Do you wish you could get more out of the notes you take in class? Are your notes hard to interpret later? Try some of these tips for more effective note taking.

First, decide what method of taking notes works best for you and the type of class. Three methods are described in other handouts available through the Learning Center. These are the Cornell Method, the Outline Method and Mind Mapping. Not every method works for everyone and not every method works well in every kind of class. Why not practice taking notes during the news or a documentary on television?

After you have decided on a method, look into the tips that follow. (Try two or three at a time and later add others.) 

  • Sit as close to the front of class as possible to increase your level of attention and decrease distractions. This allows you to hear and see unimpeded as well.
  • Date your notes and identify the class.

Look for clues the instructor may give that he or she is saying something important:

  • Repetition
  • Watch the instructor's eyes--is he or she reading from notes to be sure something is stated exactly.
  • Highlight obvious clues. Instructors often tell you in so many words that something is important or will be on a test. Star, underline, use a highlighter or in some other way mark it as such.
  • Listen for verbal "asterisks" such as, "The main point is...," "We will focus on...," "The key is..."
  • Notice the instructor's interest level. Is he or she excited? Is the voice more emphatic than usual?

Consider all visual aids important. Copy all material from the board or overhead projector or other visual displays.

  • Use only one side of the paper, or use 3x5 cards. Either way allows you to lay the notes out to see the flow or "get the big picture."
  • Leave space. You may need to add clarification or additional material later. Space also indicates movement to a new topic or idea.
  • Don't try to write everything down. Leave room in your listening to hear effectively and interact with the class when appropriate.
  • Take notes in different colors. Color can be used to show main ideas, important or emphasized material or movement from one topic to another. Alternately, when reviewing notes, use several colors of highlighters.
  • Use pictures and diagrams. Make your notes visual.
  • Don't erase. Neatly line through mistakes. This takes less time and you may find your first impression was right.
  • Ink smears less than does pencil and will not fade as quickly. Keep a supply of pens, so if one is dry or leaves those nasty, messy globs, you can switch to another. Of course, some notes, such as math problems, may be taken in pencil.
  • Avoid doodling. You may miss something or lose your concentration.
  • Try to write legibly. Be conscious of your handwriting. Try to notice if your notes are getting hard to read and remind yourself to get back on track.
  • Be open-minded. If you disagree with the lecturer, don't let it interfere with taking notes. Quickly note your questions or disagreement and pursue it later.
  • Raise questions in class if appropriate. Otherwise, indicate questions you may have or notice when you become lost in your note taking with a question mark or other symbol and go on. Later you can check with the instructor or another student to clarify.

Go over your class notes within a short time after the lecture, preferably 24 to 48 hours. That way you are more likely to remember details to fill in any gaps or to clarify what you have written. This is when, if using the Cornell method, you should note the key words in the left margin of your notes. If there are areas in your notes you really can't understand, check with another student as soon as possible.