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How to Take Notes in Class

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How Lectures Are Organized

There are students who believe a university lecture should be a spoken encyclopedia article to be transcribed on paper as it is spoken and then memorized so that it can be transcribed again by way of an exam. Such students are air heads.

There are also students who believe a university lecture should be a vacuous stand-up comedy routine to be enjoyed if there is nothing good on TV. They are also air heads.

I don't really know of any single, consistently good way to take notes in class. My hunch is that there isn't any.

In fact, lectures do not begin to provide the density of information that written sources do; they would usually be impossible to follow if they did. Nor, despite moments of levity, is amusement a significant goal. Although different speakers have different styles, all seek to present relevant and up-to-date information and lines of argument relating to one or more topics of the course. Some lecturers are more explicit than others about their organization, and lecturers vary in the extent to which what they make changes "on the fly" in response to the apparent comprehension of their listeners (which they may or may not actively seek to elicit). Some lecturers provide more examples and some fewer. Some restate the same principle over and over, others only once. And so on.

In some fields lectures tend to restate what is in a textbook. In other fields (like mine) lectures are quite different from assigned readings, and a student is expected to master both.

It is not at all unusual for university lectures to introduce secondary issues, subordinate arguments, or even brief anecdotes that may or may not make much contribution to the main point, but that usually have some value in themselves. One should not be too quick to dismiss such asides as irrelevant, because often (1) a lecturer folds them back in later as illustrations of a larger point or (2) they contain secrets of the universe that happened not to fit into the frame of the main lecture.

The real issue of concern is what the relevant data, ideas, and methods were.

The alert listener normally has no problem with any of this, and if turning points in the lecture organization are sometimes unclear, the problem is usually easily resolved by comparing one's impressions with those of another listener.

The real issue of concern is not how a lecture was organized —a lecture is a one-time event of no great significance— but rather what the relevant data, ideas, and methods were.

What about taking notes? Given the variety of kinds of classes, labs, discussions, lectures, and teachers, and the even greater variety in kinds of students, I don't really know of any single, consistently good way to take notes in class. My hunch is that there isn't any.


Clearly Bad Ways to Take Notes

As far as I can figure out, there are at least four tried-and-true bad ways to take class notes:

  1. Don't write anything down.
    Why this is a bad idea:
    Unless you have an unusually good memory and ability to concentrate —you don't— this leaves you with no way to review.
  2. Write down your reactions to what is said rather than the content.
    Why this is a bad idea:
    It turns out to be unhelpful to review a note that says "cool" or "muddleheaded gibberish" or "I really need to go to the toilet" when, with an exam hanging over you, you want to remember what the point of it all was.
  3. Try to write down everything the professor says.
    Why this is a bad idea:
    Unless you are practicing to be a court reporter, you are destined to fail in this, and meanwhile it makes it pretty close to impossible to pay attention to the content, resulting in notes that mix up important points, minor examples, random asides, and comments about where we go next. I've tried to do this. Believe me, it turns out to be stupid. Besides, the invention of movable type and computers was supposed to result in books being produced on printing presses and web pages rather than by monks taking dictation.
  4. Record the class instead of writing notes.
    Why this is a bad idea:
    Once you have the audio recording, you still have to listen to it, which takes just as long as the original class did, except that your roommate is making disgusting noises and you can't see the blackboard or Powerpoint. (This also applies to podcasts if your class has them. Click here for a further rant about podcasts.)

Distracting yourself and everybody else by baby-sitting a laptop during a lecture is unlikely to help you.

  1. Type notes on a laptop.
    Why this is a bad idea:
    Typing is wonderful for linear text. It is terrible for drawing diagrams, circling important points, putting in arrows, copying a sketch-map from the blackboard, scribbling in extra notes, and that sort of thing. There is probably some merit in typing up notes after a class based on your memory and your handwritten scribbles, but distracting yourself and everybody else by baby-sitting a laptop during a lecture is unlikely to help you.

    Why this may in fact be a good idea:
    (1) Even though you never learned to touch-type "properly," you can still type both faster and more legibly than you can write.
    (2) Despite your best resolution to review regularly, you won't in fact go over written notes before they become illegible through the passage of time and the fading of memory.
    (3) You just got a new laptop and you want to show you "need" it.
    (4) You look cooler typing than writing. (One must never underestimate the importance of looking cool. It is the basis of modern capitalism.)

    (For more about studying with computers, check out the separate chapter in this block of essays, the one called How to Study With Computers.)
  2. Play with irrelevant electronic toys until the lecturer says something that is likely to be on the exam.
    Why this is a bad idea:
    Whatever they may say about the wonders of multitasking, research shows you can't do two things at once as well as you can do either one alone. Text-messaging, playing computer games, listening to ipod songs you already know, talking to neighbors, and other distractions may strike you as a useful public symbol of your disdain for the class and your superiority over other students —and I respect the fact that lots of people, especially insecure people, need such symbols— but there is no doubt that it inhibits your ability to understand the point of a lecture.

