This guide offers some strategies and best practices to help you take notes effectively and efficiently!
- Make sure you come to class prepared by doing the assigned readings of the day/week.
- Why? As you read the content during your own time, you will recognize familiar concepts and ideas that are mentioned in class by your professor. Not only does it give you a better understanding, but your professor will pull certain things from the readings to elaborate more on, which can be focal points that can be tested as well. For more information about tackling reading assignments and how to skim readings, see the CEP’s Tackling Large Readings Guide.
- Have each set of your notes organized, so it will be easier to find once you begin studying for exams.
- Go over your syllabus to know which topic will be discussed for each class session. Knowing what you will be learning about in class beforehand can help reduce anxiety and make the introduction of harder topics less overwhelming!
- Read over notes from the prior class/week to review concepts that have been covered and prepare to build upon these ideas. Review any previous study materials you made, such as flashcards, mind maps, or summary sheets.
- STEM classes continuously build on previously covered material, like a staircase or ladder, so understanding what came before is crucial to not falling behind in class. If you are struggling with past concepts, meet with your professor or TA to go over them as soon as possible to ensure you are building a solid intellectual foundation for the class.
Taking Notes on Readings
Annotate the Text
If you like highlighting, use different colors to indicate different actions (e.g., yellow = unfamiliar word; blue = main ideas; pink = critical questions). However, do NOT go overboard with it if the text is going to end up looking neon!
Look for Key Terms and Phrases
If there is a word or term you don’t know or feel is important to the reading, look it up and write down a short definition or write a definition of the word based on the reading. You don’t always need a full understanding of a word. Particularly, if the word or term is complex or important to the argument or topic at hand, the author will most likely offer an explanation.
Be Attentive to Introductions and Conclusions
For academic papers and journals, it’s best to look at introductions and conclusions to identify their main arguments. Oftentimes, the authors use keywords or key terms (i.e., important concepts that are repeated throughout a text), so be sure you recognize these words and know what they mean.
Read for Subtitles and Section Headings
Subtitles are also important because they organize the paper into different sections and can help you navigate certain areas to focus on. For example: If you’re reading a research paper, you can skim through the methods section, but read more carefully through the discussion section because it analyzes the findings and makes inferences based on past research. Keep in mind, methods may be important depending if you want more information about the participants, how the research was conducted in relation to their research question, and how long it lasted.
Depending on the subject and type of text, it may be helpful to make connections based on your personal experiences. Particularly, with humanities courses, it can make the reading more interesting and relatable if you’re able to connect on an individual level, which can then offer you a more nuanced understanding of a topic.
Read for the Writer's Project
Identifying the writer's project in a text you are reading can help you better understand the text as a whole. You should keep in mind the following questions while reading and mark places in the text where these key aspects come up:
- What’s the argument of the text?
- What evidence does the author provide to support their main argument?
- What are the major themes or repeated patterns in the text?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Why is the author writing this?
- Write important topics and terms in your own words. Engaging with the topics and rewriting them in your own terms aids in understanding and memorization of the topics.
- Focus on listening. Work to listen, process, and understand the information being taught in lecture, rather than writing. Jot down important topics as they are said, but do not worry about writing every word the professor says. Listen to your professor’s tone and emphasis to determine what topics are most important. If a professor writes something on a board, you should write it in your notes! If you do miss a point while taking notes during class, don't worry too much because it's very likely that the professor will upload the slides after class.
- Summarize and shorten. To shorten your notes, abbreviate words and use symbols that make sense to you; you don’t need to write complete sentences - write phrases and jot bullet points. You can also create your own abbreviations, but be sure you understand what they mean by making a glossary!
|In other words||(i.e.)|
- Review lecture slides beforehand. For large lectures, professors tend to upload their slides before class. In that case, it may be helpful to print it (if you want to write directly on it) or edit the file, so you can write more information about the different points the professor is saying for each slide.
