Notetaking: An Essential Aspect To College Success

Notetaking: An Essential Aspect to College Success

While notetaking may seem to be a simple skill, it’s actually anything but simple. If you’ve sat through a college lecture, you know the danger lies in actually taking notes: by the time you’re done jotting down what the professor said you’ve missed part of the new topic he or she has already moved onto. Lectures are rather like a college right of passage; every student must survive them. Attending lectures exists as part of the freshmen experience: while some classes will be small or involve interesting labs, others will consist of 80-200 students packed into a lecture hall. However, instead of surviving, you can actually thrive during a lecture if you learn utilize active listening strategies and take meaningful notes.

Notetaking 101

Should students even bother taking notes? Yes. Whether you choose to record the lecture (always ask permission) and take notes later or take notes as the lecture unfolds, it’s essential that you extract the key points the professor shares with the class. While some professors will use visual aids to help strengthen key points, others will simply speak for an hour. Still not sure if taking notes is worth it? Here are six reasons you should take notes:

  • It keeps you engaged in the lecture.
  • It helps your brain to better process the information you’re hearing.
  • It reinforces kinesthetic learning.
  • It helps trigger memories of the lecture and unlocks information stored in the brain.
  • Professors don’t lecture about irrelevant details; information provided in lectures is important to the course and will likely appear on future assessments.
  • Lecture notes can act as valuable resources when completing assignments such as projects and papers (there are citation guidelines to reference information taken from lectures).

However, notetaking isn’t as simple as merely transcribing what the professor says; in fact, this would be extremely difficult without some type of transcription background. On average, a speaker says over 110 words per minute while an average person writes about 30 words per minute.   Trying to transcribe a lecture would result in missing over 2/3rds of the information presented. Therefore, notetaking should focus on key concepts. Learning to listen, to identify the main ideas and the support of those main ideas, is the first step to good notetaking.

Developing Active Listening Skills

Developing Active Listening SkillsActive listening is exactly what it sounds like — actively participating in the listening process. An active listener listens for key words, such as transitions which reveal major points of a lecture. They also listen for conjunctions which are the parts of speech that show relationships between ideas. Think you may need to strengthen your active listening skills? Check out some great resources here.

Developing a Notetaking System

Wondering if your current notetaking system is any good? Check out this resource Stanford University created for its students regarding notetaking strategies. This succinct worksheet provides both recommendations for evaluating notes as well as guidelines for useful notes. Before you begin taking notes, this Ivy League University recommends asking these four questions:

  • Do you use complete sentences?
  • Do you use any form at all?
  • Do you capture all main points and all subpoints?
  • Do you streamline using abbreviations and shortcuts?

Once you’ve mastered active listening, you’ll need to develop a good notetaking system. The above four points hint at what good notes should be. In essence, good notes should:

  • Avoid complete sentences and focus on keywords/phrases.
  • Use an organizational format that clearly shows relationships between ideas.
  • Record all main points and each subpoint that supports the main point.
  • Use time effectively by using abbreviations and symbols and appropriate.


Taking Good Notes

Good notes are essential in remembering key ideas presented during a lecture. Taking good notes ensures not only that your brain is more likely to remember hearing the information conveyed in the lecture, but also that you create an excellent study resource moving forward. Information provided in lectures will help you study for tests and quizzes better as well as create more informed papers. So how do you take good notes? Good question. Current research advises students to take notes by hand. Physically writing notes activates a part of the brain which processes information. In other words, when your ears hear information, your brain must process it and then direct your hand how to write it. This multi-step process helps the brain to better retain information. While typing may help you capture more what is said, it likely won’t help you to remember it. In essence, using a good old-fashioned pen and pencil will boost your memory through writing.

After the Lecture

After the Lecture

Nobody is perfect. That’s why it’s a good idea to organize or seek out a study group for each class you’re enrolled in. After a lecture, meet with your fellow classmates and compare notes. Compare main points and subpoints. Look for important names, dates, and concepts. Another student may have caught a date or name you missed while you were writing and vice versa. After you reviewed your notes, it’s a good idea to organize them into a clear outline or another type of graphic organizer. Taking the time to further organize your notes is important for two reasons: first, it provides yet another way for your brain to absorb and make sense of new information. Second, it allows you to identify any missing information and seek it out, either from fellow students or the professor (hey — that’s why those office hours exist). Trust me — it only makes you look like a good student when you stop by during posted office hours to follow up on a question about a lecture.

Don’t dread lectures. Show up prepared with a notetaking outline and a pen or pencil. Bring coffee and a peppermint to help you stay awake if you think you mind may drift. After the lecture, meet up with classmates, compare your notes, and fill in any gaps. Finally, organize your notes into an easily accessible study guide for future assessments or papers that may arise in class. Good notes can be an academic lifesaver.