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Help with note-taking skills

  1. Sep 28, 2012 #1
    I know that taking notes, whether they be lecture or from a textbook, is an elementary skill to some. However, I have found that I am having a terrible time taking notes. For example, I will start taking notes using the Cornell method, using an outline format for the note taking column, and five to ten minutes into note taking I crumble up the page and start again. I have searched how to take notes, but cannot seem to put the principles into practice. For instance, most websites say that notes should not be in complete sentences and not have too much detail, but I find that I write in complete sentences and put a lot of information into my notes. I also have trouble figuring out what I should write down and what I shouldn't. I was so sure that I had it figured out, but I guess I haven't. This obsession over how to take my notes is causing me a lot of stress and results in a lot of time wasted trying to figure it out. I'm currently in my second year of community college, I'm transferring to a four year university next year, and want to get my note-taking skills under control. If anyone can give me some advice or tips I would greatly appreciate it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 28, 2012 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    don't try to take complete notes in class, write down only the key points just enough for you to remember what was said then when you're out of class rewrite the notes more completely or add additional annotations.

    Also now there are apps like notability on iPad that can record while you're taking notes and can replay the lecture from the point with a tap. Great for filling in details in your notes. There's also a pen with special paper with similar recording skills built into the pen.

    Also make note in your notes of action items like things you need to research more, or things you need to ask the prof about. And crucially you need to write down odd things the prof may say or abrupt changes in speech where the prof realizes he/she may be giving away a future problem on a test.

    lastly, date/time your notes and keep them in a good notebook. When doing homewrok or reading take more notes just dont over do it like the students with hilighters underlining every line in the book.
  4. Sep 29, 2012 #3


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    I have not been in Uni for over 40 years, but here is what worked for me: I took notes in the margins/blank spaces in my textbooks. As an engineering student, my STEM classes moved twice as fast as the classes for pre-med, for instance. I know, because I ended up tutoring my room-mate in my freshman year. He was not ignorant, but somehow pre-med was paced much slower than engineering and when he needed help, I had already been there.

    Whenever a prof highlighted a concept in lecture, I would underline the relevant passage(s) in the text and draw a line to the margin, so I could make additional notations. It worked really well. No highlighters then, but a fine-leaded mechanical pencil could do the trick. This type of note-taking obviated the need for separate notebooks, and kept the notes in the context of the textbooks. YMMV, but it worked for me.
  5. Sep 29, 2012 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    I forgot the penciling in trick. My profs told us not to hilight but to use pencil because later on you may keep the book for reference but will rue the hilighting. It's true too, I grimace now when I see the hilighting thinking if only I used a pencil.
  6. Sep 29, 2012 #5
    It depends on you and it depends on the way the teacher teaches -- there is no one right answer to how to take notes.

    A little effort spent taking notes can really payoff. The number of times I've clearly understood something in the lesson, only to come back to find it no longer makes any sense .... just occasionally I'll have elaborated a bit in my own words in a margin somewhere and upon rereading my notes the clarity comes flooding back.

    Strangely the "best" note takers are quite often unremarkable students, though. If you don't purely rely on your notes, but do read a lot of primary literature, you'll end up better off.
  7. Sep 29, 2012 #6
    Thanks for the help.
  8. Sep 29, 2012 #7
    What I do is I tend to read the chapter before hand, and when I get to class I just sit there and absorb everything the teacher is explaining, when ever he says something I did not know or understand then I write down.

    At least for me, if I am just taking noted I go on autopilot and don't learn anything.
  9. Sep 29, 2012 #8
    I try to do the same as Mdhiggenz. I can't learn while taking notes. If you know you need notes, try to go through the chapter/section first, write down key words or topics you know you'll be going over (with help from the syllabus if your instructor gives you a schedule) and then fill in blanks. I also pencil things into the margins. My calculus instructor has a printout for each class where we just fill in the blanks rather than take full notes because she doesn't want us distracted. Writing out problems is for the homework, not when you're trying to listen to concepts!
  10. Sep 29, 2012 #9
    If you are a stickler for this type of thing, just put a recorder on the Prof's desk (ask first) and only write down the equations.

    The most important thing I found about notes was going over them when I got home that day and clarifying hazy parts while the lecture was fresh in my head.

    But FWIW, 50% of the notes I took in college were a waste of paper. Understanding a concept is far more important than proper stenography and re-writing the textbook you already own.
  11. Sep 29, 2012 #10


    Staff: Mentor

    as everyone has been saying: you dont just write your notes, you review them as soon as you can and fill in missing pieces, ask the prof questions next time and really tryto learn from them.

    I had a friend in HS who did really well in History class by taking voluminous notes but when he got to math the strategy failed completely. He tried to write down everything the said and wrote on the board but just couldn't absorb the concepts.

    So notetaking really becomes a ZEN experience where you write down just enough to jog your memory and then review them later for more complete understanding.
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