In my first year history class (Statecraft and Strategy, anyone?), I took at least four pages of lectures notes every week. I would sit at the front of the room and transcribe almost every word. And to make matters worse, my reading notes were basically a recopied version of the textbook (in which nearly every line was highlighted).
When it came time to study for the exam, I had a binder bursting with dense paragraphs of commentary and tangents, with all the important details hidden underneath.
Taking notes is like an art form and everyone has their own approach to it. What works for one person may not work for you. It’s all about trial and error – trying out different strategies, getting rid of parts that don’t work for you and keeping parts that do.
Bearing that in mind, here are some of the problems I ran into when I first started taking notes in my undergrad.
Taking way too many notes during lecture
As mentioned earlier, I used to take enough notes per class to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool at the end of the semester. Now, I’ve learned to listen to my professor and summarize as we move through course material. Summarizing as I go helps me remember material better because it forces me to do a memory exercise on the spot to reflect on which concepts were most important.
Taking way too many notes from readings
A friend of mine shared a great strategy for taking notes from readings that I now swear by. I do the reading, jotting notes in the margins as I go and highlighting things but not taking any separate notes. After I finish the reading, I write a short, point-form summary of it from memory that I can refer back to later. I find this really helps me remember what I’ve just read and focus in on important or interesting points that I can bring up in class discussion.
Laptop or notebook?
This is a common conundrum when it comes to note-taking. In first-year, I used my laptop to take notes because I was trying to get down every word the professor was saying. Now, I always have my laptop with me in case I want to get something down from lecture in greater detail, but I use my notebook because the act of writing seems to help me remember concepts better. I can tune out while I’m using my laptop, but to catch things while I’m writing, I have to pay close attention and summarize concepts on the spot to take good notes.
There is also some scientific evidence that writing by hand leads to greater memory retention – as mentioned in this Guardian article that one of my professors shared ahead of our first lecture to offer a counterpoint to electronic notetaking.
But a lot of people prefer using their laptops and there’s nothing wrong with that! Plus, it makes you a great candidate to help out other students as a volunteer note-taker with Accessibility Services – check out more information on volunteer note-taking at this link. (Though not to worry, you can still be a volunteer note-taker with handwritten notes!)
Everyone has a different style of note-taking that works for them – from using your own elaborate shorthand on a word processor, to using an app like Evernote, to scribbling summaries in your notebook like me. Don’t fret about getting every word down or taking “perfect” notes – the trick is to find the strategy that helps you learn best and go with that.
Questions about note-taking? Hit me up in the comments!
For tips on note-taking and reading, check out the Academic Success Centre’s workshop this Thursday, October 1 at 6:30 p.m. in the Blackburn Room at Robarts Library. The ASC has tons of other academic workshops on topics like exam prep, writing, and giving presentations. Check out the full schedule on their website.