The Importance of Taking Notes

a photo of the pillars of convocation hall and the sanford fleming building beside the convocation hall with the road in between and blue skies aboveWaking up to a new school year always gives me butterflies. Butterflies from all of the new prospects that the new school year holds. How many new friends will I make this year? Will I find a good mentor in one of my profs? So many things to look forward to, but equally as many things to be nervous about.

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Hand Cramps Be Gone: The Art of Note-taking in Lectures

Maybe you got hand cramps from packing sand to make sandcastles all over a beach, maybe you got them from tapping lines of candy in the intense game that is Candy Crush, maybe you got them from whipping fluffy cream in your kitchen for delicious whoopie pies, or maybe, if you’re like me, you got them from clinging on to a kite string too tightly for fear of it whisking away; regardless, you’re so not ready for hand cramps caused by scribbling an infinite number of notes during lectures, especially when you feel like all you did was accomplish the art of transcribing.

My brother, taking over the kite-flying like a pro after I got a hand cramp.

— My brother, taking over the kite-flying like a pro after I got a hand cramp.

The solution to a happy hand and concise notes? Improve your note-taking skills. Here are a few strategies I’ve implemented that have helped me with this so far:

  1. Work with headers

Sometimes, the lecture slides might include headers on which the prof plans to elaborate—write them down. If headers aren’t provided, listen to what the prof is explaining and later jot down the concept or topic that best encompasses the material. This will not only help organize your notes, but it’ll also serve as a ready-made list of concepts for exam review.

Notes I took for Astronomy class. I use ‘☆ |’ to make headers easier to locate. "☆ |Our Cosmic Address: Earth - the planet in which we live; Solar system - one or more stars plus the bodies orbiting it/them; Milky Way galaxy - the galaxy containing our solar system; Local Group - a group of galaxies containing the Milky Way. ☆ |Units: 1 AU (astronomical unit) - average distance between the Earth and Sun; 1 LY (light year): distance light travels in one year."

— Notes I took for Astronomy class. I use ‘☆ |’ to make headers easier to locate.

  1. Jot down brief bullet points about what the prof is saying

Instead of transcribing the lecture slide featuring a twenty-line passage from Metamorphoses word-for-word, take brief notes about what the prof is saying. Lecture slides can’t substitute for a prof’s one- to three-hour talk, after all. Plus, some profs post their slides on Blackboard afterwards, so you can copy them later.

  1. Use abbreviations and symbols

Ever write as fast as if you were on a time-sensitive mission in a James Bond movie, and by the time you’ve written your sixth word, the teacher has switched topics, leaving you with a string of half-finished sentences? It might help to substitute words for symbols and abbreviate long words to ensure you get all your notes down. For example, try writing ‘&’ for ‘and’ or ‘political party’ as ‘pol pty.’

  1. Extra: Edit/revise your notes

If following the step above, you might very well end up with a page filled with something that looks partly Quenya. To avoid this, edit your notes after the lecture, when you still remember what those symbols and abbreviations stood for. Also, revise your notes until you’re sure they’re cohesive enough that you’ll understand them a few months from now, when you need them for exams.

A chart of Tolkien’s created language, Quenya, which vaguely resembles my high-school law notes . . . Source:

— A chart of Tolkien’s created language, Quenya, which vaguely resembles my high-school law notes . . .

If you’re interested in honing your note-taking skills even more, consider signing up for an upcoming workshop hosted by the Academic Success Centre called “Reading & Note-Taking.” Details on the ASC workshop are listed here under October 1.

Remember, it’s okay to find note-taking difficult and frustrating at first. However, like all other skills, it can be improved. Save yourself from that hand cramp and churn out those beautiful, envy-inducing notes!



Do you have any other tips on how to make great lecture notes? Let me know in the comments below or through @lifeatuoft on Twitter!

Take Note!: Exploring The Volunteer Note Taker Program at U of T

Imagine you’re in class. You can’t look at the board or PowerPoint screen, but you’re one of the few there who can’t. Then, while leading the lecture, your instructor says the following:

“If this is less than this, you get that.”

confused cartoon person with question marks above head

What I look like in this situation….

