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Tom Siebold

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Taking Useful Lecture Notes

The backbone of most college classes is the lecture.  Done properly, the lecture is an efficient and interesting method of acquiring knowledge.  But lectures come in all sizes and shapes and forms..  Your job as a student is not only to pull the important information out of each lecture (no matter how well or how poorly conceived it may be), but also to find some system to record and retrieve the material for tests that will inevitably appear later.   This means you must develop a meaningful and adaptable system for taking notes.  Lecture notes will serve to refresh your memory.  In addition, good note taking will help you focus your attention and sustain your interest while you follow the lecture.  Indeed, lecture note taking is a study habit you must learn and master.

Your lecture note taking skills can be improved by the tips described below:

1. Prepare yourself for a positive classroom experience.   Arrive early, sit toward the front, and have the proper materials.  Be eager and ready to explore new intellectual territory.

2. Before the lecture begins, briefly review your notes from the previous lecture.    This “mini-review” will put you in the right frame of mind, remind you of where you have been, help you anticipate where you will go, and, at the same time, warm up your thinking muscles.

Note: Please keep in mind that no classroom lecture will be successful if you haven’t completed the required assignments. Read all relevant material that relates to the upcoming lecture topic. It is a nonproductive use of time, for example, to sit through a lecture on Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” if you haven’t read the short story. 

3. Your notes for the lecture should be titled and dated.  Use only one side of the paper.

4. When you begin taking notes, keep three guide words in mind: legibility, clarity, and accuracy.  Your purpose for taking notes is to develop a review format that can be easily read, that can be easily understood, and that will spark your memory so you can recall the key points of a lecture.

5. Although there are a number of different note taking systems, the one that most students use successfully is outlining.  Simply employ the standard outline form, including major headings, sub-points, and subsequent details or examples. 

Outline Pattern

I. Main Topic

A. Subtopic of Main Topic I

B. Subtopic of Main Topic I

1. Subtopic of IB

2. Subtopic of IB

II. Second Main Topic

A. Subtopic of IIA

2. Subtopic of IIA

B. subtopic of II

(Continue format)

6.  Don’t worry if your notes don’t adhere to a strict outline format.  After all, the speaker may not have arranged the lecture in a neat outline form.  The point to remember is to use the outline mode of thinking to arrange groups of related ideas and sequence the development of major concepts.  This process will help you impose order on a lecture even when the lecturer isn’t highly organized.


7. Of course you will have to take into consideration that your notes are taken under the “rapid fire” conditions of a lecture.  This means that you can take some liberties with the format as well as some shortcuts:

a. Utilize words or phrases rather than complete sentences.

b. Concentrate on main ideas rather than details (names and dates, for example, can usually be found later in your textbook.

c. Try to use your own words.  This will make your review later much more meaningful to you.

d. Don’t worry about spelling; you can always look words up after the lecture.

e. Use abbreviations to speed up your note taking.

f. Use symbols to emphasize or highlight certain types of information and/or your reaction to ideas or statements

8. Stay with the speaker from beginning to end, but don’t try to take everything down word-for-word.  Listen for main ideas, key words, and indicators that are signposts for important (memorable) information:  “finally,” “three things to support this idea,” “keep in mind,” “in addition to,” “consider the following,” “note that,” “ in other words,” etc.

Tip: If the lecturer uses PowerPoint see if you can print out the slides before class and takes notes directly on the copies.

9. Leave wide margins for corrections, your comments, and additional notes later.  Also, at various points allow yourself blank space that you can use for an after class summary of what you have heard.

10. Be alert for signals that indicate important information.  For example, if the teacher writes something on the board—a sentence, date, diagram, etc.—take it down in your notes; if the teacher makes a point to repeat something, take it down in your notes; if the teacher gets excited about a point, take it down in your notes.

11. Soon after the lecture, review your notes.  This is the time to edit and fill in incomplete areas.  Use this review also to highlight (underline or use a highlight marker) major points in your notes.  If you missed something during the lecture, this is the opportunity to search out and complete the missing information.  Many successful students make an effort to recreate the lecture in their minds. 

Tip: Some students like type their notes after a lecture. This note only serves as a good remembering technique it also gives you a chance to make corrections and fill in those areas that are a little fuzzy.  You can also cut and paste material to give your notes a cleaner and more logical organization.

12. At numerous points during the quarter or semester, take some time to arrive at a broad perspective of where you are going in each of your classes.  In other words, try to piece together the lectures.  Each lecture should be like a mosaic piece that fits into a larger picture forming the direction of the class.   

Note: Lecture notes are not ends unto themselves.  They only serve as a road map indicating where the instructor is taking you.  As you travel through the content of the course, don’t get so caught up in taking notes that you fail to see the big picture.  The point here is simple, don’t overdo lecture note taking.  If you try to take everything down, you will miss too much and, more importantly, you may even sacrifice the thinking process to the task of filling up notebooks.  Note taking is to serve as a catalyst for reasoning; not a substitute for it.

Consider the Dual Notes System: Divide your notebook page into two columns.  Take lecture notes on one side and on the other outline the corresponding section from your textbook.  When you study for tests, this Dual Notes system places class and textbook notes side by side. See Textbook Note Taking