Next to creating enough quality study time – maybe – becoming a better note-taker is the single best habit you can adopt to get better grades. In theory, you should be fully capable of taking well-organized notes by the time you finish high school. Most people I suspect somehow missed that boat. Part of the reason may be that in high school you’re studying according to a standardized curriculum. At university, there’s a lot more flexibility, which includes a much heavier reliance on lectures.
What can you do to become a better note-taker, considering how important it really is?
Change your mindset: Convert lectures into fact finding missions
I’m not good at sitting through lectures. My mind wanders. I could “listen” to a professor ramble on for an hour, and never absorb a single nugget of wisdom from it. I suspect most people have this affliction, but maybe to a lesser degree.
If it’s a problem for you, you have to change how you view lectures. In your own mind, you have to convert lectures into fact-finding missions. You aren’t sitting for them simply to meet a course requirement. Your purpose is to gain as much information as you can in order to pass exams and successfully complete required projects.
Emphasize, and re-emphasize, to yourself that a lecture is an opportunity for you to gain critical information. If you can embrace that thought, lectures will take on a new priority rather than being something where you just go through the motions.
You’re taking notes, not transcribing – keep it simpleOne of the factors that often becomes a serious problem with note-taking happens when you attempt to effectively transcribe what you’re hearing. Unless you are a trained stenographer, that won’t even be possible. Worse, it causes you to focus primarily on your writing rather than on what you’re hearing.
This can cause you to write several pages of notes in any single lecture, and that means you will have to sift through it all later to figure out what’s important and what isn’t.
When taking notes your job is to minimize the information you’re taking in. Focus on writing what is important, and in an organized way that you will easily understand the information later when you study it.
Make them legible!
Next to writing too much, the biggest problem is legibility. If you are writing fast, because you’re writing everything, you are going to get sloppy in order to gain speed. Forget about quantity and the speed it requires, and focus instead on quality. Make sure that you can easily read your notes. Spacing also helps. Write down one concept, and the high points, and then skip a line before starting the next concept.
Index your notes
Indexing your notes is another technique that you can use to avoid having to write too much. Your notes for any given lecture should include the date and topic of the lecture, and liberal use of references to specific chapters or pages in your textbooks.
The purpose of notes isn’t to create an all-inclusive study guide, but rather a point document where you organize important information from sections of the written material.
Clarify your notes immediately after the lesson
Remember how we talked about keeping your note-taking simple and minimal? If you want to add greater detail on any points, the time to do it is after the fact – as in right after the lecture. This is when the information will still be fresh on your mind, or you can ask other students for clarification.
Use the time right after the lecture as the opportunity to shore up any weak spots in your notes. And by reviewing your notes quickly after the lecture, you’ll also be reinforcing the content for yourself.
If you don’t understand a concept, ask questions
If you come to a point that you do not understand, write as much about it as you do understand, and then write a note to yourself such as “need clarification”, alerting yourself that your information on this point is incomplete and will require follow-up. This will keep you from getting hung up on a single point, and free you to move on with the lecture.
Some students are very comfortable asking questions in class, and others aren’t. If you’re in the second group, you’ll need to take advantage of your professors office hours. But if you do, just make sure you do it within a day or two of the lecture, and not the day before the exam. Go in right after the lecture and your professor may perceive you as an eager student. Go the day before the exam and you may not even get your questions answered.
You’ve got them, now study them!
I can’t imagine anything worse than taking first class notes and not studying them, but that’s actually what some students do. Your notes are an important tool for your studies, and probably your best study aid. Use them for all they’re worth.
A professor that I had early on suggested reviewing your notes shortly after taking them, waiting a few days then doing a deep study, and then doing a cursory review a day or two before your exam. It turned out to be good advice that I use again and again. You might want to try and develop some sort of study sequence that works on the same principle, but one that works for you.
Strong note-taking, in combination with good study habits, is a strategy for better grades.
How good are you at taking notes?