A very cute sleeping/tired cat.

My brain after this happens for the fifth time…

Most instructors are much more verbal than that, but if not, I am fortunate enough to have a volunteer note taker on hand to fill in the gaps. (This gracious peer will upload their notes to a secure server that only I, and others in the class receiving notes, can access).

Because of my registration with Accessibility Services (AS) and discussions with my AS Advisor, who can confirm I need this accommodation, my instructors are notified that a student in their class requires a note taker, and asked to announce it to the class.

Neither the instructor nor the class are to know who the recipient of the notes will be. In some schools, this is not the case: students who take notes for others are to report if the recipient of notes is missing from class and they could lose their ability to receive notes if they miss more than three lectures. However at U of T, students who receive notes from a volunteer are expected to be in class and take notes to the best of their ability, but this is operated on the honour system. After all, there may be several students in a class receiving notes.

“But, there are no blind people in my class,” you may say. “Who needs notes then?” Well, there are many groups of students with disabilities that aren’t obvious. Consider students with chronic pain, those with difficulty hearing the instructor, or those with learning disabilities who learn best outside the lecture hall. They all can benefit from a volunteer’s notes.

Line drawing of a class of people.

Many can use a note taker…

“But why should I?” you might also ask, “I mean, it’s nice to do for someone, but U of T’s competitive, and I don’t want someone else to have all the information I do without doing the work for it.” I’d thank you for your honesty, but then suggest that U of T needn’t be so cut-throat. In fact, I haven’t really seen this behaviour myself: anyone I’ve approached for help or to form a study group seemed willing to work together. We are all better when we work together rather than undercutting each other.

My preaching over, I’d also suggest that students receiving notes are doing their best, and sometimes circumstances beyond their control make their best insufficient in a lecture setting. This doesn’t make them less intelligent or capable to handle a university workload; they just have to go about it differently.

So the next time your instructor asks for volunteers, give it a shot. Many students find the quality of their notes improves. (Wouldn’t you take better notes if you knew someone else might read them?) If your instructor doesn’t make this request (some forget), consider signing up directly with Accessibility Services. Your peers will thank you, and the letter of appreciation at the end of the term for your efforts won’t hurt in a job interview setting either.

On behalf of all those benefitting from this program, thank you in advance.

Ideas for the U of T.

Last Wednesday I enrolled in a free lecture series called ‘Ideas for the World’, hosted for students at Victoria College.

With the options of different sessions within the program, each focusing on different topics and hosted at different times, the program is an initiative to engage students in academic discussions and learning about issues in the real world, to bridge the gap between theoretical learning and practical application.

Each class has either a professor or a series of professors who come in and host discussion sessions with the students, and here’s the best part: no assignments, no grades. Class sizes are generally around 30 students and food is served, as well.

I signed up and dropped in on Conflict in Culture, a course that explores media representation in our modern world. We watched sections of a documentary called “The Century of the Self” and then hosted a free form discussion about thoughts on what we’d just watched.

What interested me most was the degree of engagement with which the students were responding, there was some energetic discussion about topics that had surfaced in the documentary, and by discussion I mean some real back and forth dialogue.

the enthusiastic class discussion.

My general past experience with tutorials has mostly always involved a relatively silent group of students who participate reluctantly or sporadically. Questions raised might start with the material, but also inevitably moves to assignments, marks, and other housekeeping questions. Even a good T.A. can only do so much in circumstances like these.

The winning advantage of the Ideas for the World program for me is its complete disinterest in grading.

Students are released from the pressure to being graded on their performance and therefore their interest in the discussion at hand is motivated by other reasons. This results in less inhibition, more airing of opinions and ultimately, from my experience so far, more critical discussion.

U of T is a rigorous academic environment.

All semester the community crew has been sharing experiences and giving tips on how to make it through such a rigorous academic environment with your sanity intact.

But what if we talked more openly about how the grading system impacted our learning?

There are plenty of different responses to grades:

  1. Some people like the challenge, and feel their potential being unlocked as they ‘conquer’ tough assignments and achieve better grade results.
  2. Others feel crippled by the pressure of expectation, and the rigidity of the grading system, and are afraid they cannot meet the demands asked of them.
  3. There are also those who feel that grades are a box-in, reducing learning to a series of formulas that favour some, and exclude others.
  4. And some take the system to be inevitable and unchangeable, grades are what they are and there is nothing to be done about it.


