How To Take Notes In College
Taking notes in class is going to be a big part of your college experience and your grades will depend on you doing it well.
You may be using pen and paper or any number of note taking apps, but no matter what you use, you have to make sure that your class notes are complete and understandable.
Professors often distribute a slide deck or some kind of a lecture outline before or after each class, but that is a supplement, not a substitute for taking your own notes.
Taking notes needs to be fast, flexible, and done with the end in mind. By that I mean, your note system should make it easy for you to prepare for exams.
There are a variety of different note methods that you’ll find out there, but there is only one that you should use and that is the Cornell Note Method.
Before I talk about the specifics, I want to first cover how you operate when you’re in the classroom.
It amazes me how many students skip class. Many think class just covers the same material they read in their textbook and others simply don’t care. Here’s the truth: most professors can predict which students will fail the class simply by attendance.
Considering what you are likely paying for tuitions, each of those classes is costing you a lot of money. Do the math for yourself. Skipping class is like burning money—and kissing your chance at an A goodbye.
I’m really going to pound this one in. Sick? Hangover? Grandma’s funeral? No excuse.
NEVER miss a class, for any reason.
Don’t sleep in, don’t go into town, don’t do anything that causes you to miss a class. I never missed a single class in college—ever. Not one.
Every single study habit in this guide is connected to the others. Missing just one class starts a cascade of problems that multiply. You can’t take good notes if you don’t show up. You can’t ask questions if you’re not there. You won’t hear the questions that others ask. You won’t be able to prepare for review or self-testing.
There are also subtleties that you can only pick up in class. Hints about what’s most important to know, what might be on the exam, or unique ways of approaching a problem.
Think of it this way: before an exam, your professor is the only person who knows what will be on the test. So why would you avoid your professor?
Class is where professors introduce new approaches and explain things in ways you won’t see in your textbook, and then, yep, put them on the exam.
I realize that some students can’t always make it to class. Student athletes are a good example. If you know you have to miss some classes, make sure you find someone who takes good notes and see if they’ll share them with you for pizza or beer. And yes, if you’ve got the stomach flu, stay home, for everyone’s sake.
Other than that, go to class.
The First Rule of College: What you skip WILL be on the exam. Never, ever, miss a class for any reason. It’s your job.
Professors like to say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Not true. A stupid question is the one where the answer is in the textbook that you should have read before class.
I’m always amazed at how many people show up for a lecture without having read the assigned material first. Then they wonder why they’re confused and look like idiots in class.
That won’t be a problem for you. Look at Shovel and know what you’re covering during each lecture. Get it done before you get there—the earlier the better. The more prepared you are when you show up, the easier class will be. You’ll understand everything, take better notes, have fewer—or better—questions, and you’ll be able to actively participate, which is often a part of your final grade.
Sit Front and Center
I’m going to really beat this one to death because it is so easy to do and gives the biggest benefit for zero effort.
In any competition, there are words for the people in the front— they are the leaders and winners. The people behind them are the losers. The same is true in classrooms. Losers move to the rear. The farther back you go, the less prepared students are, and the more time is being wasted. Look back there. You’ll know the people I’m talking about.
Grades go down the farther back you sit. Don’t go there. Park yourself in the front of every single class you take in college. It delivers tremendous benefit for ZERO effort. This is the low hanging fruit for any student. It’s the single easiest thing to do, and it delivers benefits in a whole lot of different ways.
When I was in college I sat in the front row center seat every single time. I didn’t care what anyone thought. It requires absolutely zero effort but the payoff is huge.
Here are just a few benefits of sitting in the front row:
- You remove all distractions.
- You aren’t tempted to text or browse the internet.
- You are totally focused on the professor.
- You’re in the best place to see and hear everything.
- You can take perfect notes.
- You can record the lecture perfectly if you need to.
- You can take photos of the board clearly.
- You can ask questions easily.
- You can get to the professor first after class.
- You stand out. The professor knows you’re the student who cares.
Walk to the front and sit yourself down in the front row, directly in front of the lectern if someone hasn’t gotten there first. And most likely no one has. This rule goes for each and every class you attend.
It doesn’t matter if there are three empty rows behind you – and there probably will be. Go to the front.
