Make the Most of Taking Lecture Notes

In many of your classes, your instructor lectures on or makes a presentation about a topic, usually one that's related to the current subject you're studying. During a class lecture, your job is to listen actively and to take notes to reinforce what you've heard and jog your memory about the key points being presented.

Instead of writing down every word, listen — really listen — and put the information in perspective. What's truly important to understand and remember? What's not? Look for alerts from the lecturer, who may indicate significant information by repeating it, giving multiple examples, writing on the board, gesticulating or speaking forcefully, or giving word clues ("Two important reasons . . ." "Opposing viewpoints from . . ." "The result underscored . . .").

You may see another student furiously taking notes and think you should be too. Don't worry about what's on your neighbor's mind; just listen carefully to the lecture and trust your judgment.

Make note-taking easier with these tips:

  • Include the date, instructor, and title of the lecture (if available). Add the textbook chapter, part, or pages on which the lecture is based.

  • If the lecture is based on a reading assignment, make sure you've done the reading and have taken notes on the reading. If you understand the material from the reading assignment, you'll have a good idea of the structure of the lecture and the key points. This helps you decide what to note and what to let pass. If the instructor adds facts, concepts, or new ideas-or disagrees with the reading assignment-these are big clues that you should be paying attention and taking notes on these ideas.

  • If the instructor provides an overview of the lecture, structure your notes in an outline form so you can understand how the ideas relate. Indent lines, draw arrows, and use bullets to organize information. After class, review and revise your notes if the structure and organization of the lecture isn't clear.

  • Paraphrase the lecturer's words. Note key concepts or terms, even if you don't know what they mean. Flag them to check the meanings later. If you aren't sure of the spelling, make a note (such as, "sp?") next to the term so that you can revisit the spelling and/or meaning.

  • You may not be able to get all the details, but seek to capture the main ideas, and then leave blanks to fill in the detail later. For example, if the instructor is talking about the five events leading up to the Civil War, it's more important to write down the events than getting details of each one.

  • Record your questions (or questions you think the instructor may ask on a test based on the lecture content).

If you occasionally can't understand your own notes, don't despair. Note-taking gets better with practice.