Thinking consciously about how our grades affect our performance and expectations toward learning helps us orient ourselves better in our positions on the subject.

When we do this, we can actively and productively contribute the discussions around grading, and how they impact our experience.

What kind of response do you have?
Would you be motivated to work hard and learn without grades?
What kind of learning environment do you thrive in?


Speak Up. Speak Out. Dig In. Dig Deep.


In high school, I remember a close friend getting an admissions package for some university that had the slogan, “Speak up. Speak out. Dig in. Dig deep. Make it count, “emblazoned on the front. I hadn’t applied there but I liked the slogan so much, I cut it out of the book and put it on my wall. I thought the “Speak up. Speak Out,” part was mostly fitting for those that liked the sound of their own voice and not really for the rest of us but I appreciated the sentiment that there were things worth speaking up and out about.

Fast forward to my fourth and final year at U of T in an intellectually rigorous cognitive psychology class with a well-respected prof. Though I had a few friends in the class and knew the professor well, I found the idea of speaking up in the class daunting that day. I was puzzled because frankly, in other classes, I am usually one of those not afraid to engage in a hearty debate.

Trying to talk in class

Trying to talk in class.
Created using

Maybe it was something to do with the contingent of cognitive science students that seemed to have near-infinite knowledge of the subject. Or with the loud laughs of approval (read: intimidating bonding ritual) coming from a guy sitting in front of me every time the professor made a joke. Or perhaps the fact that so few women in the class seemed to be talking that day and I didn’t want to ask a dumb question and have Laughing Guy think I was speaking on behalf of my entire gender.

Whatever the reason, I realized that much of it was likely in my own head. But the thought that it might be in many other students’ heads made me mention it briefly to the professor after class. He recognized the challenges some students face in speaking up in a Socratic-style class and asked for suggestions.

I spent the week probing friends for their thoughts on what makes a classroom conducive to broad participation. Some thought that gender does play a large role in who speaks up and noticed that, even in classes with more women than men, there was a disproportionate number of male voices in discussions. Perhaps some of it had to do with who felt comfortable speaking up and whose hand was selected by the prof. Indeed, other universities are taking gender participation by the horns. The Harvard Business School recently changed their “curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success,” according to the New York Times.

Many friends found the prof to be pivotal in creating an environment that encouraged participation (or didn’t). Truth be told, I found the classroom experience better the next week. You could tell the prof was also making an effort, telling students, especially those that asked questions on break, that their comments were welcomed and appreciated.

Frankly, much of why I found the class better the next week was probably because I had had the chance to talk, vent and strategize about this participation problem. I had talked to others who had felt intimidated, slighted or scared in conversations before: they were shy, took classes outside their major, weren’t native English speakers, or any number of other reasons.

So by the time I had had all these discussions, I was ready to start with baby steps the next week: I asked a question on the break, got my little pat on the back from the prof and resolved to ask something during the lecture in future. I kept that little bit of advice, ‘your question probably isn’t as stupid as you think it is,’ and took my chances.

Some days an insightful criticism of a reading or idea comes more easily than others. But most days, even if I don’t show it, I still get the butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling before I raise my hand. But part of this ongoing challenge to myself to speak up – and to make intentional space for others to do the same – comes from knowing that engaging in the discussion, as opposed to just watching it, is one way to dig in, dig deep, and make it count.

– Kay

positive spaces, stimulating discussions.

So, this week started off great — still on a high after the sudden resolution I had last week, things got better when I heard that I got A’s on my midterms and assignments that I got back. And after a few days of hard work, I took a day off on Wednesday. Spent it in my socks, pajama pants, watching some TV (plus, I got free muffins at Muffin Madness later that day). But something happened on Thursday that caused me to stop and think, and I hope this post will help all of us to reflect.

