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How To Take Notes In College
Start With Good Class Habits
Before I talk about taking notes, I want to briefly cover a few classroom habits that will make a big difference to the quality of your notes. (Scroll down if these don’t apply to you).
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.
Attending class is not optional. It is the single most important thing that you can do. It’s what you paying for.
Each of those classes is costing you a lot of money. Do the math for yourself.
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. Your professor is the only person who knows what will be on the exam. You’ll be getting hints about what’s most important to know.
Class is where professors introduce new approaches and explain things in ways you won’t see in your textbook, and then, yes, 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.
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
This is your low hanging fruit. It gives you 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. The farther back you go, the less prepared students are, and the more time is being wasted.
Don’t go there. Sit in the front of every single class you take in college.
- Minimize distractions.
- Be focused on the professor.
- Take better notes.
- Ask questions easily.
- Get to the professor first after class.
- Stand out. The professor knows you’re there and knows you care.
If your friends want sit in the back, bring them with you to the front instead. They’ll appreciate your lead.
The only reason you want to sit in the back is 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.
Turn all of it off!
I sat in the back of a class 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.
Students texting, on web browsers, social media, you name it. Some were studying for other classes.
No matter where you decide to sit, at least do yourself a favor and turn off the phone, close the browser, and focus on taking good notes. Do your best to ignore the distractions around you.
Better yet, just move up front. Go there and stay there. Every class.
How To Take Notes In College
Taking good class notes is one of the most important things you can do. More likely than not they will be the source of most of your exam questions. You want to make sure you have a consistent method of taking them.
Every professor can be different both in terms of the materials they use and how they present them.
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.
Understand how each professor conducts their lecture and what materials they use.
As we will discuss later, you will want to start studying for exams from the very first week of classes.
Know how you are going to organize the materials for each class as soon as you can. Get everything for each class in one central place in sequential order. That might include written notes, handouts, PDFs, whatever else.
That can be a spiral notebook, or a laptop or iPad using the word processor or note app of your choice. Divide it up into logical sections that will be easy to review.
Have a system of referencing and storing your materials that works best for each class.
Cornell Note Taking Method
So now let’s talk about taking notes.
If you search online you’ll find a handful of different note taking methods.
My problem with many of these is that they try to be too neat and tidy.
Having gone to both college and law school, I’ve taken a lot of notes. The note taking I did could best be described as fast and furious. Neat, tidy and well organized sound good, but is usually not reality.
Taking notes is more often chaos. You’re writing as fast as you can, jumping back and forth, doing your own shorthand, drawing, and crossing things out.
The good news is, that’s ok. It doesn’t matter how your notes look or how organized they are.
What is far more important is what you are going to do with the notes afterwards.
Your goal is take notes in a way that allows you to study for your exam in the most effective way.
I’ll cover more on this later, but for now, just know that frequent, periodic self-testing is the most effective way to study for your exam.
The best way to do that is using the Cornell Note Taking Method
How the Cornell Method works
You can use a paper notebook, an iPad, or Google Docs. It doesn’t matter. The Cornell Note Taking Method isn’t about how you take your notes, it’s simply about where on the page you take them.
You’re going to divide each page into two section. You’ll take notes on one side and then write test questions on the other side. Yes, it’s just that simple.
Let’s just assume you’re taking notes in a spiral notebook. Draw a line down each page about two thirds of the way over.
That’s it. Now just make take all of notes on the wider side.
They can be neat and orderly or they can be total chaos. It doesn’t matter. Just get them down.
A lot of the examples you’ll see online show the note area on the right. If you are right handed, it’s better to have it on the left. That way your hand doesn’t continually slide off the right side of the notebook.
If you want, 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.
There are different kinds of note-takers. There are those who just take a few and those who try to capture every word. I’m a big believer in writing down EVERYTHING and doing it fast and furiously.
Try to write down as much of what the professor says as you can. You can figure out what’s important later. Sometimes it’s a waste of ink, but usually not. This approach forces you to really focus on what’s being said.
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.
Write Test Questions
Ok, so you’ve taken a complete set of notes. Now it’s time to make them ready for self testing.
When you used the Cornell notebook layout, you wrote your notes on one side. Now you’re going to write test questions.
This is one of the most important parts of your note taking. It is best to do it as soon after class as you can so everything is fresh in your mind.
For each note you took, ask yourself – what questions might be asked about that material? Then write the question.
How to write test questions
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.
The questions you get on your exam may take different forms. For example multiple choice, fill in the blank, problem/solution, identification terms, essays. The possibilities are endless.
It’s nice to know what the form of the exam will be, but for purposes of studying your notes, it doesn’t matter.
The best way to write your question is just open-ended. The reason is that if you can answer any question by heart, it doesn’t matter what form you get in on the exam. You’ll know it.
Write the 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.
Try to write your test questions as soon as possible after class while the material is still fresh in your mind.
The sooner you have those questions, the sooner you can start self-testing them. Don’t wait until you start studying for the exam.
Don’t assume something in your notes 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.
Additional Note Taking Comments
Some lectures might be recorded by the school or the student for later viewing.
You can do that, but it’s really just a temptation to take poor notes. 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 preparing 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, a 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.
OK, 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.
Any of the document apps make it easy to set up a two-column layout using tables.
You can also use find Cornell Note templates. Create your own or find one online.
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?
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.
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.