It doesn’t matter if your best friends sit in the back without you. Don’t let their stupidity become yours. Bring them with you instead. They’ll appreciate your lead.
Sitting in front delivers the most bang for zero effort. Make it part of your routine. Any classroom you enter, always sit front and center. You’ll be attentive, undistracted, and totally engaged. Complete clarity.
The only reason you want to sit in the back is the fear of getting called on, which is really a fear of not being prepared. That isn’t going to be an issue for you anyway. You’ll be way ahead of everyone.
Turn It Off
I never sat in the back of the class when I was in school, but I have a few times recently just to see what was going on back there. I suspected there’d be a lot of distraction, and wow, was I right.
Sure, lots of students appeared to be focused on class, but they had all kinds of stuff open on the side. Students on the Internet—on chats, on web browsers, social media, you name it. Many were texting. Some were studying for other classes. Some were just talking to each other. Another was barely awake.
Do it yourself sometime and observe. The farther back you go, the worse it gets. Most of them don’t think it’s a big deal—they call it multi-tasking. I call it setting yourself up for anything but an A.
To me, every little distraction detracts from focusing on what’s going on in class.
If you’re stupid enough to sit back there, at least do yourself a favor and turn off the phone, close the browser, and focus on taking good notes. Just do your best to ignore the distractions around you.
Or learn from the experience and move up front. Go there and stay there. Every class.
NOW let’s talk about taking notes.
Taking Good Notes In College
Taking good notes in class is one of the most important things you can do. I’ve been stressing the importance of having a consistent system, and taking notes should be part of it.
The problem with trying to take notes in a consistent way is that every professor can be different both in terms of the material and how it’s presented.
Some may use slides and provide students with a link to download them in advance. Others might provide a printout or a downloadable PDF. Most will write on a whiteboard. Some just talk.
No matter what they do, you should always have all of your notes for each class in one central place. That can be a spiral notebook, or a laptop or iPad using the word processor or note app of your choice.
Just don’t make a habit of trying to take a lot of notes directly on handouts. Take the notes in your notebook and reference the handouts.
Understand how each professor conducts their lecture and what materials they use. The syllabus should tell you a lot, but if in doubt, ask the professor as soon as you can.
Have a system of referencing and storing your handouts that works best for the way each particular class is conducted and do things the same way every time.
One thing is for sure – what the professor says in class WILL be on the exam. The first rule of college is whatever you fail to write down will be on the exam.
Always take notes with the end in mind, and the end is your exam.
If you are going to write it down, you need to do it in a way that makes it easier to study for the exam. I’ll cover this later in how to study for exams, but for now just know that the most efficient way to study for any exam is doing these:
- Self testing
- Spced repetition, early and often
- Only study what you don’t know
Self testing is just that. You set up your notes in a way that allows you to create a test question out of each concept. I’ll show you how below. You ask yourself the question and answer it by heart.
Spaced repetition just means taking small self testing bites as early and often as you can. Yes, you can and should start studying for any exam immediately. Cramming at the last minute is stressful and rarely works. I’ll show you how to be ready for your exam days before you have to take it.
Lastly, don’t waste time studying what you already know. I see students continually reviewing the same material over and over. Don’t waste time. Study only what you don’t know. I’ll show you how.
The Cornell Notes Method
All of these things can be accomplished using one simple note taking method.
It’s called the Cornell method and I think it’s the best. If easy review and self testing are your goals, the best way to accomplish that is using the Cornell Note Method. It is simple and it delivers consistent results.
You might think you are going to be taking notes in a nice neat structured outline, but that is very unlikely. Taking notes in class is usually fast and furious. You just need a blank page so you have the flexibility to write what you want. The Cornell method is good for that.
How it works
The concept is simple. Basically it is dividing your note pages into two areas. One side is where you actually take the notes. The other is for writing practice test questions. It’s that simple. Here is a visual overview of what you’ll do:
There are a variety of different page layouts out there to accomplish this, but I’ll keep it simple. Let’s just assume you’re taking notes in a spiral notebook. Draw a line down each of the pages about two thirds of the way over from the side.
Most examples will show the line on the left side. However, for a right handed person, many prefer the line on the right so their hand stays on the notebook as they move across the page.