- Do what works for you! Try out a few different not taking styles and choose what works best for you. Utilize different methods depending on the class type. For courses that require retention of a lot of factual information, such as biology, it may be recommended to take notes on a laptop as the professor will go over topics quickly in a short amount of time. On the other hand, if the class has a lot of visual information like diagrams or many symbols/equations, it may be best to write your notes, so that you can also draw the symbols and equations.
The style of notes is dependent on the person. There are many kinds, including the Cornell Notes method, flow notes, and mind maps. Choose one you’re most comfortable with and is easy for you; above all, make sure it is organized since you are going to refer back to them later when you study.
Some different styles of notes include:
Outline method: Probably the most common method among students, this lays out several main ideas that will be discussed in class, in which you write more in depth info as subtopics. This can honestly be used in any class, but it is best used in large lectures because not only is it an easy framework, but it highlights the main points and shows the relationship between those points.
Cornell Notes: Developed by Cornell University, this is a great way to organize your handwritten notes by having a narrow column on the left called “cue” that includes topics/questions, a wider column with the actual notes in coordination with the cue, and a bottom row that includes a summary of the entire page. Cornell notes can be used for classes where there are lots of terms defined or equations/formulas; since the notes are organized, it will be easier to study them and review back on.
Duke Notes: Used by Duke University, this method consists of taking notes on one page of a notebook during class and leaving the adjacent page blank to be used for tidying, summarizing, and clarifying notes after class. Duke Notes work well for lecture based classes (STEM and humanities) where a large amount of information is being given in each class, and a summary of each lecture makes notes easier to look back on for studying.
Mind maps: A more visual representation of notes that starts with a complex topic or general idea at the center and then branches off to other details and subcategories. This would be used in a more creative class such as creative writing or film making; it is a more relaxed method where you are almost brainstorming ideas.
Flow notes: Similar to mind maps, this method is to get a general idea of a topic and to be more free flowing with it by drawing arrows to draw connections while also making doodles and diagrams/graphs. This may be best to use when reviewing for lecture after you already know the material, which can then help you reinforce key concepts and draw connections.
Writing on slides: As mentioned earlier, this is an efficient way to take notes without having to spend time writing notes on the screen but rather spending more time taking notes on what the professor is saying about those points. You can use this method depending if the professor uploads the slides before class; if so, it is a faster method if you may feel like you cannot write/type quickly enough.
- The biggest advantage of typing your notes on a laptop is that you can put down more information than writing it out. However, many of these typed notes are verbatim, meaning one is writing down as much as they see/hear. On the other hand, handwriting your notes is selective since it is slower to write than type, so this requires summarization.
- The downside of taking notes on a laptop is that it can be a huge distraction because there is easy access to the internet.
- If you’re adamant about taking notes solely on your laptop or struggle from distractions, you can try putting your device on airplane mode and have the notes be on an outline.
- The downside of taking notes on a laptop is that it can be a huge distraction because there is easy access to the internet.
- Research has shown that handwritten notes may actually be better than typed notes because there is a stronger conceptual understanding and better synthesization of the material.
- This can be explained by the different cognitive processes used when taking notes, which is studied by Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014).
- Three experiments were conducted to determine what method is better
- In the first study, it tested for content analysis. Students who typed their notes, obviously wrote more, than those who handwritten them. Those with typed notes were able to regurgitate basic info like facts and dates but were not able to demonstrate conceptual understanding like those with written notes, thus they performed better than the group with typed notes.
- The second study instructed students who typed their notes to write summative info rather than verbatim. Surprisingly, this group still performed less than those who wrote by hand.
- The last study was to review their notes. Since students who typed their notes, they have more info which can be an advantage to perform better. However, this was not the case as the handwritten group still outperformed them as a result of their own memory cues of what they specifically wrote.
- In some cases, particularly factual information, transcribing the lecture verbatim may be useful for short answer questions. However, you have to study these notes within 24 hours in order to consolidate the information in your head.
- Follow up with your notes after class when you have time. This is to check for understanding, fill in any information you missed during class, and identify material you didn’t fully understand.
