20 August 2009 10:24 AM

Taking Good Notes in Class

by Dr. Rick

We’ve been concentrating recently on the skills you’ll need when the new school year starts, skills like listening carefully in class and avoiding distractions.  Today let’s discuss one of the most useful. practical skills you’ll need, taking good notes in class.


Pay attention.  This is important.  Here are some tips to help you.

  1. Make the choice.  The first and most important.  Determine that improving your note taking skills is one of your academic goals this year.  The choice is yours.

  2. Prepare.  Like any worthwhile goal, this one requires some prep work.  Every day, do your assignments, keep up with your readings, complete your daily homework, and know the topic for today.  If you had questions about yesterday’s lesson or homework, make sure you’ve noted them so you won’t forget to ask.  Have your supplies with you – notebooks, pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, calculator, texts, and anything else you’ll need.  It’s so much easier to be well-prepared than scurrying around trying to find someone to lend you a pen and paper after the bell rings.  Who needs the extra hassles?

  3. Know your teacher’s style.  When my students used to complain about their teachers (including me, occasionally), I’d oh-so-gently remind them that it was up to them to adjust to their teachers, not the other way around.  So, know your teacher’s teaching-style.  Is he a lecturer?  Does he encourage class discussions?  Is the discussion based on last night’s readings?  Does he assume you’ve done the reading and, therefore, leads a discussion on another related topic?  Note what he writes on the board, what appears repeatedly in PowerPoint presentations, what he repeats.  Write it down and make a star next to it.  When you know what to expect from your teacher, you’ll be better able to take helpful notes. 

  4. Know your style.  What kind of learner are you?  Do you learn best by listening?  By watching?  By doing?  By working alone?  By working with others?  (There are many different “learning styles.”  Check out the work of Howard Gardner for lots of fascinating information.  Your teachers know about his work and ideas.)  If you’re an “auditory” learner – listener – read your notes aloud after class.  If you’re a “visual” learner, make good use of colors and drawings.  What’s your preferred note taking style?  Outlines?  Charts and graphs?  Listen for what I call “take-home messages,” the important themes and ideas that you should “take home” with you from the classroom.  (I used to warn my students, “Here comes the take-home message,” so they’d know it was significant. Not very subtle, but it worked.)  Take-home messages show up on tests, too.

  5. Listen actively.  Listen for your teacher’s organizational patterns.  Be alert for key words and phrases like, “First,” “Finally,” “Most importantly,” “Next,” and “Don’t forget.”  Listen to her questions, especially the ones she keeps coming back to.  Watch her body language, too.  Body language can tell you a lot about what she thinks is important.

  6. Organize.  Write the date, topic, and class at the top of each page of notes.  You’ll be glad you did when you’re studying later.  Use the same format for each page of notes – the routine will become second nature to you and save you time.  Teach yourself to write quickly by using abbreviations and using your own shorthand.  Don’t get complicated.  Simplify complex thoughts, use your own words.  Leave lots and lots of white space, so you can add your own ideas and questions later.  A good rule of thumb is one idea per line, with good margins.  Did you miss something?  Leave a blank space so you’ll know and can find the missing information later.

  7. Edit your notes after class.  I taught my journalism students to re-write their interview notes immediately after leaving an interview, while the experience is still fresh in their minds.  Same goes for class notes.  Return to them as soon as you can.  Clarify the notes, write out the abbreviations you’ve used, mark any questions, and highlight or underline important ideas or key words to help you study later and to bind them to your mind. 

  8. Create a support system.  Study with helpful, supportive friends, “study buddies.”  (My blogs are full of positive comments about the benefits of study buddies.  See the “Archive” section above for more.)  Compare notes after class, quiz each other, and study for tests together.

  9. Keep at it.  Persistence is important in class, and it’s just as important in “real life”.  Surround yourself with supportive friends and family who will encourage and back you.  When you make your inevitable mistakes, when you’re not as successful as you wanted to be, learn from your mistakes and move on.

  10. Get help if you need it.  Another favorite theme of mine.  We all need help occasionally.  When you’re struggling despite your best efforts, get help.  Sooner is better than later.  For example, the company I work for, Sylvan Learning, is offering a “Forward to School Algebra Challenge” for teens and parents until September 30.  Check it out at www.SylvanChallenge.com to learn how to improve algebra skills.  Plus you could win prizes like scholarships, laptops, graphing calculators, and gift cards.  An easy way to get help!  Take note of it!

The student who takes good notes in class is the one who’ll have the most valuable information to study for tests and retaining knowledge and skills.  She’s the one who reinforces her learning each day in class merely by taking good notes.  She knows that good note taking incorporates lots of other important skills – organizing, listening, thinking, making decisions – and that they all add up to success in the classroom and beyond.


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