One of the problems with trying to take a degree today is that few
students have been trained in basic study skills. Without those skills,
it is very difficult to cope well with degree-level courses. One of these
skills is note-taking.
In a degree-level course, the student is asked to deal with several kinds
of information. Some of it comes from the text book. Some of it comes
from lectures. Some from class discussion. Some of it might come from
videos or tape recordings. Together, these various sources of information
make up the complete course, and no single source will cover the whole
course. The student needs to be able to take good notes from any source -
otherwise he or she can lose vital material, and that can cost grade
points at the next test or paper. It can also get the professor
irritated, and an irritated professor is usually less helpful than a happy
It is fairly easy to take notes from a book. The text will never change, and you can take as long
as you like, and check it over as many times as you need to be sure your notes are accurate. But
lectures are given quite fast. Class discussion goes even faster. Videos and tapes are also fast.
Many students find that their notes from these sources are virtually useless: they can't read their
own writing; the notes are too brief and no longer make sense; there are whole chunks missing;
sometimes they are plain wrong! We've all been there, so here are some pointers which might
Firstly, bear in mind that you want to get down as much as possible, as fast as possible, and it's
no good if you can't read it later. So:
- Use a reliable, easy-running pen. Pencils are OK, but they go blunt and they smudge - but use whatever is most comfortable and reliable for you.
- Hold your pen/pencil lightly. Do not press hard as you write. That slows you down, and you need speed!
Note: If you habitually press hard when you write, do everything you can to break that habit. Practice writing and doodling lightly whenever you have nothing better to do. Whenever you notice yourself clenching up and pressing hard, consciously relax your hand.
- Write in a joined-up script. It is the fastest way. Do not use your best writing!
- If you can type faster than you can write, consider using a lap-top computer in class. But be sure your batteries are fully charged!
- Use short notes.
Note: Short notes are a habit you need to create. They are not easy at first, but they are fast when you are in practice.
OK, that's the mechanics out of the way.
Before and During Class
Now, you want to take down useful material, and for this you need to be able to recognise the important bits at once. A bit of preparation often helps here:
- Before class, check over the syllabus, handbook or set
readings to see roughly what is planned for this session. With this
overview, you can more easily recognise relevant information, and if you
have done the readings you were supposed to do, you will also notice when
the professor adds information which isn't in the book.
That is the information you really want to get into your notes.
- Arrive well in time. This gives you time to organise yourself:
get your paper and pens ready, review the syllabus, get your jacket off,
and get yourself calm. It also means you won't miss anything.
Sometimes, the most important things of all are said by the professor
right at the beginning of class, and if you miss them you'll never
make sense of the rest!
- Bother to think about your professor.
Professors often have personal quirks which signal that they are about to
start in a new direction, or that they think what they are saying is
particularly important. For example, they might cough, or their voices
might get louder, or they might suddenly bark out a word like, "now -".
Use those signals. You'll get better at this as the course goes
- If the professor says something like: "in conclusion," or "in
summary", or "so -" this will be followed by particularly useful stuff.
Go for it!
- Take your notes as hard and fast as possible, remembering to relax your hand whenever you think of it.
- If you
don't understand something, ask the professor at once - IF this is
appropriate (it is NOT appropriate in a formal lecture; it IS appropriate
in a class). If it is not appropriate or possible to ask a question,
write the problem down in your notes. It is quite useful to signal this
to yourself by starting with your own initial, e.g. "P: I don't understand
that." End with a big spot to show that is the end of your comment. Then
continue the notes.
At the end of the class, you might think you've finished - but you haven't!
Your memory works best by repetition, and it
remembers most soonest after the event. So, as soon as possible after
- Review your notes. Read them over, adding
in anything you can now remember but didn't have time to write down in
class. Think about the problems you noted. Do you understand them any
better now? If so, write in your thoughts about them. Also, note any new
questions you may have. Do it all now. Later, you will have
- Rewrite your notes. Turn them into full
sentences, and turn the whole into a paper. This will force you to notice
whether or not you have understood them. Does the finished result have a
conclusion? Try and think what main points you were meant to get from all
- If you still have problems, see the professor during Office
Hours, or make an appointment. Your notes are now very competent and show
very clearly where you missed something or didn't understand something,
and your professor is likely to be quite impressed! At least, he or she
won't assume you're being a drip! Ask the professor to explain, and add
the explanation to your notes.
Now, these notes are likely to be very useful to you, so don't just
lose them. Keep them in a ring-binder and read over the latest set
before your next class to give yourself a good sense of continuity. Read
them again when preparing for a test or paper.