Note Taking

     While listening to lectures may not be the most effective way for students to learn, lectures remain popular with educators because they enable a lot of information to be condensed and presented in a relatively short period of time. This teaching method, therefore, is likely to be around for some time. This approach to education poses a challenge to students who want to do well in their courses: How can they accurately retain all of the ideas and details presented in a 50 to 75 minute lecture period? Research shows that students cannot possibly remember all of the information provided in a lecture the first time they hear it, especially if the ideas are new. The primary reason to take notes, therefore, is to store information until there is time to learn it. The following three steps for making and using notes combine the best of several methods and will serve you well if you regularly complete each stage. This system involves preparing ahead for the lecture whenever possible, developing a strategy for taking notes, and working with the notes as soon as possible after class.

     The first step in ensuring good notes is to prepare yourself before class so that you can listen effectively during class. Listening is always easier when the concepts a speaker is discussing are familiar. Therefore, complete your reading assignments before class. Doing homework on time and reviewing previous notes makes your listening and note taking easier.

     The second step is actual note taking. To begin the second step, you must set up your notes from the start so that they will serve you well for study later. Begin by drawing a line down your paper approximately two inches from the left edge. Plan to use the left column to develop cues for study, but save this activity for after class. During class, take notes only in the larger column on the right-hand side. Once you have organized your notes in this fashion and the lecture begins, your goal is to follow and to record the speaker's stream of ideas as best you can. To accomplish this, you must hear and record complete ideas.

     Speakers usually present an idea and then develop it. You should record the main idea as well as all the facts, examples, and supporting information used to develop that idea. Lecturers use a variety of signals to alert you to the importance of key information. The most frequently used indicators are verbal cues. The instructor literally identifies the nature of the information being presented with statements such as "the main elements are ..." or "there are five steps ..." or "let me illustrate with an example...." In addition, information surrounding heavy pauses and anything that is repeated or presented on an overhead transparency, blackboard, or handout needs to be written in your notes. Be careful to include examples, diagrams, and charts. These important elements are probably left out of student notes more often than any other features.

     Pay specific attention to terms and definitions. Instructors use a lot of terminology related to their disciplines that they want you to be familiar with and to use. Take lots of notes! Researchers have found that high achieving students take more notes than their peers. Their notes contain more detail including critical terms and examples. Don't waste time trying to put everything the instructor says into your own words. Aside from losing important terms and definitions, there usually just isn't time for this deeper level of processing to occur during class. The most effective notes are generally a blend of the student's and the instructor's words, with heavier emphasis on the instructor's language.

     The third step to effective note taking is making sure that your notes are useful to you for study. Capturing the flow of a speaker's ideas is not an easy task, and even the best notes can usually benefit from some revision once you've had a chance to think about the lecture and review what you wrote down. This process of reviewing and making changes in your notes to ensure they are complete and understandable is called editing.

     Editing can be done in two ways. You can either make changes right on the original set of notes or you can rewrite them altogether. Whichever approach you choose, editing normally involves activities such as correcting spelling; adding or deleting material; rewording or reorganizing portions of notes; clarifying graphs, drawings, or examples; and underlining and highlighting important points. Learn to think of your notes as incomplete until you have edited them. Consider this the top priority of your first review session, which you will do as soon as possible after class. Editing is a form of study because you cannot do it unless you actually process the ideas you have recorded.

     The time you set aside for editing is also the right time to develop your cues for study in the right-hand column. There are no right or wrong cues; there are only cues that work effectively or ineffectively for you. These may be single words, short phrases, or questions, but their goal is the same: to spark your memory of a particular concept with all of its detail. You won't have a cue for every line of notes. To study, all you need to do is alternate covering and uncovering your notes using the cues to help you recall until you can remember all that you want.

     As you prepare to take notes in the future, remember this three-step process for making them effective.

  1. Begin by building a background from readings and assignments that will help the lecture make sense as you listen to it.
  2. Then, set up your note page so that it serves you well for later study and captures the complete ideas of the speaker, including all examples, drawings, terms, and definitions.
  3. Finally, review and revise your notes, as necessary, soon after class.

Adapted from Penn State University

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