Focus on Research| How to Create Effective Lecture Notes

Biggest note-taking mistake in lecture? Trying to write down everything
the professor is saying. Learn to discern what is important to write down.
An evolving skill for most undergraduate students is the ability to take good notes in lecture class. This is another of those tasks, along with preparing for seminar/tutorial discussion, learning to make use of PowerPoints, and scheduling to complete assignments on time that is usually left to students to figure out for themselves. Looking back on my own notes taken from university lectures, I can see this progression in action, moving from the attempt to write everything down in my first year in pages upon pages of notes (big mistake) to arriving at a system of highlighting key terms and creating quality notes while building the confidence to listen more and write less in class (far more effective and less stressful). All of this was gained from trial and error, and so I have attempted over the years to come up with a variety of pointers to help students with note-taking, many of which are usefully summarized in an online handout I recently discovered (and can be downloaded) from Dartmouth College.  The most useful part of this handout is found in a section titled “Note Making” that I have reproduced for you here:
  1. Don't write down everything that you read or hear.  Be alert and attentive to the main points.  Concentrate on the "meat" of the subject and forget the trimmings.
  2. Notes should consist of key words or very short sentences.  If a speaker gets sidetracked it is often possible to go back and add further information.
  3. Take accurate notes.  You should usually use your own words, but try not to change the meaning.  If you quote directly from an author, quote correctly.
  4. Think a minute about your material before you start making notes.  Don't take notes just to be taking notes!  Take notes that will be of real value to you when you look over them at a later date.
  5. Have a uniform system of punctuation and abbreviation that will make sense to you.  Use a skeleton outline and show importance by indenting.  Leave lots of white space for later additions.
  6. Omit descriptions and full explanations.  Keep your notes short and to the point.  Condense your material so you can grasp it rapidly.
  7. Don't worry about missing a point.
  8. Don't keep notes on oddly shaped pieces of paper.  Keep notes in order and in one place.
  9. Shortly after making your notes, go back and rework (not redo) your notes by adding extra points and spelling out unclear items.  Remember, we forget rapidly.  Budget time for this vital step just as you do for the class itself.
  10. Review your notes regularly.  This is the only way to achieve lasting memory.
If you think of it from the professor’s perspective, the lecture is normally devised to introduce and develop core ideas and themes with supporting context, terminology, and theory—importantly, these are normally the very same ideas and themes you will be tested on during exams. For art historians, the addition of visual imagery and core discussion encapsulated around individual works of art creates another layer of context. In my case, I devise most of my 2 hour lectures around no more than 4-6 main arguments/ideas and core supporting images/video. Your job as a student is really to look for the logical flow of the lecture’s argument (i.e. what is the "story"of the lecture) and isolate those limited number of points that are potentially examinable and/or most significant to the lecture at hand. 

You can increase the effectiveness of your note-taking
ten-fold by simply dividing up the space of your notes
Another solid note-taking tool that I would recommend with this task is the highly effective but very straightforward Cornell note taking method—a system devised to help you practice identifying the most important parts of a lecture. If you look at the diagram of the system itself, it helps divide up a sheet of paper into three sections: 1) the NOTE TAKING column where you jot down the main ideas and questions raised in the lecture; 2) the CUE column where you periodically stop and summarize core concepts and terminology; and 3) the SUMMARIES section at the bottom of the page where you will return after the lecture to reflect and add additional ideas (from the textbook and/or other readings and sources) and gained while reading through the notes. This process is usefully summarized in another Dartmouth hand-out found here as a word document download. Whichever method you end up using, just remember that note-taking is highly individual all about the relationships you are building with the ideas being presented in class—take some time to make sure yours are more functional and productive than dysfunctional and stressful.

A simple and straightforward YouTube clip summarizing the Cornell Notes method. You will note in this example that the method also works great for taking notes on textbook and other types of readings: