Lecture notes: note-taking tips that really work
(Last updated: 27 October 2020)
Raise your hand if you’re like us and find the topic of ‘taking lecture notes’ rather… yawn… dull.
Is your hand up?
Yeah, it’s not our favourite matter to discuss in a blog post, either. BUT, that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a super-duper important skill that you really do need to master during your time at university. Get good at writing up your lecture notes and you’re far more likely to do well in your exams and your essays. And who doesn’t want to succeed at uni? The sooner you can learn how to take lecture notes properly, the more good habits you’ll form and the better your overall success will be.
So with that in mind, this article is designed to give you an overview of the most common styles for taking lecture notes, as well as the different ways you can implement them and the best time to do it. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to apply the strategy most suitable to you.
Sound good so far?
Now, we’ve packed rather a lot of information into this article, so here’s a breakdown of its contents:
Remember – there’s no ‘one size fits all’ technique for taking lecture notes. And, even if you find a strategy that works well now, it may not work so well six months or a year down the line. So be prepared to be flexible in how you continue to take great lecture notes as you move through your course(s).
Different ways to take lecture notes
It can be tricky to know the best way to take lecture notes. Should you write them down by hand? Or should you use a laptop or tablet? The answer here depends on a few variables. And there are benefits and drawbacks to both.
Taking lecture notes on a computer or tablet
Many people can generally type faster than they can write. This can make using a laptop or tablet for taking lecture notes very appealing. What’s more, there are note-taking programs, such as Evernote or OneNote, to help with how you organise your lecture notes.
However, using a machine does have its downsides. First, there’s the world of social media and the Internet at your fingertips which can be an easy distraction. Second, the note-taking process is usually quite linear – you start at the top of the page and work your way down. This isn’t ideal for those who are visual-spatial learners, or if you don’t consolidate information well in long-written form. Moreover, when typing, students tend to write out verbatim what is being said by the lecturer. They’ll often focus more on typing everything out, instead of trying to really understand the material.
If you want to take lecture notes on a laptop or tablet, give yourself the best chance of success by being prepared. Learn how to type quickly, and create or learn a variety of shortcuts and abbreviations, to save yourself even more time during lectures. You also may need to create lists or tables, so knowing how to do this quickly can be particularly valuable.
Taking lecture notes on paper
Research suggests that we tend to retain more information when we take notes by hand. This is likely because writing lecture notes with a pen is slower than typing on a laptop, meaning you cannot write verbatim and must focus more on what is actually being discussed. When writing lecture notes by hand, your brain will generally be more ‘engaged’, so you’re more likely to commit the information to your long-term memory.
In any case, taking lecture notes by hand is the obvious choice for some subjects – notably maths and languages – where the material isn’t always linear text.
Taking lecture notes with pen and paper arguably has its benefits. But if you want to take your lecture notes this way, there are still skills and techniques you need to familiarise yourself with.
You might consider having one notebook for each class. This generally keeps things better organised. You’ll also want different coloured pens or markers so that you can make sure those important things from the lecture are represented clearly in your notes. Finally, you must be able to write clearly. Your notes are no good to you if two weeks down the road all you see is illegible chicken scratch!
When to take lecture notes
When is really the best time to take lecture notes? The short answer is: often. Actually, you should take notes before, during and after each lecture. This means taking notes whilst you’re doing any preparatory reading, as well as when you are listening in class. And, you need to review your lecture notes periodically after the lecture is finished. This can be done on a weekly basis, and then more frequently in the lead up to any exams or essay assignments.
Taking notes before a lecture
Before any lecture you need to do the assigned readings, at least to some extent. Your professors often tell students that this is an essential component of learning the course material (or having success in lectures). And yet, few students actually heed this advice.
So, do the reading. And whilst you’re at it, take notes. The benefits here are three-fold (at least). First, familiarising yourself with the lecture material in advance will mean you’re clued up on what will be discussed, and you can spend more time in the lecture focusing on the important bits. Second, going over the material at least twice will help you commit it to your long-term memory (great for exams). And third, you can jot down any questions you might have and ask them during, or after, the lecture.
Taking notes during a lecture
During the lecture it can be hard to know what to write down. Essentially, you only want to write down the main important points. You do this by becoming a really good listener. The trick to taking good lecture notes is to avoid the tangents your professor will take you on and try to pinpoint the stuff that is going to be on an exam or in an essay. Your professor is going to give you cues about what will be on the test. This will happen through some significant key phrases or signposts.
These might include:
- “You need to know X” OR “X might be on the test”
- Anytime the professor repeats himself/herself
- Anything written on the board
- Anything the professor says more loudly or with more emphasis
- Anytime there is a relationship (e.g. first…second…finally)
- Anytime there are significant signposts (e.g. especially, most significant, consequently, etc.)
There are probably many more cues that your professor will use in the creation of their lectures. Careful listening will turn you into a more efficient note-taker.
At the end of the lecture, your professor may give a summary, conclusion, or review of the material. These are the main takeaway points and are likely to be important. Don’t pack up your bags early. Wait until the professor is done talking – in these last few minutes the professor may be telling you what s/he wants you to know come essay or exam day.
As a side note, remember that what you do and do not take away from the lecture are equally important. Did you have unanswered questions, or did your mind wander and miss a point? If the answer is yes, it is important to get these addressed earlier rather than later to make sure that you have a complete set of notes.
Taking notes after a lecture
Taking great lecture notes before and during your lecture, but then leaving them to collect dust, is a waste of your time. Soon after the lecture is done, spend some time reviewing your notes and clarifying any points that may seem a bit vague. A few minutes on the same day, plus 10-15 minutes a few days later, will be enough.
Also, you need to consolidate the notes you took when reading, and the notes you took during the lecture. Compare them side by side. Look at the different pieces of information and try and make sense of what you have written. Organise them in a way that is logical to you. Some might call this a master outline, but essentially what you are doing is figuring out the main ideas and putting them all down in a logical way.
Different note-taking styles
Now we’ll take you through some of the more popular styles of taking lecture notes that people have used with success. It’s important to note that many of these styles relate to using pen and paper, as with a laptop you are largely limited to a set linear structure (i.e. the outline method) which you can then modify or add to as you see fit.
The Cornell note-taking system
The Cornell note taking system is a format of condensing and organising notes without need for laborious recopying, by dividing paper into specific sections. There are six main aspects to the system:
1. Name, Date, Title: Every time that you start a new series of notes, you should record the name of the task (i.e. Lecture or Textbook Reading), the date, and the title/heading/subheading.
2. Record: This is the actual note taking process. It is interesting to note that this component only takes up 1/6 of the total method, demonstrating how important review and reflection is to the note taking process.
a. Divide your piece of paper into three sections (2-inch column on left - for “cues”; 6.5 inch “main space” on right – to make notes; 2-inch column on bottom to summarise).
b. During the lecture or as you read, keep notes in the “main space”. Each time there is a new main point, skip a few lines.
3. Questions: After the class is finished, and preferably as soon as possible, formulate some questions that you have based on your notes. Write them in the left-hand column (the cue column). If you are reading the textbook, these questions might be issues you did not understand from the reading material, or things that you hope the instructor will cover in class. In this section you may also want to flag the main points that you felt were particularly significant (as additional cues).
4. Recite: Cover your notes – specifically, cover the right-hand section of your page so that only your questions and cues are visible. By looking at these questions and cue words, try and orally recreate your notes (in your own words). This helps shift your knowledge from the short-term memory to the long-term memory.
5. Reflect: Think for a few minutes about the material that you have learned. As yourself questions such as “what is the significance of these facts? What principles are they founded on? How do these ideas fit in with what I already know?
6. Review: Use the space at the bottom of each page that you have reserved for a summary. Once you have completed these summaries (this can be done at any point between the lecture/readings and an exam), use these summaries to help you review the weekly notes without having to go back and review everything you have written.
The Cornell method of note taking is particularly popular among students using a pen and pencil to take lecture notes. It is less applicable to those taking lecture notes on a laptop. What makes the Cornell method so appealing is that you start out with possible disarray in the main notes section, but through a bit of work, you end up with a fairly useful and straightforward structure. While this note taking method is popular, it is also time consuming, so it may not be possible to use it for every class.
Brainstorming and mind maps
Both of these methods are a graphic (pictorial) means of representing information. They work by relating each fact or idea to other facts or ideas. They’re good for those who like visual representation of information. They are not particularly useful for those taking notes on a laptop. What you’ll end up with is essentially a series of circles that connect via lines from one to another. To follow this method, begin in the middle of a sheet of paper.
1. Determine the main subject or topic. Write this title in the centre of page with a circle around it. Note that you can have more than one paper going at the same time. If you think you have the main topic and then that topic shifts, you can create a new mind map and then consolidate your notes later.
2. As major facts (subheadings) are presented that relate to the main subject/topic, draw lines out from the circle and label.
3. As additional facts are presented that relate to each subheading, draw these lines, linked to appropriate major fact and label.
4. Once you have created your visual representation of the material, use the space around the edge of the paper to pose questions. You can also use different coloured lines to connect different thoughts. You can also use the edge of the paper to clarify any points that you think are vague or confusing within your own mind map writing. This will help you when you come to review later.
5. After the final mind map is as complete as you want it to be, make sure that you review it at regular intervals in preparation of the final exam. It is important that you ensure that you can explain each of the concepts you have placed in circles, as these are the core focus of your understanding.
Brainstorming and mind maps are particularly good for visual learners, but they are sometimes hard to achieve in the actual lecture and are much more useful when taking notes from a textbook or reading. This is because if you are reading critically, you know what is coming next and can organise your brainstorm/mind map accordingly. If your next assignment is a written essay, the brainstorming/mind map method can work particularly well to help you clarify your thoughts and the links between them.
Linear note-taking / The outline method
This method of taking lecture notes is suitable for those using a laptop or tablet. It’s also particularly ideal if you’re studying the humanities or social sciences. You write general information to the left, and add more specific facts and clarifications indented to the right.
