Taking Useful Class Notes

Study Tip #7

Why Should You Take Notes in Class?

If you listen to a lecture and decide not to take notes on it, you must trust in your memory to recall it. When you prepare for a test, you will have nothing written down to review with. Can most people remember enough facts from lectures to pass tests several weeks later? "No!" say psychologists who have compared note-takers to listeners.

Why not? Most people can keep information in their working memories for only 15 to 20 seconds unless they recite it or deliberately memorize it. And during lectures people don't have the time to recite and memorize. That means you listen and you understand at that time, but when the lecturer moves on to new topics, you forget. And if that forgetting during a lecture isn't bad enough, more forgetting happens in the hours and days after the lecture.  Only 10% of the material may last.

It's better if people take notes and review them later: they can recall much more of a lecture.

What Material Is It Useful to Take Notes On?

1. Guide yourself by using the instructor's goals? You should often set as your top goal to figure out what your teacher wants the students to learn. When you know these goals, you can listen for information that helps you reach those goals. Take notes on anything that will help you learn what the teacher wants the students to learn.

2. Write down the questions teachers ask as well as their answers. Why? The questions often reveal the teacher's goals and objectives. Also the teacher will ask questions on tests, and if you have written the questions in your notes, you can review by asking yourself those questions and reciting the answers.  That's the best way.

3. Write down the titles of lists.  Why? The title helps you organize the material.

4. Write down general principles: hypotheses, summaries, formulas, cause-and-effect statements, main ideas.  Why? You will need them later to help you interpret concrete facts.  They're often easy to understand but also easy to forget.

5. Take notes on examples.  They illustrate the meaning of general principles and concepts. You can be brief. Use just enough words to remind you of the example.  Why? When you find a general principle unclear, you can clarify it by studying examples.

6. Write down most new words, concepts, technical terms, and phrases with technical meanings. Why?  You will need them constantly, yet they fade fast from short-term memory.  So write them down.

7. Copy down diagrams, charts, and tables that summarize information.

8. When a teacher explains chains of reasoning (math proofs, scientific reasons, evidence for ideas, etc.), you should take notes on each step.

What Style of Note-Taking Works Well?

1. The Academic Learning Skills Department at Lane Community College recommends that students use the "Cornell system." You draw a vertical line down the page about two and one-half inches in from the left margin. You write your notes in the space on the right. You save the space on the left to use when you review.  In it you later write the key words, study questions, and important phrases.  It becomes (1) an outline for review and (2) a set of reminders for you to use when you practice reciting the material without looking.

2. Write numbers and letters to separate the major points. But do not try to make a formal outline of a lecture. The reasons are that you will not usually have enough time and most teachers do not speak from formal outlines.

3. Use separate lines for separate ideas. It adds clarity when you review. Let yourself waste space.

4. Draw boxes and circles around related ideas. Underline key words. Draw arrows to connect related information. Use two pens with different colored ink if it adds clarity.

5. Try to be neat.

How Can You Deal With a Fast-Talking Teacher?

Occasionally, you will take notes from a teacher who talks so fast that you cannot write fast enough to keep up with the information. Fortunately, this is rare. Most teachers help students take notes. They restate each point several ways.  They add examples and they apply points to several situations. They explain things and conclude with summaries. They use extra words and that gives time to take notes.

However, when a teacher does talk too fast, you must accept the unpleasant fact that you can only get the high points and that you will miss things. Here's what to do:

1. Write faster. Omit unneeded words. (the, a, and, etc.,). Abbreviate words (w/o for without, acctg for accounting, etc.). Write in phrases, not sentences.

2. Stop trying to spell right.

3. Stop trying to think about the material. Just listen and write. Exception: Sometimes a teacher would prefer that you listen to an explanation of a complicated idea so that you understand it. Then you can stop writing.

4. Make your attention switch back and forth rapidly between your writing and listening to the teacher.  You hear an idea, you notice yourself start writing a word or phrase, you put your handwriting on automatic, you switch to listening again while writing, you switch to noticing your writing, and so on. You should try to develop this skill. Practice by choosing an unimportant time in a class and deliberately try to attend first to the teacher, then switch to writing notes while making your mind hear what is being said.

5. If you fall behind, then leave a gap of several lines in your notes, skip what you missed, and start in again where the teacher is. After class ask another student for what you missed.

6. Tell the teacher about the problem and ask for repetition or for a slower talking speed.

7. Right after class is over when you know you've missed things, try to go over your notes immediately and fill in what you can remember of the missing spots. Add details and examples that you skipped during class. Do not delay doing this.  The longer you wait, the more your memory will fade. But if you act fast, you can remember a lot.

8. You may suspect you write too slowly and take too many notes. You can find out by looking at other students' notes.

How Can You Use Notes to Review?

1. Do review them. If you take notes and don't review them, you will forget as much as a person who just listened.

2. Review soon after the lecture.  You will remember more right away than if you wait till later and your memory grows cold.

3. If you use the Cornell system, write key words and questions in the left margin. Then cover the right side, look at the material on the left, and try to recite the full material. Then you should check your memory by looking at the material on the right. If you missed some points, cover it up and try again.

4. If it's possible, try to recite aloud. If not, try to "talk to yourself" silently. Do not mumble in your head. Do not make vague pictures of the answer. Vagueness in review causes poor memory. Since you know you will be tested with words, you need to use clear precise words while you review. (Here is a psychological trick: Look to the left, make a picture of a good friend, and recite your answer to that person. It works.)

5. Think about the meaning of the material. Compare where it is similar to textbook material or different.

6. Hunt for how the material is organized.

7. Study the examples until you can tell how the principles are used in them.

8. Use your notes before the next class by rereading them. Why? You will put that information into your working memory and activate the part of your brain that knows that subject. The result will be that you will understand the coming lecture better than if you listened to it cold. Psychologists have proved it.

Miscellaneous Advice

1. Should you use a tape-recorder?  Not usually necessary, but some people find it helpful when an instructor packs in so much that they cannot get reasonably full notes. Some people play tapes while driving. If you tape classes, you will still find lecture notes useful. With a set of notes you can reread the main ideas of an entire lecture in 3 to 5 minutes. Without notes, you need to listen an hour to get the same information.

2. Should you take notes in shorthand in order to get very full notes? There are reports that people who use shorthand notes find it hard to read them. So they transcribe them into longhand. It actually takes them longer.

3. Will it help if you recopy or retype your notes? Probably not--unless they are very messy or incomplete.  It wastes time. It won't aid your learning very much. Try to take reasonably neat notes the first time.