Tompkins Cortland Community College

Baker Center for Learning

Lecture Note Taking Strategies

Lecture Note TakingNote Taking

Lecture note taking has a number of purposes. The most obvious is to record the information that the instructor thinks is most important. It is important to recognize that an instructor is likely to "highlight" in a lecture the points that he/she thinks are most important including (but not limited to):

  • clarifying points that were confusing in the text (I have a better way to explain...)
  • giving his/her own view when he/she disagrees with the text (my own theory based on my research is...)
  • adding information when he/she thinks the text omits something or has insufficient material (the book only briefly covers this key point...)
  • clarifying common misconceptions (many people believe... but...)
  • clarifying material that his/her experience indicates is often not clearly understood (material many students had trouble with last semester)

There are distinctly different approaches and combinations of approaches. Some instructors figure that you will read the text so they will give you added value by presenting information not in the text. Others will cover the text pretty much page by page. Still others will only highlight the information within the text they really think is most important for you to know. Most use a combination of these approaches. Recognizing which approach an instructor is using at any given point is a big plus. You can often determine the instructor's approach(es) by asking a student who has recently taken the course.

Obviously, it is not enough just to recognize the instructor's approach and take good notes. You have to do something with the notes once you've taken them. There are limits to our short-term memory (STM) and that there is a lot of learning interference that takes place during and after class. Students often seem surprised when they have listened in class, everything they heard made sense, they took good notes, and they still can't recall the information later on.

It shouldn't be surprising, most of what you hear in class stays only in STM and then is lost — the instructor is giving you lots of information and not giving you time to work most of it into your long-term memory (LTM). That leads us to a more specific reason to take notes. You have to have a record of the material because you recognize that much of what you get in lecture won't stick, based on what we know about what it takes on our part to process and learn new material – time and effort.

So, you need to do the processing and learning of the material when you can be in control of the time and select the approach. Sure, some of the information will go into your LTM during class, especially if the instructor spent considerable time on it or used multiple ways of presenting the material, you read it in the text in preparation for class, or you did an interesting class activity. In that case, when you go back to your notes, what you are doing is trying to make sure you can retrieve the material from you LTM.

Students often express that it is difficult to really listen and take notes at the same time. They wonder if they would be better off just really focusing on listening and not taking notes. The research shows that students usually concentrate better and learn more when they take notes. Studies have been done where the class is divided into two groups- those who take notes and those who just listen.

Then, the students who took the notes have them immediately taken away so they do not have an opportunity to review them. All of the students are then given the same exam. As a group, the students who took the notes do better (even though they never got a chance to use them)! The researchers theorize that it was because the students who took notes were more focused and more actively involved. It makes sense to me, but everyone is different, so I can't say this would apply to you in any given situation. But, your best bet, I would think, is to get down what you can in any way that you can.

Here are some simple (but powerful) strategies for dealing with a tough lecture situation:

  • Sit up front.
  • Ask the instructor if you can see his/her overheads or notes after class in his/her office (or make a photocopy).
  • Find someone else in class who you think takes great notes. See if you can photocopy them. This can help on a one-time basis to see if you can learn about how the person formats and what they write. You can also agree to both switch each class so you have two records of each lecture.
  • Form a study group or get a study partner. Meet after every class or once a week to go over and review the notes.
  • Move to another section of the course taught by the same instructor at a better time (one of your peak times or maybe not right after another tough class) Ask the instructor (or the Registrar's Office) if he/she teaches the same time and explain your reasons.
  • See the instructor in his/her office or see a tutor who is familiar with that instructor.

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Using a Tape Recorder

First of all, you must ask the instructor's permission. Unless you are a student with a disability who has been allowed the use of a tape recorder as an accommodation, the choice is up to the instructor. Some instructors see the lecture as their "property". There are also situations where the student tapes the lecture and sells it without permission. Also, consider that there may be times, like discussions, where the instructor may feel your tape recorder will keep people from participating.

Second, I strongly urge you to try it a few times before buying an expensive recorder and lots of tapes. Borrow the best recorder you can if you don't have one and get a few long-playing cassettes (you may be able to borrow a recorder for a day or two from the College Media Center). And, of course, take notes of the key points even though the tape is running. Recognize that many instructors walk around the room, turn toward the board, etc., so the quality of the tape may be a real issue.

My experience has been that many students don't find taping as useful or practical as they hoped; they usually know in the first few days whether this approach is enhancing the process. This can be for many reasons, the auditory approach just doesn't seem to work — there may be a lot of visual information missed, it is very time consuming to listen to the tape, stopping and starting over and over, etc. It does work for some people as a back-up plan or to use for "doubling-up".

