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How to Take Notes in Class That Work

By: Beth Morrisey MLIS - Updated: 12 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Notes Taking Notes Note-taking Style

It can be hard when you first start to attend lectures, seminars and classes with a great amount of discussion to know where to start with taking notes.

When you’re inexperienced with note-taking it’s often difficult to know what is important and what is not, and how to get it all down on paper before the topic changes and new information is supplied.

As you become more comfortable with taking notes, experiment to find a style that works for you, write in your own shorthand, cover the main points and respond to clues as they come up. Soon you’ll wonder what you ever found difficult about taking good notes in the first place.

Find a Style That Works for You

There are a variety of established note-taking methods but they are worthless if they do not work for you. Instead of trying to learn a note-taking style, spend your time learning how you study. Do you do better with questions and answers? Do you prefer to organise by theme? Do you need to visually see how main points and sub-points fit together?

When you are aware of how you learn best you’ll also become aware of how to write and organise your notes so that they are ready for studying later. This may require that you re-draft your notes for a little while, taking what you wrote in class and re-organising it into notes from which it is easier to study, but once you figure out how you prefer your information to appear you’ll be able to take your notes in this style as you sit in class.

Write in Your Own Shorthand

As well as organising information as you take notes you’ll need to learn how to get down important information as you hear it. To increase your note-taking speed you’ll likely discover that you rely on your own shorthand. For example, you might decide to use a plus sign to denote “and” or use “w/” to mean “with”.

You will also likely discover your own way of abbreviating longer words, such as taking down “add” for “additional” or “S’pore” for “Singapore”. This use of shorthand will allow you to write more and keep up with class discussions, though remember not to abbreviate anything unless you’ve already spelled out the word somewhere in your notes. This is especially true of technical or otherwise unfamiliar terms which can be easy to misspell or even learn in their abbreviated forms if you do not see the full terms often enough.

Cover the Main Points

Even with your preferred style and shorthand there’s little chance that you will be able to take notes on everything that is discussed in class. This is absolutely normal. Most classes are organised around several main points, so be sure to take down these topics and any main sub-topics that come up.

The very specific details will likely be the ones that you miss because there are so may of them, so keep your textbook open as you write and denote which pages relate to the topic at hand. The same can be done for any hand-outs or presentation notes that are distributed in class. Even if you don’t get down everything you’d like you’ll be able to find the information easily in the future.

Respond to Clues

So how do you know which are the main points to take down in your notes? Look and listen for clues that come up in your class discussion. Instructors are usually very good about announcing the main topic for the day, and organising the lesson around clearly outlined points, sometimes even talking about them as “Reason One” and “Reason Two” or “Argument A” and “Argument B”. Main topics may also be written on the board, highlighted in text and/or presented in special fonts and colours.

Instructors may also tell you straight out to study a specific section or that you’ll likely see certain topics on upcoming exams. When hints like these are announced be sure to denote this is your written notes, such as with stars or other special marks so that you will remember to study them closely in the future.

Learning to take good notes in class usually takes a fair amount of practice. Experimenting with note-taking styles, devising your own shorthand, identifying the main points and responding to clues are all useful for students interested in taking good notes.

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