Effective Note-Taking: Critical Note-Taking Do's and Don'ts

Here's a collection of critical tips to help you take more effective notes and actively listen and learn in class.

One of the most important skills to learn in college is how to take good class notes. Taking notes will keep you actively engaged in the course material, help organize your thinking and opinions on the material, and better prepare you for studying for quizzes and exams. In other words, taking good notes is essential to achieving the academic success you seek.

This article will take you through the key do's and don'ts of note-taking. While it won't discuss the specifics of the major types of note-taking systems, it will provide you with some general guidelines as you go about developing your own note-taking system -- as well as in taking the notes themselves.

These note-taking do's and don'ts cover some of the common errors and strategies that college students encounter.

Do use or develop a note-taking system that works for you. There are five well-established methods (Charting Method, Cornell Method, Mapping Method, Outline Method, and Sentence Method) that you can use or modify to suit your abilities. Whatever you do, don't take notes in paragraph form.

Don't take notes on one of the extremes. In other words, you'll need to find the right balance. Writing too few notes will leave you with too many unanswered questions while trying to write everything down will result in frustration and keep you from being engaged in the discussion.

Do read the assigned readings for class ahead of time, perhaps even taking some preliminary notes for class lecture. And do review the notes from the previous class before the start of the current class. If you want to be really prepared for class, do surf the Net for additional or updated content about the planned subject.

Do practice active listening, which involves hearing (of course), but more importantly, thinking, analyzing, processing, and seeking to understand as you take notes. Remember too, that good listening begins with a positive attitude.

Don't let yourself get caught up in poor lecture style or delivery (ums, uhs, likes, etc.) nor captivated by a great speaker that you forget to take good notes.

Do develop your own abbreviation system so that you do not need to write down every single word in a definition or topic area. Just make sure that you do understand your system once you start using it!

Don't sit next to your friends in class if you are looking to take good notes. While it's important to have friends in class (especially when you need to miss a class and get someone else's notes), but sitting next to them can lead to distractions.

Do keep your notes safe -- and in a well-organized manner. You could take the greatest notes, but if you can't find them or lose them, what good will they be when you need them to study? Anddorecord the date and class on each sheet so if the pages do get separated, you can easily get them back in order.

Don't rely on the notes of someone else if you can avoid it. Obviously, there will be times when you need to miss a class, and you should get the notes of some other top-performing student, but also consider asking the professor to give you a copy of his/her notes (or PowerPoint slides) or to review the notes you received.

Do focus on the major points and key arguments. And don't get lost in trying to record all the minor details or examples. Instead, use the time to make certain you understand the key details, formulas, and facts.

Don't ignore gaps in your notes or understanding of the material. If the professor talks too quickly or does not allow questions, do make a notation in your notes to try to find the answer in your textbook or follow-up with the professor during his/her office hours.

Do pay attention to cues. Some professors will actually lecture from an outline, but for others, look for verbal or non-verbal cues, such as pausing for emphasis, restating a point, or a change in tone of voice as a signal of a topic shift.

Don't hesitate to ask questions of the professor if you don't understand something -- but do avoid asking a question about something that the professor just said or just repeated for someone else.

Do consider bringing to class a highlighter or colored pens so that you can mark your notes to reflect key points, questions you have, etc.

Don't write down information incorrectly. If your instructor has a heavy accent -- or you are just learning the language -- make sure you compare your notes to other students in the class and/or see the professor in his/her office hours to make certain you have the right information.

Do pay attention to details. Material that is presented in a PowerPoint presentation, shown on a document camera, pulled from a Website, or written on the board typically are important information you should have in your notes.

Don't doodle or daydream in class. Once you start disengaging from the lecture, not only will your notes suffer, but so will your learning. Good note-taking and learning take active listening.

Do attempt to capture in your notes the main ideas, key facts, vocabulary, and critical examples -- all of which can help you learn and remember the material better.

Don't write on more than one side of the paper, don't write illegibly, and do consider other note-taking options if taking them by hand does not work for you.

Do consider using a laptop to take notes or do consider recording lectures for future reference.

Do consider rewriting or editing your notes for clarity and ease of studying. (You could even consider typing your notes if you take them by hand in class.)

Don't just put your notes away after class. Most studies show you'll retain more information if you review your notes within an hour after class.

Final Thoughts on Taking Better Notes

These tips should help guide you to taking better notes as you go on your journey toward better academic success. The better prepared you are for taking notes -- and knowing what to expect in the lecture -- the more success you'll have.

Finally, one of the best ways to get more from a class and perhaps take better notes is to sit in one of the front rows. First, you'll be forced to make eye contact with the professor and stay actively engaged in the class, and second, most studies show that students who sit in the first few rows perform better academically than other students.

Remember to listen actively, write notes strategically, review notes in a timely manner, and spend time reflecting on your notes and readings.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary

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