10 Tips for Excellent Note-Taking

If you want to improve your academic performance, start with taking excellent notes. Here are 10 tips for improving your note-taking.

It goes without saying that taking good notes in college is an essential element of achieving academic success. Taking excellent notes will greatly enable you to perform better on quizzes, tests, and projects. Note-taking is both an art and a science. There are well-established note-taking systems, which you can find in our book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills.

This article is less about basic note-taking skills as it is about tips and strategies for taking excellent notes. What you'll find here are 10 tips that will help you take better notes -- with whatever system you use.

  1. Develop Your Own Note-Taking System. Okay, you might think this first tip is contradictory to the introduction to the article, but it's not. The key for you is to find -- or develop -- a note-taking system that works for you. Using someone else's system of anything rarely works -- you need to take ownership of it. So, figure out what works best for you, including such elements as outlining, bulleting, and abbreviating. Remember, the simpler the system, the easier it will be to use and understand. Whatever you do, though, make sure your system highlights the central points, keywords, and examples of each class lecture/discussion. Finally, make sure you write down formulas and definitions exactly as described/defined by your professor.

  2. Arrive to Each Class Prepared. You'll be amazed at how much easier it is to take notes on a subject in which you are familiar because you completed the assigned readings BEFORE the lecture. Of course, there are many other benefits to reading ahead, but for this article, the key is that you'll already have an understanding of the material and key concepts -- and, in fact, you could even prep your notes with a few of the major points from the readings. Don't forget that if the readings also involve problem sets or exercises, that you should complete those also. Finally, take a few minutes before class starts to review the notes from the previous lecture -- this strategy helps you get mentally prepared and focused for the class.

  3. Sit in Front of Each Class, Away From Distractions. One of the keys to taking good notes is staying focused on the speaker, and if you sit with your friends or over by the window and even loss focus for just a few minutes, you risk losing key bits of information. If you have some vision issues, another advantage to sitting toward the front is that you should have a good view of any visual aids the professor uses. Besides the note-taking advantage, studies consistently show that students who sit in the first few rows of class perform better in the class.

  4. Stay Actively Engaged, Actively Listening. It does you no good if you come to class prepared, sit toward the front, but quickly become disengaged once the speaker begins to talk. One of the most important elements of taking good notes is active listening -- blocking out all other thoughts and distractions. So, sit up straight in your chair, listen attentively to the speaker, and carefully follow the discussion, taking notes as the speaker moves through the topic. Don't let emotions or a disagreement with the speaker's opinion stop you from taking good notes. Besides taking great notes, by actively listening, you'll improve your knowledge and understanding of the topic.

  5. Participate in Class, Ask/Answer Questions. A great tool for improving your active listening is by participating in class discussion by asking or answering questions. Another benefit for note-taking is that asking questions can help you clarify something the speaker said that you did not understand -- or simply give you the time to catch up with the lecture. But don't let other students' questions distract you or disengage you from actively listening and taking good notes. Yet another side benefit of this tip is that professors often use class participation in evaluating your final grade -- and the more you participate, the better your grade.

  6. Consider Recording Some Lectures. If you have a few professors who talk extremely fast or with an accent that makes it hard to understand, you might consider recording some of the classes so that you can play them back at a later time and fill in any holes in your notes. Some professors do not allow their lectures to be taped -- and if that's the case, or if you simply do not want to go to the extra effort of recording them -- your other option is to ask questions and obtain the information you need for your notes. You could also talk with the professor outside of class and let him/her know you are having some troubles taking notes. Remember, though, you do not need to write down every single thing the professor says --just the important points, facts, ideas.

  7. Attend All Classes. The best way to make certain you have excellent notes, of course, is to attend every single class. College life offers students the freedom to chose whether to attend classes or not, but if your goal is to achieve greater academic success, then it must start with good notes, which means you need to be physically and mentally in each class. If nothing else, your grade should be motivating enough to attend class. Of course, besides the note-taking aspect, keep in mind that some professors do have attendance policies. (Note: Some professors do record their lectures, so you might be able to view a video of the lecture if you miss one.)

  8. Focus on Cues About Important Material. Just about all college programs have required courses, some of which might not be your favorite -- and you may even feel angry about having to take a class in which you see no benefit or value. Regardless of your reasons, you should never have a poor or negative attitude toward the class -- it will not only affect how the professor views you, but your poor attitude will also negatively affect your own performance.

  9. Compare Your Notes With a Classmate. Not sure you're always getting the most important elements of your professor's lectures? Consider asking one or two classmates to share and compare notes. Not only will you be able to see how well you're recording the class material, but you may also pick up a few other good note-taking short-cuts or strategies from reviewing how others take notes. Comparing notes is also a good way to review the material you just learned, which studies how is a great way to build retention for quizzes and tests.

  10. Use Visual Note-Taking Techniques. Sometimes it just helps to see material visually rather than just in print, so consider using diagrams and pictures to help illustrate the connections among ideas, people, events, or sequences. Don't worry about your artistic abilities -- these are your notes -- the key is whether you can look at the picture or diagram and understand what's going on. Learning takes many forms, so use whatever combination of text and graphics you need to help better learn the class material. However, don't draw or doodle things not related to class material -- you'll get distracted from the lecture and have nothing to show for attending the class.

Final Thoughts on Taking Better Class Notes

If your goal is to become a better learner, a better student -- and achieve greater academic success -- then one of the cornerstones of your strategy to do so is to learn to take better class notes. Taking good notes in class will keep you more actively engaged in the class, and following the strategies in this article will help you with your studying -- thus moving you on your way to learning the class material more deeply, retaining it for a longer period, and producing better grades -- resulting in better academic performance and success in college. Remember that you are responsible for your level of academic success, and striving to take excellent notes is a great away to help you achieve better grades.

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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Dr. Randall Hansen is an advocate, educator, mentor, ethicist, and thought-leader... helping the world heal from past trauma. He is founder and CEO of EmpoweringSites.com, a network of empowering and transformative Websites, including EmpoweringAdvice.com.

He has been a college professor for about three decades.

He is the author of the groundbreaking Triumph Over Trauma: Psychedelic Medicines are Helping People Heal Their Trauma, Change Their Lives, and Grow Their Spirituality and the well-received HEAL! Wholeistic Practices to Help Clear Your Trauma, Heal Yourself, and Live Your Best Life.

Dr. Hansen's focus and advocacy center around true healing ... healing that results in being able to live an authentic life filled with peace, joy, love. Learn more by visiting his personal Website, RandallSHansen.com. You can also check out Dr. Randall Hansen on LinkedIn.

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