How To Take Lecture Notes

Managing yourself means more than keeping up good personal hygiene, although we certainly hope that ranks right up there on your list of priorities! No, what we mean by managing yourself is staying on the ball. Having a pretty good idea of where you’re headed and what you need to do to get there.

In this case, where you’re headed is easy; you’re headed to the end of the semester. After that, you’re headed to the end of the year, and eventually, to your college degree. Now, what do you need to do to get there? Well, you need to know what papers, assigned reading, and tests will be looming on the immediate horizon so you can be ready for them.

You need to have—or brush up on—certain skills to do this work. You need to know where and how to get information and help, and you need to know a couple of basic academic ground rules.


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Taking Good Lecture Notes

Better nail down this skill right away, if you don’t already have it, because you’re going to need it soon. Picture this: You’re studying for a test, anxious and kind of mad at yourself because you waited until the night before—again—after you vowed to change your procrastinating ways. You open your notebook and, for the first time, really look at your lecture notes. Something awful begins to dawn on you: “My God,” you say out loud, “these are pitiful!” A split-second later, the grim realization hits: “Oh, no, I’m going to flunk!”

Then, assuming it’s not too late, you start feverishly racking your brains, desperately trying to remember the name of that girl who sat next to you—yeah, yeah, you know, Nick’s friend, the one from Kansas whose oldest sister knew your brother when he was in college. Maybe she took better notes, you tell yourself in a panic.

Forget it. You’re doomed.

There’s an obvious, easy way to avoid this nightmare: Take good notes.

You can’t escape the lecture. You can’t get around it; the lecture is still the most common form of instruction in college. It’s a fact of your life right now—as inevitable, perhaps, as the need for Oxy 5 and caffeine.


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The typical college student will sit through literally hundreds of hours of lectures during an undergraduate career. Most students actually stay awake throughout these lectures; many even listen hard and try to learn. And yet, only a relative few ever develop an adequate system for taking good lecture notes. Meanwhile, the many students who take terrible notes wonder why they don’t do better on exams.

Fact: Good note-taking is essential to good academic progress

Of course, there’s no one perfect system for taking good lecture notes, and nearly everybody develops some personal code of abbreviations, patterns, and outline forms. Nevertheless, there are some general guidelines that can help you get the most out of those long lectures and make your note-taking more productive.

• Do your assigned reading beforehand. Even if you don’t have time to study the material, at least try to read over it the night before class. Otherwise, you may have no clue as to what the professor’s talking about and your notes could make absolutely no sense whatsoever. If, for example, tomorrow’s lecture in biology will deal with the circulatory system, do the reading assignment and become familiar with the terms and concepts your lecturer will be using, so you don’t just sit there, stupefied and obviously lost by words such as “capillaries.” (Note: When you and your teacher are on grossly different wavelengths, it’s bad for everybody, including your professor, who may become frustrated if it’s clear you’re just not getting it.)

• Get to class on time. Often, the professor will tell you the objectives and even outline the lecture at the beginning of the hour. The professor may also start out by offering to answer questions and clear up any loose ends from last time. This is your big opportunity to clarify any points you didn’t understand earlier. Make the most of it.


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• Look for significance. Throughout the lecture, try to figure out the bigger picture. Keep asking yourself: Why is my professor making this point? What makes this important? Realize that a lecture is not just an explanation of a subject; it’s the professor’s interpretation of why that subject is important. You may not always agree with this interpretation, but you need to know what it is (for your next exam, if nothing else), and you need to get it into your notes.

• Listen for organizational cues. Some professors write out their lectures word for word; others don’t write anything but speak totally off the cuff. Most, however, speak from outline notes. With a little practice, you can quickly pick up how the professor has organized the lecture material. Listen for such phrases as “the second reason for the change is,” or “a third important factor is,” or “still another consideration is.” These lead-in lines reveal something about the professor’s own thought patterns and attitudes.

• Don’t try to write too much. If you find yourself taking dictation instead of taking notes, you’ll probably get bogged down in details and miss something really important. Avoid trying to recapture the professor’s sentences word for word; unless you’ve taken shorthand, he or she can probably talk faster than you can write. Are you going to school to become a stenographer? No? Then leave out the little words and phrases and focus on the big points. Jot down specific figures that seem important and summarize the main points as tersely as you can while the lecturer is presenting them.

• Be sure you understand terminology. Each subject has its own jargon. In economics, for example, some essential terms include GNP, cartel, marginal productivity, and equilibrium; it’s almost a whole new language. Make sure these terms are properly defined in your notes. If the professor uses an unfamiliar term during the lecture, ask a question early for clarification.

• Don’t let your notes cool off. This may be the most important tip of all. When the lecture is over, take a couple minutes to look over what you’ve written to be sure it makes sense. Fill in the blank spaces, complete the fragmented ideas, and—this could be key—write a one- or two-sentence summary of the main points. The piddly amount of time this takes will pay off in a major way when you’re studying for the next exam. Cold notes—notes with isolated words or figures that mean absolutely nothing to you weeks later—aren’t much help at all at exam time. You think you’ll remember, four weeks from now, what you heard today? Trust me: You won’t. Take the time today and save the torment tomorrow.


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