Thursday night was the night of the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) Annual General Meeting. Adam Vaughan came to address the crowd before motions would be presented. I don’t want to get into the details of what happened that night, nor do I want to discuss student politics. Frankly, I’m tired of student politics. Nor do I want to assign blame to anybody. But I do want us to have a discussion. Still, grab your socks, grab your hot chocolate and sit comfortably. This is a discussion we should all have, and we should do it with the least amount of animosity in our hearts and the most amount of comfort.

That night, in addition to the votes and the speeches (which is not what was troubling), students were heckled, interrupted and jeered. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum at U of T, we should all agree that such behaviour is not conducive of a productive debate and that it stands in the way of creating an inclusive, respectful environment. When you heckle someone, you are preventing them from telling their story, their experience. And seeing someone be heckled creates a culture of intimidation, in which people suppress their voices and unique stories for fear that they will go through the same. At U of T, we should strive to be as open an inclusive as we can. Everyone, as I mentioned last week, has something to contribute to our discussions and we should help to create an atmosphere that nurtures positive, constructive discussion, not stifle it. Before we heckle someone, we should stop and ask ourselves: am I really contributing something worthwhile to the discussion? How will I look to my peers? Am I setting a good example?

This is certainly not limited to student governance at U of T. It applies to all aspects of life at U of T. A few weeks ago, when I was going to write a midterm for one of my classes, things didn’t go as planned. The test was delayed 40 minutes (but this was a two-hour test for a three hour exam, so nobody lost time), and people were annoyed. That being said, our professor was new and the midterm was being written in two locations at once. When the midterm was about to start, a TA said “sorry, guys these things happen, unfortunately” and people started to heckle her a little bit. Even in stressful situations such as this one, we should not let our tongues get the best of us.

In a campus where mental health is an issue, students face enough pressures from school, commuting and generally just living life. We shouldn’t make things harder on each other. You may not see your words as having an effect: but words can be like daggers, and they can hurt people’s feelings. From here on out, let us all make an attempt to make sure that in the interactions we have on campus that we are projecting positive energies, that we can disagree without being disagreeable. Make tea, not trouble. :)

Last week of class U of T, have a good one! :)

Tweets along with video from the Varsity.

sitting in the front.

First of all, I’d like to say happy Tuesday to those students who are on break (myself included). Hopefully, this weekend was productive and relaxing for all of us.

My first year was spent sitting in the balconies of Convocation Hall trying to hear the professor over the hum of a thousand Macbook screens tuned to Facebook.  Coming into a class of a thousand people, it’s intimidating to go and take a seat in the front row – the people who sat there seemed like flesh-eating competitive life science students from afar. Plus, sitting in front of the professor was a terrifying prospect. What if they saw me eating a burger, reading Archie comics, or playing Minesweeper? So, up in the balconies I stayed for most of first year – as do most students.  But then second year came around and I felt it was time for a change. Why not sit up in the front for once, give it a shot? I’ll admit getting to the front was difficult the first lecture. It was a mad dash.

But you know – everybody is serious on the first day of school: books out, thinking glasses on, handy dandy notebooks available. Then, after a few days, about 1/3 of the course returns to sleeping in, playing video games and watching Gossip Girl.  After a few weeks, I can tell you that I have seen the light. Sitting in the front of the class (keener row as some may call it) is an amazing experience.  You walk out of that lecture hall, feeling like you’ve learned something, feeling like you get the material, like you’re going to ace the exam. Mostly, you walk out feeling like this:

At U of T, where large classes are common place for some first year courses — it can be sometimes frustrating and difficult to get the most optimal learning experience in a class of 1,200, especially if you’re up in one of the balconies. There is one thing you as a student that can do to remedy this a little – move to the front. If not the front row, then as close to the front as possible – it’s one way you can stimulate a small class size experience in a large class.  What I found after spending a few weeks sitting in the front is that not only did I get more out of the course, because I understood the material better, I enjoyed the lecture more and that made it a lot easier to get through.   As I have said in the past, students, myself included should get involved with their education and pursue their interests both inside and outside the classroom.  Sitting in the front of the lecture to get more of that good knowledge is part of that.

