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Taking Notes Further

Many successful college students didn't take extensive notes in high school but find that their Southern courses require strong note-taking skills. Often these same students find themselves taking notes in class and then not looking at the notes until they pull out the notes to cram for a test. This article will provide you with some good strategies for taking notes in class and for using those notes effectively outside of class.

What can I do before class to make sure I can take good notes?

  • Make sure that you have done all of the reading. The lecturer will likely assume that you have done so and may draw connections to the reading assignments while discussing the day's material. If you remember that much of the lecture material was covered in the previous night's reading, you can write abbreviated notes and then refer back to the reading for more details later.
  • Use the 5 minutes before class to review the notes from the previous class and/or the notes you took on the day's reading. This will help you remember where the professor left off last time and help you see the connections between the ideas presented in sequential lectures.
  • Bring the right tools to class. Have an adequate supply of paper and pens/pencils. Choose a size and style of paper and stick with it. It will be hard to keep your notes organized and together if some pages are on standard notebook paper, others are on steno-pads, and others are on legal-size paper. Try to keep your notes for each class together, either by taking notes in a spiral notebook (and stapling in loose pages from days when you forgot the notebook) or in a 3-ring binder.
  • Make up for any lost notes. If you had to miss the notes for a given class, try to get copies of notes from a colleague before the next lecture whenever possible. Doing so will keep you from falling behind.

What can I do during class to make sure I can take good notes?

  • Sit near the front of the class, if possible. You will be able to hear and see better, and there will be fewer distractions.
  • Mark your notes. Put down a date and topic heading on the first page of notes for each day, then number the pages. This will help you keep track of your notes later.
  • If you have trouble paying attention, learn tricks that make it easier to stay focused. If you're feeling sleepy, try sipping on some water, quietly chewing gum to stay alert, or handling a small toy like a Koosh ball unobtrusively under your desk.
  • Your posture and behavior in class can either help or hinder your ability to take good notes. Sit up, try to make eye contact with the lecturer, and avoid talking to classmates or other distracting behaviors. Doing these things will help you connect with the lecturer and therefore become more engaged with what he or she is saying.
  • If your instructor writes something on the board or an overhead, it is probably important enough to write down.
  • Use active note-taking strategies: (1) Use your notes to ask questions. Jot down the key ideas and your questions about them. Sometimes maintaining a "running conversation" of ideas and questions in your notes makes it easier to say focused. (2) Think of the lecture like a treasure hunt. Pose a challenge to yourself at the beginning of this class like, "Today I will find one thing in this lecture that I did not know and what will be meaningful to me." Or "Today I will find something out in this lecture that I will want to share with my roommate."
  • Don't be a stenographer. A handful of people can write down virtually everything the professor says, but they are few and far between. Instead, focus on main ideas and the relationships between them, plus the key people, events, and other items that might show up on a test.
  • Listen, then write. It is very hard to be focused on listening and learning while also trying to write down everything that is said. Try to write down the key ideas in your own words, not the lecturer's.
  • Be selective. Try to tell the difference between a story, example, or aside and main ideas. Look for verbal and visual clues of important points.
  • Do what works for you. Don't worry about writing incomplete sentences or some particular outline format. Just make sure it will make sense to you later.
  • If you can't write it, tape it. Some instructors don't mind if you tape record lectures. If this would be helpful to you, ask your lecturer if tape recorders are permitted.
  • "Time" your note-taking if you don't feel like you take an adequate quantity of notes. Make sure you're jotting down something at least every five minutes or so.
  • Leave space for corrections and additions. If you feel that you have missed some material as the lecture has gone along, it's a good idea to leave empty space in your notebook and fill it in later after comparing notes with a friend, talking to your tutor, or doing more reading.
  • Try 2" x 6" notes. Leave a wide 2" margin on one side of the paper or the other and use this space to jot down questions, list key ideas, and make other notations to yourself later. This also gives you room to make additions and corrections in your notes as needed, or to write down study questions for exams. You may have heard a very similar note-taking method described as dialectic notes or two-column notes in your Academic Power Tools (APT) course. The APT course can help you learn more about this notetaking style.
  • Summarize each day. Before you leave class, write down your responses to these prompts: (1) The most important thing I learned from this lecture was __________, and (2) I still have a question about __________.

What can I do after class to make good use of my notes?

  • Review your notes as soon as possible because you will forget the material relatively quickly, especially if it wasn't absolutely clear to begin with.
  • Fill in any blanks in your notes while the material is still fresh.
  • Compare your notes with a classmate. Help each other by filling in missing information and talking about what seemed to be important.
  • Revise your notes. First add new information and correct inaccuracies. Then, write the key topics, cues, and/or questions in the margin to the left. (Later, when you study, you can cover up the notes and then quiz yourself on the topics in the margins, saying out loud everything you can think of about the topic. Then check your notes to see what you remembered and what you did not.) Finally, underline or highlight main ideas, things your professor seemed to think were important, and possible exam topics for special study later.
  • Compare your notes from the lectures to your notes from the readings. What are the connections? What themes are in this lecture that pick up from the reading or from previous lectures? Draw charts, idea maps, etc. to show these connections. Write a sentence or two in your own words.
  • Visit your professor during posted office hours to talk about any material that was unclear or any questions that you have. If you don't see how big themes are starting to fit together or how one day's lecture relates to the next, you aren't fully getting the important "big picture" and might benefit from talking through your questions with a knowledgeable instructor. You could go with a friend.
  • Your professor might also be able to help you with note-taking strategies. If you don't think your notes are adequate, bring your notebook to a conference with your instructor and ask him or her for some feedback and advice.
  • Work with a LSS tutor to review your note-taking and note-processing strategies.