Possibly Good Ways to Take Notes

In quest of better approaches (if there are any), I have been querying colleagues and former students about what they found successful. They are not very enlightening. It seems probable that what works well for one student or in one class or for one professor does not carry over infallibly to other circumstances. I suspect that the following set of guiding principles may help a little:

  1. Use the web site.
    Some professors post lecture notes to their web sites after their lectures. Sometimes they are (deliberately and/or annoyingly) cryptic if you weren't in class: a kind of secret code for the class-attenders to understand and for others to find puzzling. For other professors (like me), they are almost as thorough as the original lecture itself (occasionally even more so). Either way, if you are lucky enough to be in such a class, you may not need to take any notes in class at all, but you DO need to review the posted notes while the lecture is still fresh in your mind. (And some professors take them down again!)
  2. Copy anything that is written or drawn on the blackboard.
    But identify what it is supposed to be. Just as a scribbled telephone number is not much good if you don't know whose it is, there is not much utility in a diagram illustrating the secrets of the universe if, after the passage of a few days, it merely looks like an ichthyosaurus doing something unmentionable to a grand piano. (Some students use their mobile phones to photograph the blackboard. That doesn't help with the labelling problem, even if the photo is not hopelessly blurry.)
  3. Beware of PowerPoint
    In these days of PowerPoint presentations, you will not always be able to copy down exactly what is displayed. Be reasonable. If it is a very simple outline of the topics of the lecture, copy it unless there is a promise that it will be on the class web site. If the presentation is a history of Indian art from 500 BC to the present in 50 picturesque slides, relax and enjoy it and don't worry about copying it. Nobody expects you to, and your attention is better focused on listening to what the professor has to say about the topic.
    (Observation: Most professors make astonishingly terrible PowerPoint slides, not only ugly, but often unreadable past the second row. If it's any consolation, they do the same thing with blackboards. It's like visual mumbling. Did I mention that they also mumble?)

Arguably, if you can define all the terms, you know everything. If you can define none of the terms, you know nothing.

  1. Definitions
    Note any special definitions or important technical terms. Arguably, if you can define all the terms, you know everything. If you can define none of the terms, you know nothing. Ah has spoke!
  2. Topics
    Try to make a "topic" list for the lecture. (You can slip topic titles into your lecture notes during or after the lecture. I suggest wiggly underlining with them so that you remember that they are your own insertions.)
  3. Examples
    If any extended (or especially enlightening) examples come up, note them in connection with the "topic" that they exemplify, marking them with some symbol or abbreviation you use to mean "example," such as "EG." (Some examples of such symbols are listed in the page on marking books.)
  4. The Unintelligible Bits
    If something doesn't seem to make much sense, writing it down is not likely to clarify anything about it, and may just prove confusing. Often you can ignore such stuff. (A colleague of mine once confessed that he tried to make at least 5% of each lecture unintelligible just to keep up appearances.) But if it seems too important to ignore, and if it is not practical to ask for clarification immediately, write down enough to help you formulate a question and plan to raise the problem after class, in section, or in office hours. Tag the note with some kind of mark that means "I need to ask about this" so that you can find it later. A large upside-down question mark (¿) works well for this. (Asking for clarification in office hours makes the professor love you. Check out the separate page on office hours for details.)

What To Do After You Have Taken Notes

The bottom line is that this is supposed to be an education for you, not for your notebook.

  1. Review
    Writing notes is good exercise and probably helps stave off arthritis, but for the most part they won't help you much unless you review them. Look over them (1) the evening after you had the class, (2) the weekend after you had the class, and (3) before you take the next exam in the class. If you do, you will live long and prosper. (Do anything else and The Fates will try to squish you like a bug.)
  2. Cosmic Significance
    When the lecture is over, try to think what questions it was apparently intended to answer, and write down the questions and answers in your notes for that day. (I never actually did this and I have not met anybody who ever did, but the note-taking experts on campus think it is a fine thing to do. And they are professionals!)
  3. Independent Witnesses
    Discuss all or some of the content of the lecture with another student who heard the same lecture, and then modify your notes to accommodate what you learned from that discussion. (However much you think it may matter to discuss the lecture with another hearer, multiply that by 10 to get the true importance of doing this. It doesn't even matter if the other person is an errant booby. It STILL helps.)
  4. Listener Rage
    When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, some students found they could remember a lecture better if they figured out a reason why what the lecturer argued was utterly dunderheaded and if they worked up a rage over it. (Ah, Chicago!) As a lecturer I can't say that I want to encourage this, but I have to concede that I do in fact remember lectures that I thought were annoying and wrong better than lectures that I didn't think about. (Your professor will also think you are a genius if you go to office hours with intelligently argued objections to whatever was said in class. Being thought a genius is not a bad thing. Just don't forget the "intelligently argued" part.)

A note may nudge your memory; it won't substitute for it.

I'm sorry not to be able to do better than that. It's hard taking useful notes, and what works for one person (who may swear by it) doesn't necessarily work very well for another. (As you probably noticed, I already said that. Twice.) Whatever notes you take, it is still very important to pay attention while the class is going on. A note may nudge your memory; it won't substitute for it. The bottom line is that this is supposed to be an education for you, not for your notebook.


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