For maximum comfort when taking notes, it helps to maximize the width of your note taking area as much as you can. Many students will also use a notebook that has the binding spiral on top, so it never touches their hand.
So do this. Use a ruler or just draw a sloppy line with your pen. The point is to separate the page into two sections.
You’ll be taking notes on the left side and writing test questions on the right.
You can add some references at the top, like the main topic, the date, and maybe the chapters or page numbers in your textbook that correspond—or not. It depends on the class. The key is to just make sure you take all of your notes on the left side of the line.
Again, there is no hard and fast rule here but we think that this is the best way to do it if you are right handed—having the blank space on the right side means that your hand never slides off the side of the notebook when taking notes, especially when doing it very quickly as most students will.
Experiment with what works best for you.
There are different kinds of note-takers. There are those who just take a few and those who look like stenographers in a courtroom. I’m more like the latter. I’m a big believer in writing down EVERYTHING and doing it fast and furiously—but ONLY if you review your notes after class.
A 2017 study published in Psychological Science found that stenographer-style note taking doesn’t stick in your brain like taking notes by hand, because it’s too easy to turn off your brain and simply record. Don’t do that.
Aim to write down as much of what comes out of the professor’s mouth as you can. And write fast. Sometimes it’s a waste of ink, but usually not. This approach forces you to really focus on what’s being said. You just don’t have time to daydream.
Again, just write your notes on the notes side of the page.
You might think you can skip taking notes if you just read about the topic and highlighted it in your textbook. You’re there in class so do it anyway. Doing it twice will help you remember it even better. Besides, what you see in the textbook may not always be what you get in class. Good professors often come at a concept in ways that you may not always find in your textbook. Or they’ll even completely challenge the content in the textbook.
Don’t assume that anything will be the same. Take notes on everything you hear.
And don’t forget about the first rule of college: What you miss WILL be on the exam.
Students are often tempted to record the lecture if it’s allowed. Some lectures might be recorded by the school for later viewing. You can do that, but it’s really just a temptation to take poor notes. It’s not efficient. And let’s be honest: are you really going to listen to that lecture a second time and take your notes then?
Don’t let audio be a substitute for good note-taking. It’s fine to catch things you might have missed, but it isn’t useful for prepping for review. For that, you need good notes.
Just do it the first time through.
Take notes by hand
Whether you take notes by hand or on your computer will depend on your preference and the type of class, the content of the lecture, and your particular preferences. If you’re on the fence, that same 2017 Psychological Science study found that students who took notes by hand were significantly better on recall tests—which is exactly what you want in college.
I always preferred a pen, not a computer, for taking notes. I’m sure I can type way faster than I can write, but writing by hand is much more flexible. Not many lectures involve just writing words—you might also diagram, graph, or draw things. Writing equations is a pain on a computer. Paper gives you flexibility.
Things will be moving so fast you actually may not be able to keep up when typing. You’ll need to use your own form of shorthand and abbreviate when you find yourself getting behind. You can come back and fill it in later.
More importantly, writing just helps you remember the material. It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s focused. That’s why it’s my preference over a computer. My advice is to get a notebook for every class, draw a line down on each page, and start writing.
If you are good with a digital notebook, have at it. I think there are a lot of advantages to using one but I don’t have any personal experience in a fast paced lecture. I hope to do some reviews in the future.
Okay, so use your laptop if you have to
I realize that my argument for taking notes by hand isn’t always valid. There are some classes where it’s just better, faster, and easier to type your notes. If and when you do use a laptop to take notes, at least give yourself enough margin on the page to come back and write test questions or add additional notes.
I highly recommend Google Docs for a lot of reasons. It’s easy to set up a two-column layout using tables.
You can also use a note template. Create your own or find one online. Search Cornell Notes Google Doc Template. Find the one you like and just use it.
Now go ahead and type the notes on one side, but leave plenty of room on the other side to type in your test questions later. Everything else is the same.
Taking notes in class can often be a frustrating experience. College is hard and I was often totally confused during a lecture. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is when you don’t bother to figure it out quickly.
It’s amazing how many people walk out of class without understanding the lecture. They don’t want to interrupt, or they think they’ll look stupid if they ask questions.
One thing I never did was leave a classroom without understanding everything we’d covered. I never said, “I’ll figure it out later.” As soon as class was over, I’d be on that professor fast asking questions. (Yet another reason to always sit in the front row).
