27 Chapter 27: Taking Notes in Class

“He listens well who takes notes.”

– Dante Alighieri

Take Notes To Remember

If for no other reason, you should take notes during class so that you do not forget valuable and important information. Despite living with incredible search engines on computers and smart phones that give us a plethora of information 24 hours a day, seven days a week, students do not have the ability to access those during exams. Instructors want to know what you know not what Google knows. We’ve become accustomed to searching for information on demand to find what we need when we need it. The consequence is that we don’t often commit information to memory because we know it will be there tomorrow if we wish to search for it again. This causes challenges with preparation for exams as what we’re tested on is in our brain rather than information we can search for. Thus, there is an importance of taking notes. “Note-taking facilitates both recall of factual material and the synthesis and application of new knowledge, particularly when notes are reviewed prior to exams.”[1]

As you may recall from The Basics of Study Skills Chapter, Hermann Ebbinghaus studied the rate of forgetting and formulated his “forgetting curve” theory. Perform a web search for “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.”

The curve shows that after one month, only 20 percent of information is retained after initial memorization. Without review, 47 percent of learned information is lost after only 20 minutes. After one day, 62 percent of learned information is lost without review.

In order to try to retain information long term, we must move it from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. One of the best ways to do that is through repetition. The more we review information, and the sooner we review once we initially learn it, the more reinforced that information is in our long-term memory.

The first step in being able to review is to take notes when you are originally learning the information. Students who do not take notes in class in the first place will not be able to recall all of the information covered in order to best review.

Taking notes during lectures is a skill, just like riding a bike. If you have never taken notes while someone else is speaking before, it’s important to know that you will not be an expert at it right away. It is challenging to listen to someone speak and then make a note about what they said, while at the same time continuing to listen to their next thought.

When learning to ride a bike, everyone is going to fall. With practice and concentration, we gain confidence and improve our skill. The more we practice, the better we get. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the “10,000-hour rule.” Based on research by Anders Ericsson, the rule states that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice in your particular field will allow for the greatest potential of mastery. I do not expect you to practice taking notes for 10,000 hours, but the point is that practice, just like many things, is necessary to become more skilled[2].

Some instructors will give you cues to let you know something is important. If you hear or see one of these cues, it’s something you should write down. This might include an instructor saying, “this is important,” or “this will be covered on the exam.” If you notice an instructor giving multiple examples, repeating information or spending a lot of time with one idea, these may be cues. Writing on the board or presenting a handout or visual information may also be a cue.

There are many different ways to take notes during lectures and I encourage you to find the way that works best for you. Different systems work best for different people. Experiment in different ways to find the most success.

Tips for Taking Notes During the Lecture

Arrive early and find a good seat. Seats in the front and center are best for being able to see and hear information. A seat at the 50-yard line for the Super Bowl is more expensive for a reason: it gives the spectator the greatest experience.

Do not try to write down everything the instructor talks about. It’s impossible and inefficient. Instead, try to distinguish between the most important topics and ideas and write those down. This is also a skill that students can improve upon. You may wish to ask your instructor during office hours if you have identified the main topics in your notes, or compare your notes to one of your classmates.

Use shorthand and/or abbreviations. So long as you will be able to decipher what you are writing, the least amount of pen or pencil strokes, the better. It will free you up so you can pay more attention to the lecture and help you be able to determine what is most important.

Write down what your instructor writes. Anything on a dry erase board, chalkboard, overhead projector and in some cases in presentations; these are cues for important information.

Leave space to add information to your notes. You can use this space during or after lectures to elaborate on ideas.

Do not write in complete sentences. Do not worry about spelling or punctuation. Getting the important information, concepts and main ideas is much more important. You can always revise your notes later and correct spelling.

Often, the most important information is delivered at the beginning and/or the end of a lecture. Many students arrive late or pack up their belongings and mentally check out a few minutes before the lecture ends. They are missing out on the opportunity to write down valuable information. Keep taking notes until the lecture is complete.

The Cornell System

One way of taking notes in class is using the Cornell System. Created in the 1950s by Walter Pauk at Cornell University, the Cornell System is still widely used today. Perform a web search for “Cornell note taking method.”

The note-taking area is for you to use to record notes during lectures.

Students use the column on the left to create questions after the lecture has ended. The questions are based on the material covered. Think of it as a way to quiz yourself. The notes you took should answer the questions you create.

Tips for after the lecture

Consolidate notes as soon as possible after the lecture has ended. Identify the main ideas and underline or highlight them.

Test yourself by looking only at the questions on the left. If you can provide most of the information on the notes side without looking at it, you’re in good shape. If you cannot, keep studying until you improve your retention. Review periodically as needed to keep the information fresh in your mind.

Students use the bottom area for summarizing information. Practice summarizing information — it’s a great study skill. It allows you to determine how information fits together. It should be written in your own words (don’t use the chapter summary in the textbook to write your summary, but check the chapter summary after you write yours for accuracy).

The Outline Method

Another way to take notes is the outline method. Students use an outline to show the relationship between ideas in the lecture. Outlines can help students separate main ideas from supporting details and show how one topic connects to another.

Perform a web search for “outline note taking method” to see what they look like.

Mind Maps

Visual learners may want to experiment with mind maps (also called clustering). Invented by Tony Buzan in the 1960s, it’s another way of organizing information during lectures. Start with a central idea in the center of the paper (landscape is recommended). Using branches (like a tree), supporting ideas can supplement the main idea. Recall everything you can as the lecture is happening. Reorganization can be done later. Perform a web search for mind maps for note-taking.

Review

The most important aspect of reviewing your lecture notes is when your review takes place in relation to when your notes were taken. For maximum efficiency and retention of memory, it’s best to review within 20 minutes of when the lecture ends. For this reason, I do not advise students to take back-to-back classes without 30 minutes in between. It is important to have adequate review time and to give your brain a break. Reviewing shortly after the lecture will allow you to best highlight or underline main points as well as fill in any missing portions of your notes. Students who take lecture notes on a Monday and then review them for the first time a week later often have challenges recalling information that help make the notes coherent.

If you wish to go “above and beyond,” you may consider discussing your notes in a study group with your classmates, which can give you a different perspective on main points and deepen your understanding of the material. You may also want to make flashcards for yourself with vocabulary terms, formulas, important dates, people, places, etc. Online flash cards are another option. Students can make them for free and test themselves online or on their phone.

The Big Picture

Keep in mind that students who know what their instructor is going to lecture on before the lecture are at an advantage. Why? Because the more they understand about what the instructor will be talking about, the easier it is to take notes. How? Take a look at the syllabus before the lecture. It won’t take much time but it can make a world of difference. You will also be more prepared and be able to see important connections if you read your assigned reading before the lecture. It’s not easy to do, but students that do it will be rewarded. If I have read information assigned before the lecture and know what the lecture will be about, I have best prepared myself for taking notes during the lecture and given myself the greatest potential for understanding relationships between the reading material and the lecture.

Licenses and Attributions:

Content previously copyrighted, published in Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skills and Time Management Strategies (by Dave Dillon), now licensed as CC BY Attribution.

Adaptations: Changed formatting, removed all copyrighted information, slight edits for consistency.


  1. DeZure, Deborah, Matthew Kaplan, and Martha A. Deerman. “Research on Student Notetaking: Implications for Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors. http://www.math.lsa.umich.edu/~krasny/math156_crlt.pdf (2001).
  2. Anders Ericsson et al. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance - Psychological Review (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1993). 393-394.

This chapter is adapted from Chapter 27: Taking Notes in Class in Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon.

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Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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