Note-taking

Image of hand taking notes.

Think about how you take notes during class. Do you use a specific system? Do you feel that system is working for you? What could be improved? How might taking notes during a lecture, section, or seminar be different online versus in the classroom? 

Adjust how you take notes during synchronous vs. asynchronous learning (slightly)

First, let’s distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Synchronous classes are live with the instructor and students together, and asynchronous instruction is material recorded by the professor for viewing by students at another time. Sometimes asynchronous instruction may include a recording of a live Zoom session with the instructor and students. 

With this distinction in mind, here are some tips on how to take notes during both types of instruction:

Taking notes during live classes (synchronous instruction).

During a live class, jot down notes as the lecture or discussion is in progress. Try to do so during pauses in the lecture or discussion  so that you don’t miss the next piece of information. This is something that you’re probably already used to doing in the classroom.

Taking notes when watching recorded classes (asynchronous instruction).

Recorded lectures and class discussions can be paused, but we suggest you try to watch videos all the way through the first time without stopping them. This allows you to see the whole arc of the material as you take notes and will prevent you from being tempted to write down every word the instructor says (which is typically less useful for studying than notes where you’ve processed the instructor’s words as you listened). You can write down the time marker if you think you’ll need to return to fill in a gap, which you may find is unnecessary once you’ve seen the video the whole way through. We also encourage you to watch videos at their regular speed, as if you were sitting in a synchronous lecture or discussion. Then, you can take notes as you normally would during those activities. If you do increase the speed, note that research shows that benefits diminish beyond 1.25x.

Check in with yourself.

When viewing recordings, check in with yourself and your level of attention frequently as you watch. Are you really listening deeply? Are you absorbing the material? Do you need a break? When deciding when to view asynchronous material, make sure you budget enough time to view videos, take notes, and give yourself breaks. An ARC Academic Coach can help customize a plan for you if you’re having trouble figuring out how much time to allot for this. 

If available, annotate lecture slides during lecture.

Whether participating in a live class or viewing a recording, if you have access to lecture notes or slides from the instructor, you can annotate these during lecture. Having the slides to work from makes it easier to flesh them out with information that you learn during lecture and with your own questions. These notes can be useful to take to section and office hours, allowing you to clarify any confusion you have about the material.

Consider writing notes by hand.

Typing notes on your computer is convenient, but consider that research has shown - for those who are able to do so - that we learn better when we write notes by hand. When we write notes by hand, we transcribe less and interpret more. In other words, we do not write down the instructor’s words verbatim, but rather we put the concepts in our own words, which indicates that learning is already taking place. Some students find it helpful to type up their handwritten notes during review, expanding on what they have written. Others add to their handwritten notes. Writing notes by hand can also be a welcome break from typing on your computer during remote learning.

Review your notes.

Plan to review your class notes regularly. Write a check mark next to the material you understand really well, and put a question mark where you need to review or expand on your own or with the help of an instructor. You can also use color-coding to label these categories. Looking at your notes right after lecture is a good way to mark any areas of confusion you are immediately aware of, but make sure to return to them sometime after your lecture as well to see if you’ve retained your understanding of the material. Looking over class notes right before section can be a great way to prepare for those sessions, while also allowing you to locate any parts of lecture you need clarified when section meets or when you go to office hours.

Write down questions.

During the lesson and during review, write down questions that you can research yourself or ask to the instructor, a friend, or a tutor. Asking questions allows you to synthesize your knowledge of the material and expand your learning by observing areas of confusion or misunderstanding.

Below are some common and effective note-taking techniques: 

Cornell Notes

The Cornell Method for note-taking is designed to help you keep an eye on the broader concepts being explored in your course while also taking specific notes on what your lecturer or section leader is saying. Typically done by hand, the Cornell Method involves drawing a line down the edge of your paper and devoting one side to taking notes as you normally would, and the other to including questions and other guiding information that is meant to help you organize your thinking when reviewing the material. For instructions on how to take notes using the Cornell Method, check out this handout. 

Outlining

Outlining is the note-taking method most students intuitively use. It involves writing down information as if you are recreating the professor’s outline for the lecture as you listen. Your aim is to construct bullet points for each idea and to organize them so that major concepts serve as headings with the related subpoints flowing from them. The downside of this method is that it works best when students are easily able to identify the “major concepts” in a course and less well when the material is not naturally organizing itself in that way.

Mapping

Mapping involves creating a concept map out of the ideas presented in lecture. It can work well for spatial learners or in situations where the main concepts of lecture can be simply condensed and organized. It may be less useful in complex lectures, since it focuses primarily on central ideas (typically, there’s not a lot of room to provide detail in a concept map!).  

Sentence

Sentence note-taking involves simply writing an individual sentence for each point you want to register in a lecture. It works well in situations where you cannot outline because you don’t intuitively understand the structure of the material and can’t distinguish major ideas from subpoints based on the lecturer’s style. Typically, this method works best if you have the time afterward to go back and organize your sentences more clearly based on having heard the entire lecture. 

If you are looking for help with using some of the tips and techniques described above, come to the ARC’s note-taking workshop, offered several times every semester.

Register for ARC Workshops

Accordion style