So go ahead, sit in the front.  The people don’t bite.


learn to be a boss at U of T – kickstart


Let me take you back to a year ago.  I’d just graduated high school and was eagerly awaiting starting university. I was quite giddy in fact, when I received my admission; it was like I had just received the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.  In late August, however, due to an incident that involved a litter of kittens, some chocolate syrup and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards (I cannot verify the truth of this statement), I was unable to respond to the frosh application my frosh overlords at University College sent me.  My reaction?

I was still going to U of T this September, and it was still going to be awesome. And then I made the mistake of googling “first year U of T life science”.  I heard stories of horror from “seasoned veterans” who had battled the university and came out with scarred GPAs and scarred social lives. In retrospect, these battle stories were more than likely gross exaggerations. But I didn’t know that at the time. :( Was I going to spend my four years locked in the 11th floor of Robarts, with only a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and episodes of Scrubs to console me?

Then, that fateful day I got an e-mail from the student life department. It may/may not have read like this:

 Hey, we just met you! And this is crazy! But here’s an event, so attend it maybe?

– Student Life @ UofT

Turned out this event was called Kickstart and it was an alternative to the college/faculty orientations. It was about a week long and had different sessions, with the aim of giving you an introduction to life at U of T as well as making your transition into university life smoother. So, I thought, why not, and I registered for two events.

The fateful day arrived and I poked my head in of the room’s at Hart House. I saw a few other students and oh, cookies! Things were getting off to a good start already.  It is a little bit awkward at first, but the icebreakers they have planned usually overcome the initial bout of awkwardness. After stuffing my face with cookies, meeting other students and learning the basic essentials of the university, it was off to my next session.

This session was about taking notes, in a life science class (there are options for other fields as well).  An academic counsellor gave us helpful tips and there was even a mock lecture, given by, you’re not going to believe this, a … real, live professor. I’m not sure how they managed to do that.  This session was definitely helpful considering you’re thrown into lecture halls the next week.

Although there are many other sessions available (and I encourage you to sign up for as many as you can); I was only able to sign up for a few.  I coupled them with finding my classes and attending the UTSU Clubs Day event.  Registration is now open for this year’s session of Kickstart, and it’s available to you whether you are doing your college’s frosh or not. If you like cookies and want to learn how to be a boss student at U of T, I’d sign up, bro.

It’s been quite hot lately. Stay cool U of T, and may the odds be ever in your favour.

– Abdullah


Any questions, comments, concerns about Kickstart? Feel free to leave a comment below. I love comments.


Give me a W!

The women's intercollegiate hockey team, 1926.

The women's intercollegiate hockey team, 1926.

And then an o-m-a-n. That’s right, woman! March 8th is International Women’s Day. And there has never been a better time to celebrate our presence on campus.

The long history of female progression within the university hierarchy is a great story. Here’s some women’s U of T trivia to put in your back pocket and pull out when you want to impress others with your handle on the history of women at U of T.

In 1875, Grace Annie Lockhart became the first woman in the British Empire to earn a Bachelor’s Degree at Mount Allison College in Sackville, New Brunswick. Trailblazers like Lockhart became inspirations for other Canadian women who wanted a higher education. Here at the University of Toronto, the late 1800s saw notable female figures carving new paths for women on campus.

Clara Benson, whose name was given to the first female athletic centre on campus, was one of the female students from the late 19th century who pushed the boundaries and accomplished great things. During her undergraduate years, Benson championed co-ed sports on campus and was a member of the first co-ed team (golf). And here’s a fun piece of trivia: in the late 1800s there was a 13-hole golf course that ran throughout the university grounds from Bloor to College.

The University of Toronto was the first school to produce a female graduate in Law. In 1897, Clara Brett Martin graduated and became the first female barrister in the British Empire. It is impossible to imagine how difficult it must have been for Martin to succeed as such a minority. Her words encapsulate this much more eloquently than mine ever could:

“If it were not that I set out to open the way to the bar for others of my sex, I would have given up the effort long ago. You would not believe how many obstacles I have had to overcome single-handed.” -Clara Brett Martin 1899 (1874 – 1923)

(quoted from

As women, we owe these pioneers our greatest gratitude. International Women’s Day is a forum to impart this history and knowledge to current students. This is an important piece of history that all female students should be aware of. It was not that long ago, only just over a century, that women were the unwelcome minority on campus. An examination of the progress women have made within the university can serve as inspiration for groups that are still being marginalized.

