The Three Best Methods for Notetaking in University

Why do we take notes?

Simply, because memory is finite. We take notes to make sure that we don’t forget anything important. Keeping clear, concise notes helps students to revise and study for exams and assessment, and it requires a student to listen carefully to their lecturer as well as quickly and accurately transcribe what they are listening to. A good set of notes is an important asset.
Taking notes can also help you to make sense of what you’re learning. Active reading/listening requires that a person first engage with the material and then put it into their own words, so by taking notes as you study/learn you are essentially repeating the most important information. You learn the same thing twice.

Before I explain the types of notetaking, here are some important things to remember:

NUMBER ONE: KEEP YOUR NONSENSE ORGANISED!

Of course, it is important to keep your notes organised. Whether you use an organiser or file planner, an app like Outlook, or a regular paper notebook, you need to have a system so that you don’t lose anything important. If you have a file planner, make sure that the papers are stored in their correct sections. If you have an app, make sure that you’re labelling the file/folder/notebook so that it is easy to remember later. If you have a paper notebook, you should write the date and the name of the class at the top of your note-page. When you are writing notes for different classes there should be a clear separation between them. You don’t want to accidentally spend hours studying your notes for Principles of Communication, only to realise that you’re supposed to be studying for Consumer Behaviour. Keep your notes clearly organised, using whatever method works best for you.

NUMBER TWO: YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

You have to listen carefully to your lecturer so that you don’t miss anything important. There is nothing more frustrating than coming to your notes at the end of the semester, ready to study, only to find that they are incomplete.

This does not mean that you must write down every word that you hear; it means that you get down the most important and relevant information. It will take you some time to develop the skill of identifying what is important and relevant, but generally you should take note of the following:

• Key words and vocabulary
• Information about the assessment/exam
• Main ideas and important points
• Anything that your lecturer repeats, takes more time to explain, or writes on the board

It can also help to use your notes to illustrate the connections between certain points in a lecture. If your lecturer says: “… I talked about this earlier, but this is why it is important…” you can illustrate this connection on your notes, and so this will allow you to remember that important connection later.

NUMBER THREE: FIND A STYLE AND STICK WITH IT

Note taking is an important skill and, like all skills, you need to find the best way to approach it. You need to find your personal style – no one else needs to understand your notes, but they need to be effective for you.

To do this, it might be worthwhile to use a kind of shorthand. This doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated. Using ‘@’ instead of ‘at’ and ‘4’ for ‘for’ is enough to save you time in writing, and you can also abbreviate essential words (it can help to keep a glossary at the back of your book/bottom of the document so that you don’t forget that ‘esp’ means ‘especially’).

There are several different methods for note taking depending on your purposes. There are MOOCS that cover note-taking in a lot of detail, but the three would be most useful for your career as a student are:

Paraphrasing
Take in what is being said and then paraphrase (write in your own words). Include the key points and words, using your own sentence structure – even your own language, if you think that will help you remember it better. It can help to write it as a list.
For example:

To do this, it might be worthwhile to use a kind of shorthand. This doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated. Using ‘@’ instead of ‘at’ and ‘4’ for ‘for’ is enough to save you time in writing, and you can also abbreviate essential words (it can help to keep a glossary at the back of your book/bottom of the document so that you don’t forget that ‘esp’ means ‘especially’).

The paraphrased version of the above would be:

– Shorthand is useful
– Use symbols instead of words
– Abbreviate – use a glossary

Outline/Mindmapping
To show links between ideas and the flow of the lecture, draw the notes as a map. Mindmapping helps to organise the ideas visually, make clear connections, and gives you space to add additional information if your lecturer adds anything. This method can be quite useful if you are listening to a non-linear lecturer, or if there is a lot of complicated information that you need to organise.

For example:

The Cornell Method
Originating from Cornell University in the 1950s, this method helps students to organise their work into subcategories of main ideas and elaboration. Essentially, you split a page into two halves. The left half is where you write keywords, and the right side is where you write things like definitions and other relevant information. This can help you synthesize your knowledge and identify any areas that need more development and investigation.

Here’s a Practice Exercise:

  • Choose one of the methods above.
  • Go onto YouTube.com and find a video to take notes for. We recommend Thomas Frank, Ways to Study, or Med School Insiders
  • View the video and take notes. Try to do it without pausing the video – you won’t be able to pause a lecture, after all
  • Once you’ve finished the video, watch it again to make sure that you caught everything important.
  • Try watching again using a different method. Keep trying until you find a method that works well for you.

Problems and things to remember
– Read over your notes after class so that you can fix up any spelling mistakes, missing information, or errors in understanding. If you miss something that your lecturer said, leave a space in your notes that you can try to fill later from memory.
– If your writing is terrible, use your laptop. Don’t make your life too difficult by taking illegible notes.
– Be flexible. If your lecturer is a bit all over the place with their delivery, then maybe the Mindmapping method is best for their classes. If your lecturer uses slides, then the Cornell Method would be most useful for them.

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