Taking Notes: Improving Your Understanding Before Class, In Class, and After Class

When should you take notes? What should you take notes on?

  1. Take notes on your reading.

  2. Take notes in class.

  3. Review your notes after class.

  4. Review your notes periodically.

  5. Review your notes before a test.

When material is assigned to be read before class, read the material before class.

(Yes, it seems obvious. But so many people do not do this.) Take notes to focus your attention on the reading.

Try to identify what's most important in the reading.

It is a good idea to decide on your purpose in reading, in order to decide what is important. Does your professor expect you to learn information from the reading? If so, you should pay attention to factual information. Does your professor expect you to take a stand on an issue? If so, you should focus on the author's reasoning.

Consider the possibilities in this passage from Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

Put the information or ideas into your own words. Keep it brief, because you will be adding to your notes when you get more information in class. If you have questions about the reading, write them down. This will prepare you to listen for answers to your questions in class, and if a question is not answered in class, you can ask your professor when he or she asks for questions, or you can approach him or her outside of class to ask your question.

In many cases, the beginning and end of the reading contain the most important ideas.

This preliminary note-taking will accomplish several purposes: it will engage you in active reading; acquaint you with the topic so that you will be better prepared to take good notes during the lecture; and help you retain the information or ideas.

Take brief notes, leaving some white space on your page, and add class notes to your reading notes.

This does not always work--perhaps your professor has PowerPoint handouts for you and encourages you to take notes as you follow the lesson--but if you can build onto the document you have started writing for yourself, you will notice recurring ideas and make more connections.

During class, listen carefully and jot down only as much information as you need to remember concepts and details. Don't worry about spelling--spell phonetically, and look it up later. Try to put the ideas into your own words, but put facts down as you hear them (information like dates). If you have a PowerPoint outline, fill in details. If something is unclear to you, put a question mark beside it for follow-up. Copy any diagrams or similar visual illustrations.

Features of Active Listening:

After class, review your notes. Make connections between your reading notes and the lecture notes, if you have not already done so.

Right before your next class, quickly skim notes from the last class meeting. This will help you make connections between different portions of the week's material.

Review the week's notes over the weekend. You may find that the information from the beginning is clearer to you after a couple more class meetings. Use a highlighter to identify the most important ideas in your notes from reading and class meetings, or make connections with arrows, numbering, headings and subheadings, etc.

Rewrite your notes as your knowledge builds, or as you prepare for a test. If tests are infrequent--say, every 4 weeks--rewrite them, condensing and reorganizing them as needed about every 2 weeks. If tests are frequent, rewrite notes over a period of 3-4 days leading up to the test. Use color coding to emphasize important information and create connections between ideas, or revise them into outline form--or do both. Rewriting (not simply recopying--certainly not just rereading) mptes will help you retain the information. If you start the process a few days before a test, you will discover what areas you are unsure about, and you can ask questions about them in class. Or you may discover what portions are most difficult for you to understand, so you should spend more time reviewing them.

Prepared by Dr. Alice Trupe for Bridgewater College Writing Center Workshop 6 Sept. 2010