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Taking Notes That Help You Learn

Most college students know from experience that not all notes are equally effective. Research has shown that the quality of notes can make a difference in learning. Some suggestions:

  • Find the structure that works for you.
    There is the traditional outline/numbering system, but also graphic ways of recording notes, like concept maps, and column-based approaches such as the Cornell Method. Experiment with these. Remember that a single note-taking system might not be equally effective in all classes.
  • Try to make sense of the material as you are taking notes, rather than just “getting it all down.”
    Paraphrase rather than noting verbatim (the obvious exceptions are formulas, direct quotations, etc.). Draw connections between related ideas, and add your own thoughts and questions. For instance, if a comment by the professor reminds you of something else you’ve heard or read, jot it down. Studies have shown that the more you make the notes your own, the better you’ll learn the material.
  • Don’t try to get down every word.
    Watch and listen for clues from the instructor about what material is important. These can include:
    • Material written on the blackboard, repetition, emphasis by tone of voice and gesture, emphasis by the amount of time the instructor spends on points and the number of examples he or she uses.
    • Word signals (e.g. "There are two points of view on . . . " "The third reason is . . . " " In conclusion . . . ")
    • Summaries given at the end of class.
    • Reviews given at the beginning of class.
  • Be concise.
    Use abbreviations and diagrams — but be sure that you’ll be able to decode them later.
  • Don't get distracted by what you don't hear.
    If you miss a statement, write key words, skip spaces, and get the information later.
  • Don't try to use every space on the page.
    Leave room for adding comments later.
  • Keep organized!
    Date your notes, and number the pages.
  • After class, go back and review your notes.
  • Rework them to make better sense of the ideas, and elaborate where you can. Ideally, do this with others in the class. Look for areas you are confused about, and seek clarification by visiting office hours or tutoring hours, reviewing the reading, or talking with classmates.

Finally, remember that note-taking is not as much about absorbing everything the instructor presents as it is about you, the student, making sense of the material presented.