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  Helping Students with Basic Skills








Helping Students Take Effective Notes

by Alyse Steidler

"The only voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes"
   - Marcel Proust


Many instructors have the impression that students who enroll in college already understand they need to take good notes and know how to do it. However, the sad truth is that unless someone along the way has taken the time to demonstrate exactly what good note taking is, and explained why it is a necessary skill for learning and retaining new information, the average student will end up jotting down notes that are either disorganized and indecipherable, or not take notes at all.

Note taking and the other learning skills necessary for college success are usually offered as short courses in college learning centers as well as in semester-length reading and study skills classes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students avoid taking these classes because they think they already have adequate skills. They desire instead to move ahead more quickly by enrolling in only those classes that relate to their major. As a result, many students come to campus extremely unprepared for dealing with the vast amount of information they will be expected to learn and retain.

If we want our under prepared students to succeed, content instructors need to take time at the beginning of their courses to discuss the necessity of good notes and to provide a few useful tips and guidelines on how to go about doing it. This section is design to help you:

  • Teach note taking skills to students
  • Raise student awareness as to why note taking is important and a necessary skill in college
  • Inform students about listening as a skill and some steps to take to improve their retention
  • Provide basic guidelines and tips to help students take better notes
  • Support the acquisition and use of good note taking skills in the classroom and during study assignment

The Value of Note-taking

    • First, taking notes helps to identify the important ideas presented in discussions and lectures.
    • Second, the information given in class may not be available elsewhere and the lecture may be their only opportunity to learn about it.
    • Third, instructors usually formulate quizzes and exams based upon the important points covered and emphasized in class.
    • Fourth, good notes provide an efficient way to review and remember what they need to know to do well on tests and will serve as a handy reference for any future applications they may have.

Memory as a Factor in Success

Unless we actively take steps to remember, the mind is capable of retaining information for only relatively short periods of time. After hearing an important lecture, studies show that the average person is able to recall:

  • 50 % after one day
  • 35 % after one week
  • 20 % after two weeks

Without reviewing notes and backing it up with an occasional review now and then, the percentage continues to drop until finally very little information is retained at all. Based upon these percentages, it is clear that listening to a lecture without taking notes is a formula for failure.

Advice to Your Students

Your students will appreciate comments from you about how to take notes in your class. If you provide a print out of your PowerPoint slides, or an outline of your lecture it will guide notetaking. You may want to give students more details for the first week or two and wean them by giving fewer details over time.

Learn to Listen Well

    • Good listening requires focus and attention, and this takes practice. If you allow your thoughts to wander, or if you tend to pay more attention to what's going on next to you or in or around the classroom rather than on the information that is being presented by the instructor, you will break the mental connection you have and the new information will not reach you.
    • In order to train yourself to maintain your focus and attention, for the first two weeks of the semester, listen selectively and write down only the main ideas of lectures.
    • As your listening and concentration skills begin to improve, gradually attempt to capture more of what is presented by inserting more of the details from the lecture.
    • Later on, when you feel your listening skills are ready, start to include some of the examples the instructor uses or add some of your own connections into your notes.

Recording Clearly

The first thing to consider in creating an effective set of notes is whether your handwriting is clear enough so when you go to review, whether it is days, weeks or months later, you'll be able to understand what you previously wrote down. Speedy writing shouldn't be illegible writing. If you end up with some chicken scratches, you'll need to fix them as soon as possible after the lecture so that the words and ideas will be understandable to you when you need to review them later.

Note-taking Shorthand Tips

One of the most important things you can do to improve your note-taking is to develop a shorthand style so you can reduce your writing to only what is absolutely necessary using keywords, abbreviations and symbols. Here are some ideas to try:

      1. Write or print legibly
      2. Use pen (pencil is harder to read and smears)
      3. Write in phrases rather than sentences
      4. Skip a line after each idea to make room for adding information
      5. Skip several lines at the end of a topic to signal a change
      6. Explore using parenthesis ( ), brackets [ ], and circles and squares to group information that belongs together.
      7. Use an asterisk * or exclamation point ! or underlining to indicate important points. Alert yourself to the most important points by using double asterisks or double underlines.
      8. Use colons or arrows to show that one idea results from or causes another, or to replace words such as "leads to" "becomes" or "follows". Here's an example of how to use colons for that purpose - "school: degree: career: financial rewards".
      9. You can use mathematical symbols to compare two things. For instance use = to show equivalence. To indicate less than or fewer than, use a < symbol. For more than or greater than, use a > mark.
      10. Try using a ? next to something you want to ask the instructor more about, or use two ?? if a point is very confusing to you and needs to be clarified.
      11. Use key words and leave out functional words such as a's , the's, etc.
      12. Create some sort of order to aid comprehension
        • chronological order (by date or sequence of occurrence)
        • numerical order (1,2,3,)
        • alphabetical order (a,b,c,)
      13. Create categories to help file and retain the information in memory
      14. Develop a personal shorthand system
        • use standard abbreviations examples: Corp SBCC i.e. Jan. Wed. Co. etc. e.g. vs.
        • use "shortcut" abbreviations (cut off the ends of words)
          examples: subj. max. min. democ. biol. univ.
        • drop vowels (consonants carry most of the sound)
          examples: rdg. wrtg. gvt. ckg. acct.
        • use symbols (consult the dictionary for ideas and create your own) examples: w/ w/o & # * ? ! % @ = < >
        • use numbers instead of writing them out
          examples: 5 rather than five, , 25 rather than twenty five, 1st rather than first
      15. Go over your notes for clarity and to check your   comprehension
      16. Highlight or underline the most important points while  reviewing
      17. Review again within a few days to store in long term memory
      18. In order to hold in memory, review now and then

The Cornell Method

The Cornell Method is an efficient and visually clear way to take good notes. Here's how to do it.

Divide a sheet of paper into two separate areas by drawing a line down the page making a two inch wide margin on the left-hand side. The right side is where you'll write your notes. The narrower left margin is where you fill in any key words, headings, comments or questions you want to add related to the material you've written on the right. Below is an example of notes on a lecture on Improving Vocabulary. Note how the two-column approach works. First the student wrote her notes on the right side of the page and then selected the best keyword to identify and remember it in the left column:

  There are two types of meanings for a word.
denotation One is the literal meaning like what you find in a dictionary - called its denotation.
connotation The other meaning is called a connotation and it relates to the implied meaning - a specific culture's or person's associations with that word.
Learn both To learn vocabulary well is to understand that a word has both types and that means a word is usually either positive or negative in tone.

The Cornell Notetaking Method is presented in Walter Pauk's How to Study in College  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1974

Reviewing Regularly

When we learn something new, it is automatically entered into our short term memory and unless we take steps to transfer it into long term memory, the information will soon be forgotten. The first step for transferring that information is to review your notes as soon as possible after a lecture, checking your understanding of the ideas and making any necessary corrections and changes that would help improve your comprehension and retention of the material.

Last and very important, be sure to review your notes on a regular basis in order to insure that the material remains stored in your long term memory. As time passes and you feel confident you do remember the information, you can be ready for a test by just a quick review.


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