If you don’t understand something, clear it up right then and there. You might assume that if you just keep listening, things will become clear—and sometimes they will. But usually they don’t. The confusion just grows.
If it isn’t the right time to ask a question, make a note in the margin and do it right after class or as soon as you can while it’s still fresh in your mind. Waiting can only make it worse.
Go see the professor
Ok, so not really related to taking notes, but I’ll rant on this a bit.
It’s amazing to me how many students have never gone to visit their professor. Ever. Nobody knows what you need to do to get an A better than the professor.
Know their office hours by heart and go meet them as early and often as you can. Ask about anything that’s not clear in your syllabus. Find a reason to go visit them, the sooner the better. Just ask genuine questions that will help you clear up what you don’t understand. You’ll be able to study smarter, not harder.
• Ask about test formats, papers, and projects. Ask for examples.
• Ask about anything that you don’t understand.
• Ask about other resources on campus or online to help you better understand what you don’t know.
Talking to the professor will give you hints about what’s important and what isn’t. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked questions only to hear, “Don’t worry about that. Just focus on this,” or something similar, which saved me a huge amount of time and stress.
If you have don’t have time after class, then get to the professor’s office as soon as possible. Don’t wait. You need to know it NOW. Have that sense of urgency.
I’m a big believer in asking questions in person and not by email if you can. One question usually leads to others. Besides, conversations often elicit other information.
Remember that the more your professors see you—in the front row of class and in their office, they’re more likely to think of you as a good student and that you care.
Professors are also mentors in their subject areas. They can give you a lot of practical advice about your career. Develop a strong academic, professional, and personal relationship with every professor you can. It will be easy to ask them for recommendations for internships, jobs, and grad school when you need them. Those recommendations are invaluable and you’ll only get them if they know who you are and that you care.
You paid a lot to get access to your professors. Take full advantage of it.
Use other resources
If you’re struggling in a class, it’s also helpful to get different perspectives. Websites and blogs cover every academic topic known to man. YouTube likely has hundreds if not thousands of videos on whatever you’re having problems with. Khan Academy is an awesome resource with thousands of videos on every subject at every level.
Every school also has some kind of an academic support center. Go there and find out what their resources are for your classes. Do it before you need help so you’ll be ready if you do need it. They’ll give you the names and contact info for teaching assistants or tutors for any subject.
All of this is yet another reason to talk to your professors. Ask them on the first day of class, “Hey, if I can’t figure this out, what other resources on campus and online do you recommend to help me learn the material?” Make a list of those additional resources and use them early and often.
Ok, back to Notes.
Class is over. You think you took great notes and you understood everything, but you aren’t done yet. Do a couple of things right away while that last class is still fresh in your mind. Make sure you close up any loose ends before you move on to something else. In fact, stay right there in that empty classroom if you can. Why waste time walking somewhere else?
Review notes IMMEDIATELY
The time to review notes is immediately after you’ve taken them. You were writing frantically. Lots of new concepts. Lots of abbreviations and shorthand. While everything’s still fresh in your mind, scan through your notes. It’s hard to decipher your hieroglyphs a week after class.
Stop and fill in areas that may not be clear. Make sure you don’t have any open questions. Do you need to see the professor?
Prepare your notes for review
The best part about using the Cornell Note Method is that it makes studying for exams from your notes so much easier.
First of all, the single most effective way to prepare for exams is self-testing.
Self testing can be done in two ways. The first is actual practice exams. If your professor provides actual practice exams, you certainly want to do those. Otherwise try to find old exams from other students. If you don’t have access to actual exams, make sure you are clear as to the format of the exam. Just ask.
Write the test questions yourself
Actual practice exams are fine, but self-testing with your own notes can be even better.
When you used the Cornell notebook layout, you wrote your notes on one side. That empty area on the other side is where you’re going to write test questions.
Look at the notes you took in class. What questions might be asked about that material? What form do you think it might take on the exam? You may already know that from your syllabus. If not, ask the professor or other students who have taken the course before. On the opposite side, write the question. It’s just that simple.
Some examples of using the Cornell method use “trigger words” and not test questions. Personally, I like to write specific test questions, because it is most like the actual exam.