Being sure to write your points in an organised ‘order’, follow these guidelines to implement this method:
1. Start with a major point or topic – write it farthest to the left of the page or space on which you’re making your notes.
2. Beneath it, write a series of more specific points relating to that major point, and indent the rule slightly.
3. Levels of importance of the specific points will be indicated by their vertical or horizontal distance away from major point.
4. Indentation can be simple (no marking, just space relationships) or more complex (by using Roman numerals, letters and/or decimals).
The linear method to taking lecture notes has several advantages. Firstly, it suits anyone who gets satisfaction from an orderly, neat formation to their notes. Better still, if you do it right, this system records not just content but also the relationships between aspects of the content. This can lead to better critical thinking skills, and makes this method particularly ideal for reviewing material. This is because the relationships between points are obvious and not much editing is needed.
And yet, the linear method does also have its disadvantages. It can be a challenging method to use in lectures, especially if you have an instructor that likes to jump from point to point, or one that commonly goes off on tangents. It also requires more thought in the class – accurately organising the material ‘on the fly’ isn’t always easy. This trickiness is all exacerbated even further if your lecturer speaks particularly quick. Or if they like to talk for so long about one subject or maybe even two or maybe even three without so much as even pausing for a short breath that you wonder if they’re actually a human robot who doesn’t need to breathe at all maybe that’s how they know so much about their subject or even two subjects or even three and is this sentence ever going to end...? Phew. Yes – linear note taking isn’t for the faint-hearted.
But, if the essay you’re working on requires a particular organisation of thought or themes, using this method of taking lecture notes can be very handy. So don’t write it off immediately. It may be a good one to keep on the back burner and use when appropriate.
What is most important – as with other methods of taking lecture notes – is that you regularly come back to and review your notes. Writing them out once and never looking at them again won’t get you very far.
The charting method
As suggested by its name, this method of taking lecture notes revolves around columns to organise your ideas. It can be used in a variety of different ways. Some students use it for lectures where there are going to be categories that are discussed, for example the different column types in a Fine Art History class. Other students find it helpful in a Maths or Chemistry class because the formula can be written in the first column, with the examples written in the subsequent columns.
If you’re writing by hand during a lecture, you may find this technique more difficult, as it’s almost impossible to know how many columns you are going to need in advance. Using a laptop makes it doable – you can simply add columns as you go, and remove them if needs be.
If you’re unsure if the charting method may be suitable for you, consider it instead as a process to use when you are reviewing your notes. Re-organising things so that you can see the relationships not only helps you to become clearer with your understanding, but shifts your knowledge from your short-term to your long-term memory, too.
In perhaps the most basic model of the charting method, the following points should be completed:
1. Determine the categories to be covered.
2. Set paper up ahead of time by drawing columns with determined categories as headings for each.
3. Place the subsequent information in these appropriate columns.
But the charting method can be much more complex. Perhaps for a humanities-based subject, many students like to employ the KWL strategy. This divides the page into three columns. In the first column, there is a ‘K,’ which stands for ‘What I know.’ In the second column, there is a ‘W’ for ‘What I want to know.’ Finally, the last column is ‘L,’ which stands for ‘What I have learned.’ By using these three columns, you can easily see what you feel confident with and what still needs a bit more work. Further, you are going beyond the simple memorisation and looking for deeper connections.
The charting method of taking lecture notes has several advantages. Specifically, it’s great for helping you track conversations and dialogues where you might become confused (i.e. if the professor speaks fast or if English is not your first language). In this method, there is less writing than in the other methods. It can be completed on a laptop or with pen and paper. It also puts things in a generally logical order, so it is easy to create comparisons and relationships.
What’s more, it’s a flexible method. You can choose how many or few columns you need based on the information in hand. It’s one of the most practical ways to review for a final exam, because the information is evident and clear. If you leave enough space within each column you can always go back and review or add additional points if you think they are warranted. Overall, the charting method is a useful one that you might want to try at some point in your academic career.
There are few disadvantages to this method, but the ones that it does have are significant. First, spacing is important. There is a limited amount of space on a page and configuring your page to be most appropriate for the lecture or reading can be challenging. Secondly, you must be able to understand the lecture. This often means that you have been proactive and done the reading for the class prior to the beginning of the lecture. If this isn’t something you do regularly, you might want to consider a different strategy for taking down lecture notes.
By now, you should be familiar with some of the styles and techniques of taking lecture notes that are available for you to use as a student. Perhaps you’ve now decided what method you will implement from now on. Perhaps you are already using one, or more, if you study two subjects or modules with very different content structures. This is great! Note-taking strategies need to be learned, developed, and maintained in order for success.
Make sure that you think about how you learn best and how you are planning to use your notes later. If you choose to go the laptop route, make sure that you are backing up your notes at regular intervals (or saving them to the cloud). If you are using notebooks, keep them in a safe place.
Regardless of your past behaviour, becoming a good note taker is going to help you with memory and with the retention of information. Reviewing your notes at regular intervals is also going to help you while studying. And all of this is going to help you do better in exams and with writing essays as you journey through your academic career.