UWMC Freshman Seminar
NOTE-TAKING IN LECTURE CLASSES
These notes have been prepared by © Keith Montgomery,
Department of Geography and Geology.
Before you begin you will benefit from a review of the comments to
be found in the following files:
The material in this page is organized as follows:
Why take notes?
Good note-taking begins before class.
How to take good notes.
What to do with the notes now you have them.
Why Take Notes?
Some students believe that note-taking interferes with understanding during
a lecture -- WRONG!
Taking notes in the correct manner forces you to be an active
listener and focuses your attention all the more on what is being
said. By being an active listener you start the learning process because the
note-taking process forces you to process the information you are receiving.
This, in turn, then
shortens the time required to master the material after class. You get the
full benefit of attending class: students who do not
attend class lose out on all this. Passive listeners
retain much less information (try taking a pop quiz on an educational TV
show you've just watched) -- this makes using the text much more difficult
because they have no written record as to how the instructor explained
things or connected ideas, and it makes studying much less efficient because
they have no record as to the relative importance of material. Passive
listeners obtain only partial benefit from class attendance.
Be an active listener.
Good note-taking begins before class.
If you have not completed the assigned readings or problems you will not
get the most from the class session -- furthermore, instructors assume
you have prepared and so have the background to understand what they
are about to teach. Then, being able to connect what you learned today
with the previous class meeting will help you retain both the old and the
new. Lack of preparation will leave you struggling to understand what is
being said or discussed and this will just set your learning even further
Also, preparation (i.e. "studying")
will tell you if there is anything you did not fully understand from the
previous session -- you are then prepared to ask a question on this (if
you have not already done so during office hours) right at the start of
the class and then move on with mastering the new material.
So, be prepared and get the full benefit from attending class.
How to take "good notes."
Good note-taking is a skill that will help you in any future career. Many
students believe that they cannot take notes using anyone else's method
-- well, maybe, but good technique incorporates most of the recommendations
below, so read this carefully and see how your method measures up.
Come early, if possible.
Flip through your notes from the last class to remind you where you
were at and to get yourself ready to listen or participate in the session.
Sit near the front of the class.
Being a wall flower (i.e. sitting along the back wall) is sure
way to tune out. Also, you can't hear as well or see diagrams and writing
On a new page enter the class and date.
A new page is a fresh beginning.
Format each page according to the "Cornell System."
The format looks like this:
Remember to make your lecture notes only in the "note-taking" area --
the use of the other areas will be discussed in the next section.
Don't be afraid to look at the instructor as s/he talks.
Your interest can inspire the teacher!
Do NOT copy down everything that is said -- listen for the structure
of the knowledge.
Of course you should use abbreviations, but listening for the structure
of the knowledge and recording this is what active listening is
all about. Structured information is far easier to retain. Structured
notes will be far more useful in studying and will help you read the text.
Here's how it's done:
Make the structure of the material apparent in the way you write it
Listen for the main ideas being presented -- take these down and
then add the supporting details (examples, proofs etc.).
Remember, one reason to attend class is to get an idea of what is important!
Main ideas are often stated right at the outset by the instructor and are
often reinforced by a variety of devices: by writing on the board, by repetition,
by enumeration ("the first point ..."), or by emphasis in voice or hand
motion. Generally, you can separate the wheat from the chaff fairly easily.
Supporting details are then discussed before the next main point is presented.
For example, a set of notes on this material right now might look as follows:
Leave lots of space/use one side only.
||1. BEFORE THE LECTURE
-- read text/prepare
sets you up for learning most
-- get there early
2. IN CLASS
-- sit near front
hear, see better, keep interest
3. WRITE SELECTIVELY
--main ideas vs. supporting details
structure helps retention
-- signals tell main points
repeats, voice, hands, listing
You'll need it later for adding to your notes, and compared to tuition,
paper is cheap!
If something doesn't make sense, interrupt with a question.
Why leave not knowing something? Most other students will be glad you
asked that question for them!
If you find yourself doing this then your mind is wandering -- help
keep up your attention by taking notes. Perk up the professor by showing
What to do with the notes now you have them.
Most of what you have begun to learn in class will be forgotten within
24 hours unless you work with your notes as soon as possible to consolidate
this learning. If you don't do this then you will have to start the
learning all over again and, in extreme cases, you might as well not have
bothered to take the notes in the first place.
Here's what you do the same day you attended the lecture:
Do not re-write your notes -- this contributes little to understanding
and learning (although you can be fooled into thinking it does) -- try
to become a better note-taker!
Think back to the lecture and enter into your notes any further information
or thoughts you might find useful. Even better, meet immediately with
one or two other students from the class and go over your notes together,
adding and clarifying points. (Consider starting a study
Read your notes carefully and enter into the "Cue Column" some key words
or short phrases that sum up the content of each section. If you like,
these can be in question form. This process of reduction ensures you understand
the material and are able to put it in your own words (which is needed
for answering written exam questions).
Now, cover up the notes and try to recall the information using the key
words in the Cue Column. This begins the process of memorization.
On the opposite page, you can summarize the knowledge in different ways
-- for example devise a flow chart or concept diagram to show how the facts
are connected. This also helps retention.
As you recall your notes using either the Cue Column or the flow chart,
be sure to "talk it out." Putting it in your words makes the knowledge
your own and makes it far harder to forget!
If you like, you can record vocabulary words, mnemonics (such as acronyms)
in the "Summary" space at the bottom of the page. Or, you can make up some
flash cards to carry around for quick review anywhere.
Buy a three-ring binder for each subject to keep your notes in once
you have given them the "treatment" prescribed above -- get them out of
that spiral notebook where they will languish and perhaps even get lost!
Be sure to review your notes again as many times as possible before
the next class session -- usually only ten minutes here and there is all
that is needed.
At the end of each week review all your notes.
If you do this then studying for an exam becomes a review process,
not a learning process.
Discussion classes may require a modified style of note-taking.
This is because discussion groups do not always bring up points in
the controlled, sequential manner that a well-organized lecturer does.
Use the Cornell Format, but be a little more flexible in the style. Perhaps
try concept mapping as a method of recording. But whatever you do, you
will will need to record the main ideas being tossed around. This is also
true in some "lecture" classes, depending on the instructor's style of
When do you find the time to do all this and read the text?
That requires that study time be regularly scheduled each day. This
is going to require very careful time management!