So how do you write these questions?
Just the way you think you’ll see them. Exams can be given in all kinds of formats: multiple choice, fill in the blank, problem/solution, identification terms, essays. The possibilities are endless. Also, the content and concepts of your notes may be in many different forms.
That is why it is important to always know the exact format of the exam.
Just write a test question in a way that makes sense for the material you’re looking at. Define the meaning of . . . What are the three things that . . .? Explain the concept of . . . What are the five components of . . .? What caused . . .? Which is most important? Why? Compare this with that…
If your exam will be a bunch of small essays, write out possible essay questions.
Consider a history class that will include identification terms. You can guess which will be on the exam after every lecture and write a quick description of the most significant points. There, you just made flashcards that you can use to review, and it took barely any time.
Professors often give questions designed to come at the topic from a different direction. Look at the content and think about the ways you could be tested on it. Look at past exams and ask other people.
Ask the professor what type of exam you will take. Get as much information as you can about what to expect.
Make sure to write your test questions as soon as possible after the class is over when the material is still fresh in your mind. Don’t wait until you start studying for the exam. And definitely don’t assume something may not show up on the exam.
Write a test question for every single concept in your notes.
Writing your own questions forces you to complete and clarify your notes right away. It forces you to start thinking about the material in ways that it will likely appear on the exam. It improves retention.
By reading the questions and answering out loud, you will have far greater retention than if you just read and re-read the material. When you can answer a question by heart, it won’t matter how it appears on the exam—you’ll know the answer.
Do your next assignment ASAP
Okay, so this is kind of a repeat of time management. Instead of getting up and walking out of the class with the rest of the herd, stay put and dig right into the next assignment. Really, try it sometime.
The material you just covered in class is probably related, so things are fresh in your mind. Try it. Stay right there in the classroom. Wait for the throngs to depart and then read ten pages. Heck, you might read twenty. Practice some spontaneous get-it-done-now efforts. You’ll be happy that you did when your friends want you to do other things later on.
Remember, it’s always better to have time ahead of you and not behind. The time ahead is always stress-free. This is where time gaps come into play. Use the hour before the next class to get started on the next assignment.
Even if you only read a few pages now, it will make a huge difference later. There’s no better feeling than being finished with something and knowing that you can use your extra time any way you want. Stay ahead. Go have fun, get even further ahead, or start reviewing for exams.
Back It Up
If you’ve been writing in a notebook, you’re putting a lot of time and effort into taking great notes and preparing them for easy review. How would you feel if you lost them all?
The one big danger of using a paper spiral notebook is the risk of theft or loss. Just like the rest of your digital life, you have to back it up.
I know this may sound anal, but after each class, open up your notebook and take a photo of each page with your cell phone. It takes only a few seconds, and the risk of loss far outweighs the effort.
Use iCloud, Dropbox, Evernote, or one of the many other services out there to automate your backup. Storage won’t be an issue; you can simply delete them when you’ve finished the course. Just don’t have a disaster at exam time. If you can’t afford to lose it, then back it all up.
If you’re taking notes on your computer, use Google Docs so it’s already saved to the cloud. If you’re using Word or Pages, never save the file directly to your laptop. Save it to iCloud, OneDrive, or your cloud of choice.
Wrap It Up
Remember, treat everything you do in college as a unit. A class isn’t complete until you package it all up and make it exam-ready. No loose ends.
By that I mean, you took great notes thanks to the Cornell method. You completely understand everything. You’ve reviewed and clarified your notes to make sure they’re complete and any shorthand is clear. You’ve written the test questions while the material is fresh in your mind.
After every class, ask yourself this question: If I were to take an exam on just the material from this lecture, would I get an A?
Maybe not, but at least you know you are prepared to study when you need to.
- Never miss a class.
- Always be prepared when you arrive.
- Sit front and center to remove all distractions and focus on the lecture.
- Take notes using the Cornell method.
- Capture everything said and written on the board.
- Understand everything. Ask questions immediately if you don’t.
- Visit the professor and use other resources.
- Complete and clarify your notes right after class.
- Write test questions while the material is still fresh in your mind.
- Always be ahead and never behind.
- Back up all notes with a photo and directly to the cloud.
Same way, every day.
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