The Study Dude—Taking Lecture Notes

The Cookbook Continues!

You’re in a room full of people or alone but in a virtual classroom.  You’ll be tested later on what you learn in today’s lecture.  So, your lecture notes are critical.  But how do you achieve top quality notes?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve written cookbooks for writing essays and exams and for memorization.  Today, it’s time to focus on lecture notes.  After all, taking notes itself is a strategic game, when you know the rules.

If you are striving for an A+, tricks and tips for note-taking matter.

The only ingredients needed for this recipe are multiple, high-quality pens, a red pen, backup sharp pencils, a pencil sharpener, two or three high quality erasers (the white rubbery ones), a ruler, and lots of paper (ideally a full store bought package of blank lined paper in your notebook at all times, one notebook for each class.)

Here are strategies for taking lecture notes:

  • Sit at the very front row of the class. This is critical.  I ran an experiment in one class where I sat in the back row.  I couldn’t hear a word the prof was saying due to the guy on my right listening to loud music on his headphones and the jock and girl chatting on my left.  I was doomed for an F.  So, I returned to the front row and claimed my A.  And don’t worry about looking like a geek sitting in the front row.  All professors love keeners, and if you choose to move onto grad school, your prof will become more of a peer, even a friend, the higher you go.  In a virtual classroom, this means shutting out distractions and possible distractions.  Be alone in the room, close the door if you can.
  • Listen to every word your prof says—and write them all down, or at least as much as you can verbatim. I keep hearing the rant to write your notes in your own words, but people talk faster than I have time to decipher everything said and to write down succinctly.  I prefer to write as much as possible and then use the margins to tidy up my notes.
  • The best idea for my system is to use a ruler to draw a vertical line down your page, creating a margin on the left-hand side 1/4th the width of the page. Jot your notes in the remainder 3/4ths on the right-hand side of the page.
  • But don’t just jot down the words. Use symbols and abbreviations.  For instance, I used “b/c” for “because.” I used “->” for “leads to” or “results in.” I also used “w/o” for “without” & so on.  Find a shorthand system you can remember—and apply it.  I recommend you create your own shorthand system, unless you like learning other languages.  That’s because shorthand looks like a foreign language.  Check out the Pitman shorthand to see what I mean.
  • Use the margins to write down question marks by points you need clarification for. Use exclamation marks by a point that will likely be on the final exam.  Use acronyms to spell one syllable words, such as “PLUMP” for five bullets that have the first letter of a keyword in each point that, when rearranged, spell “PLUMP.”
  • If the professor writes or draws anything on the board, then it’ll likely be on the exam.  Copy it down, underline it, and place multiple exclamation marks in the margin beside it, along with the words, “will be on exam.” If you can use red pen to underline it, that’s even better.
  • If the prof raises his or her voice when reading a point or slows down for it or introduces it with something like, “This is important …,” then you know it’ll be on the exam. Underline it, use multiple exclamation marks, and try to do all this with red pen.
  • Use the margins to draw a memory device, called a mnemonic, that can help you remember the concept. For instance, to remember “ethos, pathos, and logos,” you could draw a laughing clown (pathos) holding a cross (ethos) with a bubble coming out of his mouth that says, “f(x)” (logos).
  • Try to write in the margin one to three keywords that represent what each few sentences are about.
  • Yes, it’s a lot of fast writing, but you won’t regret it.
  • After class, try to tidy up your notes by taking the keywords you used in the margin to represent the topic of every few sentences and writing several bullet points below each keyword. Each bullet point should contain one to three words summarizing key takeaways from that segment of the lecture.  For instance, if the main takeaway within five sentences is that branches of  philosophy explore religious concepts,  then “philosophy explores religion” might be your main keyword.  The bullet points below that keyword could be “Logic in Buddhism ‘self’,” “Hinduism and function of soul,” and so forth.
  • Later, if you have the time, type up your notes. Or at least make your notes tighter by cutting out unnecessary words and typing them up.  Typing up your notes will better reinforce them in your memory.  Plus, you can copy and paste paraphrased quotes from your lecture into your class essays.  But cite accordingly.

Once you learn the tips for note-taking, you’ve got an edge.

But what are some more widely accepted note-taking systems?  That, my friend, is the subject of another Cookbook.