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Academic Success

Taking Lecture Notes...

...That Make Sense Later!

As you progress from high school to college and into graduate school, you'll find that your lectures can get much more complex. Sometimes it's not easy taking notes that make sense the next day. There are a few tricks for taking sensible lecture notes.

Date your notes.

In a perfect world, lecture notes from a single class are kept in a single, dedicated notebook in the correct sequence. But this is the real world!

There will be times when you go to biology class (for instance) and realize that you’ve brought the history notebook by accident. This is how you end up with the Battle of Bunker Hill wedged between mitosis and meiosis.

Establish the habit of putting the date at the beginning of each day’s notes and marking the end of a day’s notes. Also—if you ever have to take history notes in your biology notebook—be sure to start on a clean sheet of paper, mark the date, and tear it out. Then place the loose sheet in the correct notebook pocket. No pockets? Staple it in.

Ask for a lecture theme – get an idea of the big picture.

 Professors and teachers usually lecture from an outline they’ve prepared ahead of time. They often try to complete one topic, theme, or cycle in an individual lecture—although there will be some overlap some days. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher for the topic of the day or the theme of the day’s lecture.

Sometimes, teachers will get on a roll and/or get ahead of themselves and move from one theme to another without letting you know.

If you notice that the professor seems to be talking about something you’ve never heard of before, the teacher might be transitioning from one topic to another. If you suspect that’s happening, just ask: “Are we changing topics?”

If you listen carefully, you can usually pattern your own notes according to the teacher’s own outline. Especially if you listen for transition words.

Watch for digressions and mark them.

 Teachers don’t try to make things complicated; they usually try to lecture in an organized pattern, but this is not always easy. Sometimes a student will make a comment, ask a question, or relay a personal experience that pivots the lecture into an unplanned tangent. This will happen.

When this does happen, strange things can happen to your notes. For instance: A student asks a question and the teacher answers. The teacher digresses, and then jumps back onto the planned lecture.

But the students don’t always realize the dividing line between digressions and planned lecture, so they keep writing furiously, not indicating any break or interruption in the flow of the teacher’s thoughts. The next day, the lecture notes will make little sense. To avoid confusion, always indicate in your notes when a student asks a question or the class breaks into a discussion. Also indicate if and when your teacher says something like “let's get back to the topic.”

Draw pictures and make arrows.

 If you’re visual person, you should make as many doodles on your paper as you can. Useful doodles, that is. As soon as you realize that once topic relates to another, comes before another, is the opposite of another, or has any kind of connection to another—draw a picture that makes sense to you. Sometimes the information will not sink in until and unless you see it in an image.

Underline new vocabulary.

 Any time a teacher writes a word on the board, put a circle around it, underline it, or draw pointy arrows around it. If a strange word pops up in your notes, you can bet it will show up on a test.

Remember, you must know more than the definition of a new word. You must know how it fits into the big picture.

Look for code words in the lecture.

 There are certain code words to look out for in a lecture that can indicate that your teacher is giving you the relevance or the context of an event. Remember, the teacher wants you to understand why things happen and how things relate to the big picture. This is why essay questions exist!

Code words can indicate relationships, significance, or order. Always indicate when your teacher says:

  • There were three causes…
  • The first reason…
  • In the months leading up to
  • Some people saw this as … while others believed
  • There are four steps to the process
  • The reaction to X was…

Compare your lecture notes to the book.

Sometimes it’s impossible to find a pattern in the teacher’s lecture. If you find that your notes are confusing and provide no hint of a pattern, go straight to your textbook.

Take a look at the topics the teacher covers and see how those compare to the chapter titles and subtitles of the textbook. Chances are, things will start to make better sense when you see how the author arranged them.

Find more tips on taking good lecture notes