disturbance, usually front and center. These seats provide clear, uninterrupted views of teachers. Avoid seats next to annoying classmates and near windows that give views of activities going on outside.

Physical discomfort may make it difficult for you to concentrate. Plan ahead so you will not be too warm or cold, hungry, or otherwise uncomfortable. Dress so that you can remove clothing if a room is too warm or add clothing if it is too cold. Carry snacks to eat between classes if you do not have time to eat a proper meal beforehand. Go to the rest room before class begins.

Not all distractions are external. During lectures, make a deliberate effort not to think about your weekend plans.

Listen beyond the words
During lectures, make it your goal to find major thoughts and to make them stand out clearly in your notes. Some teachers directly signal major thoughts by using phrases such as, "Now we're going to discuss..." and "Our next topic is...."

However, learn to listen just as well to things that are not said directly. Lecturers use pauses, repetition, or changes in voice volume to emphasize major thoughts in their lectures.

  • If a teacher pauses while lecturing, get ready to write-this is a likely signal that you should write down what was said just before the pause or what will be said just after the pause.
  • When a teacher repeats information, this is a definite clue. Write down the repeated information.
  • A change in volume of a teacher's voice may indicate that an important statement is being given. Some (though not all) teachers speak more loudly when they state major ideas.

When you know you have identified a major point, mark it in your notes with some type of visual device, such as a star, exclamation point, emoticon (those little smiley-faces and sad faces you use with e-mail and in chat rooms), or numbering system that makes sense to you.

Note what's on the board
Anything written on a chalkboard or whiteboard is important and may be used later as the basis for a test question. Copy anything that is written on the boards. Mark the information so that it will stand out in your notes and you will not overlook it when you study.

  • When instructors write tables, charts, diagrams, or formulas on a chalkboard, copy them into your notes unless you know the table appears somewhere in your course materials. In that case, note where the table is found and concentrate instead on your instructor's remarks about it.
  • Terminology should be copied and marked for special attention. For example, if a teacher in a business course writes entrepreneur, laissez faire, or oligopoly on the chalkboard, copy the words down and mark them for special attention later.
  • Persons' names and dates written on a board should also be copied and marked as important. In high school you may have been expected to know about famous people and dates only for history courses. But in college you may be expected to know about important dates or the people who have made important contributions to any subject that you study.

Identify supporting details

Many lecturers state exactly how many details should be listed under major thoughts in class notes. For example, they make statements such as these:

Sociologists identify four types of families.
There are five steps in the selling process.
Let's examine three tragic effects of the Civil War.

When instructors state major thoughts in these ways, it is clear exactly how many details should be listed. In other instances, teachers make it clear that they are going to give a list of details but do not state the exact number. For example, a teacher may say, "Let's talk about problems with starting a small business." You will not know how many problems until the list is complete. Listen for words such as the following that signal a list of supporting details:

  • the advantages/disadvantages of
  • another benefit of /problem with
  • the reasons for/results of
  • the most important cause/effect of
  • the types/typical characteristics of
  • the main differences between/similarities among
  • the purposes/functions/uses of
  • the next step/part

Use some kind of visual device, different from that used to identify main points, to indicate these supporting details-bullets, dashes, or columns, perhaps.

Many teachers also give examples to illustrate ideas. If you find an example to be particularly helpful, include it in your notes using a keyword, diagrams, or even a sketch. If an example helps you understand during lecture, it will probably help you understand later when you study.

Build speed
Good class notes summarize; they are not word‑for‑word records of teachers' statements. It is not possible, necessary, or even desirable to record teachers' words exactly. By using your own words you begin the all-important, active process of connecting the new information to what you already know.

In addition to paraphrasing, you may increase your note‑taking speed by streamlining your handwriting, using fewer flourishes. Simplified handwriting makes it possible to write more quickly. You may also build note-taking speed by using abbreviations for common words. Invent your own abbreviations. You might write eq for equation, equivalent, or equals; probs for problems; sim for similar or similarity; and impt for important. Students who work in health-care fields often take notes using medical abbreviations. The best abbreviations are the ones you yourself make up and understand.

Finally, do not worry about spelling when you take class notes. Undue concern about spelling words correctly will slow you down. You are the only one who reads your notes; you can correct misspelled words later.

Assure that notes are complete
Begin each day's notes with a heading that includes the name or number of a course, the instructor's name, the date, and the topic of the lecture. Writing a heading puts you in the proper frame of mind for note-taking. Also, you can use this information later to figure out which notes you might be missing

When you know that you have missed information during a lecture, leave a blank space in your notes. At an appropriate time, raise your hand and ask the instructor to repeat or explain. Or complete your notes after class by talking with the instructor or a classmate who takes good notes, or looking in the textbook.

If you miss class, arrange to borrow and hand-copy or photocopy notes taken by a dependable classmate while you were absent. Unfortunately, the notes your fellow student takes are not likely to be very useful to you when you study. Your classmates take the kinds of notes that are useful to them. This is one major reason you should attend all your classes.

Review notes promptly
You may be tested in December on notes taken in September. If you did not understand your own notes in September, you will not understand them in November when you try to study. That's why, soon after a lecture, you should reread your notes to make sure you understand them and that they are complete.

Soon after class, change your notes in any way that will make them more understandable to you. Correct misspelled words, fill in missing words, and make any other corrections that improve them. If a part is unclear or incomplete, put a question mark in the left margin. Then, as soon as possible, clear up your uncertainty by talking with the instructor or a classmate who takes good notes, or studying course materials.

It is almost always essential to study class notes before tests. Many instructors give supplemental material in their lectures that you do not find in the texts. Others tend to reinforce information found in textbooks. Always take notes, even when the material follows the text, for these lectures probably indicate exactly what you should study from your texts!

If your notes for a class do not seem to help you with tests, you either have taken poor notes or your teacher has not given helpful lectures of the kind that we hope teachers will give. The ability to give lectures that help students study and learn is part talent, part acquired skill, and some teachers simply give confusing lectures. If you have this type of instructor, ask questions during class. You are probably not the only one confused, and your classmates will be grateful. Adapt yourself-you may have to work harder to organize and understand material from inexpert lecturers.

Last, don't let your feelings about an instructor or a class keep you from taking good notes; the best way out of a class you dislike is to pass it!



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