- Compile a summary of your in class notes with key concepts, derivations, and terms on a new piece of paper.
- Supplement class notes with information from readings, labs, and recorded lectures.
- This can be used as a study guide later and help you to have a concise understanding of the concepts covered in class.
- If you have recorded lectures, it’s great to utilize this source so you go back on parts you missed/didn’t understand!
- Work through practice problems given in class by your professor. Try to see if you can tackle them on your own before looking back at your notes.
- If you find yourself confused about a topic, set an appointment with your TA or instructor and go to office hours.
Utilizing Notes for Studying (STEM Courses)
- Creating digital flashcards, via Quizlet or Anki, can help you memorize and review information covered in class. Notecards should include: key terms and their definitions, important equations with an explanation of their use, key concepts with brief summaries, and other important information from class such as diagrams, phrases, or key readings. You can engage with digital flashcards anytime and anywhere; review your flashcards in between classes, while waiting for the train, etc!
- You can also create open ended questions to study ideas and terms from class. For instance, if it is a concrete idea or key term (e.g Newton's First Law, halogens, etc.), you might start by asking, “What’s the definition of X?” or “What other terms and processes are related to X?” If it is a complex term a professor went over (e.g. action potential, reproduction, etc), you can ask, “How does the process of Y work?” Try to answer your questions first from memory, then look back at your notes to check understanding or review topics you could not recall. Or, have a friend ask you your questions and teach them the answer; teaching is one of the best ways to learn. Creating questions for topics you don’t understand and answering them with information from office hours is a great way to address challenging topics and head into office hours prepared!
- Work through any additional practice problems your professor may post. Whether or not you can answer these questions based on your notes can also help you determine if you are taking away key points in class!
- If you know someone in class, it can be productive to share notes with each other (aka a buddy system). If there is something you missed during class or were confused by, that other person may have that information. Additionally, it can help with studying because as you quiz each other from your notes, you are demonstrating what you know to that person.
Utilizing Notes for Studying (Humanities Courses)
If your Humanities instructors administer exams, they will most likely focus the content on material that was discussed and covered in class. For that reason, the best thing you can do to prepare is to make note of key debates, terms, texts, historical contexts, and passages discussed in class. When discussing something in class (especially something in depth), make sure you note the author, any page numbers of passages, and any key terms or concepts introduced. You might also draw from the concept mapping note-taking tip above while in class to show connections between key concepts and texts.
The second most important thing to prepare for an exam in a Humanities course is to engage with this material actively, which to be clear, is helpful for any course! You might try the following:
- Practice writing your own exam questions (putting yourself in the position of the instructor), and then practice answering them.
- Consider connections that were either made between texts or ideas in class, or consider connections that you would make. This can also help you anticipate potential questions on the exam, and engaging with the material actively will help you think more deeply, and recall the material more readily.
Taking Notes with Technology
Tablets are allowing students to take digital notes by hand, and there are many ways to take advantage of the built in features, tools, and apps that come with using technology in the classroom. Here are some tips and tricks to get the most out of your digital note taking!
- Use a stylus. A stylus will help you get the feel of writing by hand with the added bonus of quickly erasing, changing colors, and highlighting.
- Insert images. Using a tablet allows you to quickly insert images, diagrams, graphs, and drawings into your notes. You can annotate and add to images to further interact with the material. If your professor uses slides, add images from them to your notes!
- Watch a playback of your notes. Some note taking apps allow you to record audio with your notes. You can see and hear a playback of what the professor was saying and what you were writing. Please note, some professors may not allow audio recordings in their classes, so it is necessary to check with them beforehand.
- Use 3D modeling apps. Apps such as Chemdraw, Spartan, and Curioscope create 3D scientific models that can be helpful in visualizing concepts in your STEM courses.
- Choose a note taking app that works for you. Check out the graphic below to see which note taking app will work best for you.
The graphic below is also available as a downloadable PDF