The Status of Women Office is organizing many of the events on campus for International Women’s Day. There are events occurring on campus and throughout the city, from theatre to lectures, there is an event for every woman and man (who of course are welcome to attend).

On Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Hart House Circle, you can participate in a Chalk Chase! Presented by Hart House and the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, this is one of the first sports played by women on campus. From the description, I would describe this is an elaborate game of tag, with hints of hide and go seek.  It sounds like it will be a blast! The Department of Physical Education has a list of “active” events for Women’s Day.

Happy International Women’s Day!


Harry Potter and U of T?!

Any Harry Potter fans out there? If you are, then I am sure you know what happened this weekend. Yesssssss, Deathly Hallows (part 1) was released in theatres!

I grew up with Harry Potter. I remember devouring the first three books when I was in Grade 6 and then eagerly awaiting subsequent new releases as I graduated from each grade.

Even though U of T is huge, one of the things that secretly comforted me when I first started here was that our college system was much like HP’s house system, and even more so that I was at Trin! We wear robes, yo.

But the books are completed and the films are approaching its end. The one thing that has been with me throughout the highs and lows of highschool and university applications and tests and pretty much the one thing that remained constant with me year after year is slowly fading into the recesses of my memory.

What delights me though, is how I’m coming to discover that this childhood friend of mine really hasn’t gone away. It started when I noticed that a photo of a student on the U of T homepage has a Gryffindor scarf wrapped around her neck. Then, when I did my Colleges series last year, Janine Hubbard, Recruitment and Outreach co-ordinator at Vic told us a fun fact:

Students often comment on how much our dining hall looks like the one in Harry Potter. Well, after a colleague did some research, he found out that our hall design was based on one at Oxford (Christ Church College’s dining hall), and it was used in the Harry Potter films, so we essentially have the same design!

HP has leapt off the pages of its canon and has taken a life of its own, going so far as to challenge and engage our student and academic life. Don’t believe me? For starters, Professor Alison Keith, chair of classics, credits the increase of interest in Latin courses at U of T to the Harry Potter series!

Two things that make me smile every time I hear about it are U of T’s Harry Potter lectures and our Quidditch team. What? You didn’t know we had these? Now you do, dear readers, now you do.

Shamefully enough, I couldn’t make either. I know, I know. I’m sorry. To make up for it, I wrote my final paper on a literary analysis of the rhetorical strategies in Harry Potter for my INI209 class. Concurrently, I wrote a 20-page essay on the Jungian perspective of Lady Gaga. I may have slept very few hours in those last couple of weeks of the semester, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy rereading HP looking for evidence while blasting Lady Gaga in my room.

Anyways, I digress. Every now and then, we have lectures on the science of Harry Potter. I really wanted to make “The Quantum Physics of Harry Potter”. The department even brought in a magician! Who said academia is all serious business? Luckily, you can experience the book and science nerdiness in all its glory here.

Apart from physics, Professor George Eleftheriades from the Department of Engineering (ECE) was researching the possibility of making invisibility cloaks, and finally… WE HAVE A QUIDDITCH TEAM.

I have Facebook friends on the Quidditch team and I saw pictures, but I can’t for the life of me find them. I did email the team and they said to keep checking back on their Facebook page for upcoming games next semester.

Muggle Quidditch is as ridiculous as it sounds. It’s a mish-mash of soccer and lacrosse and tag, except, you have a broom stuck between your legs. I’m going to be mature and adult and not make any of the litany of wildly inappropriate jokes that come to mind. Check out the photos from The Varsity. Despite sticking a broom between your legs and perhaps giggling self-consciously, the game is actually quite intense; just look at the photos from when McGill came over to teach us how to play. U of T went to the Quidditch World Cup a few weeks ago and played their first game against the NY Badassilisks (what a kickass name). We didn’t win, but I found a video of the action on Youtube:

Take a break from writing/studying and reminisce with me. What memories do you have of Harry Potter? Have you seen DH1 yet?

– Cynthia