If you keep the tape until you review the material in the notes, you can listen to it to clarify a point here or there as needed. I've seen this work with study groups when the group meets regularly. (If you plan on keeping the tapes for the whole semester, you will need a lot of tapes!) Or, if you have a lot of "drive time", a big lawn to mow, etc., you can listen to the tapes while you are doing the other activity — "doubling up"!

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Tips and Techniques: Before, During, and After

There are many things you can do before, during, and after lecture note taking to improve effectiveness and efficiency of the process.

Before the Lecture

  • Review the material from the last session (notes, handouts, text, etc.)
  • Preview the material for the upcoming session. Try to get the "big picture", familiarize yourself with new terms, and look for connections to the last lecture.

This is an often-overlooked area. It is one where just 5-10 minutes of work the night before or morning of each class can pay big dividends in both reducing stress and taking clearer lecture notes. It also leads to better retention for tests because of the regular on-going review.

During the Lecture

  • Use a lot of paper. Consider using only one side of each page. You can put additional notes from the book or make quiz questions on the opposite page. You can also, if you use a loose-leaf notebook, take out the notes and spread them out to study. Leave lots of space between ideas and start each new topic on the top of the next page.
  • Focus on the first few minutes and last few minutes of class. The introduction, overview, summary, and next-class highlight can help a great deal.
  • Write down anything (well, almost) the instructor puts on the board or has on an overhead.

Recording tips:

  • use complete thoughts (not a word or two)
  • show organization by indenting details under main points and numbering items
  • leave space between topics
  • label everything possible (ex., def, causes, stages,)
  • use abbreviations and codes (abbrev = abbreviation, LS = left side, + = and)
  • leave out little words like "a" and "the"
  • leave a bracket to indicate where missing information starts and ends

Listen and look for cues to important information.

  • listen for verbal cues (saying so, change of tone, pitch, etc.)
  • listen for signal words and phrases to main ideas (three causes of..., the key differences between..., most significant was..., the results were...)
  • listen for signal words and phrases to important details (items in a list: first, also, in addition, next, last, finally; items in a sequence: first, next, then, finally; items being contrasted: however, but, on the other hand, although)
  • look for non-verbal cues (facial expression, gestures, etc.)
  • identify special information and make notes on it; indicate important ideas (use !, *, or T)
  • indicate confusing information (use???)
  • indicate page numbers if information is taken directly from the textbook

After the Lecture

(This is the most crucial part of the process)

  • Go back to your notes as soon as possible after class. The longer you wait the harder it will be to make sense of your notes and the longer it will take to learn them. Whenever possible, get back to your notes the same day you took them.
  • Review and "clean up" the material, adding information from your head and the textbook to clarify.
  • Generate labels and/or questions for the information so you can quiz yourself now and later. You can use the chapter objectives, study guide, chapter review questions to help in creating questions. A study group can work together on this, two or three heads are usually better than one. For example: three types of skin cancer, what is the definition of episodic memory?, six steps in the information processing model, what are the five leading causes of forgetting?. This feedback or retrieval step is vital. Just because the material makes sense does not mean you have learned it. This is a critical point — you have to be actively involved and take some time. You don't know if it is in your long-term memory (LTM) or can be recalled from LTM. It's time to use what you have learned about the information processing model and memory principles (see memory improvement handout). Use whatever works best for you to do rehearsal/feedback and/or check your retrieval. You can write, recite, make pictures, etc. but you have to do something! What you are doing, in essence, is predicting test questions and actively seeing if you can answer them. That's a great way to learn and prepare for an exam (more on this in the preparing for exams handout).

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The Cornell Note-taking System

There is no "right way" to do the Cornell note-taking system. Basically, the Cornell note-taking system (CNS) is an excellent method for actively processing and learning new material. It is also an excellent method to use for testing your ability to retrieve material once you have learned it. And, it incorporates many of the tips and techniques mentioned above. One key is that it promotes an active post-lecture review process.

By using an extra-wide left margin soon after class to write questions/cues on the material and then quizzing yourself, you are actively involved in learning. Many students just read over their notes passively — it is often a poor use of time. Another key is that it gets you to leave behind questions or cues that you can use later to check retrieval when it's test time.

If you use the CNS on a regular basis, you spend much more time on the business of learning. You "front-load" the system, taking things in smaller bites week by week when they are fresher. When it's time to prepare for a test, you're way ahead of the game!

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