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Notetaking: Notes from lectures

“No matter what method of note-taking you use, the basic way to organise your thoughts is to check what you expect to learn against the information you actually receive and add any unexpected information”

Doreen du Boulay, Study Skills for Dummies

Individual approaches

There are many different approaches for making and using notes within lectures. It  will often depend on how quickly you are able to capture information through writing or typing, but also how much you are able to focus on both listening to the lecturer and the creation of your notes.

For this reason, notes are very individualistic and everyone will develop an approach that works for them. No matter what approach you take, it is important to consider lecture notes as part of the process of learning, and not just something you do for the sake of it while in a lecture.

Notes should always go beyond the situation in which you create them and you can better develop your approach to creating lecture notes by preparing before the lecture, and revisiting them afterwards.


Why make notes?

There are several reasons why taking lecture notes is beneficial, even if you have access to the slides online:

To emphasise the important points and get them clear in your own mind.

To help you engage with the material and not lose concentration.

To help you to make links between related ideas..

To allow you to make patterned notes/mind maps/illustrated notes etc. to suit your personal style and help recall.

To summarise information (best done soon after the lecture).

To make a note of anything you didn't understand or want to question further.

To make a note of anything you thought was really interesting and want to read more about.

You need to review your notes at least once in the first 24-48 hours to ensure that the information will enter your long-term memory. 

WARNING - Lecture notes are incomplete

No matter what approach you use for your notes, it is important to consider your notes of any ‘live’ situation as incomplete. This is for two reasons:

  • There may be limitations that prevent you taking comprehensive notes
  • Lectures are designed as an introduction to a topic. It is your responsibility to develop your learning further through additional work—most often reading.

For both these reasons, it is important to reserve time to re-visit any notes you create to further develop them and reflect on where they link with prior learning.


Types of lecture notes

Everyone has their own preferred way of making notes. Look at the options below and choose the method or (mix of methods) that best suits you.

Linear notes

This is the most common method and involves creating an outline of the lecture using headings for the main points and then using subheadings, key words (not full sentences) and lots of abbreviations. You can use colour to make some notes stand out.

HEADING

Subhead keywords and phrases

Subhead keywords and phrases

HEADING

Subhead keywords and phrases

etc

Abbreviations

You can make up your own abbreviations but there are some standard ones that maybe helpful on this handout from our colleagues at the University of Plymouth: Helpful abbreviations for speedy note-taking.

Illustrated notes

Some people just think more visually and illustrating notes with lots of drawings etc. can help with engagement, understanding and recall.

You do not have to be a good artist - the notes are for personal use only and nobody else is likely to see them!

As you can see from the example, there is still a lot of text, but this is illustrated with images that the creator associates with what is being said. The idea is that it is using different parts of the brain. The more of the brain that is called into action, the more likely you are to remember and understand the issues.

illustrated notes example

You can of course illustrate your linear notes if you want something a little more ordered.

Patterned notes

Such notes are also termed:

  • mind maps
  • spidergrams
  • diagrammatic
  • nuclear 
  • organic

Whatever the term used, and whatever the slight variation, they all start from a central point and “grow”.

A big benefit is that they are open-ended; information can be added anywhere at any time without disturbing the flow. This allows you to easily make links and see how information relates to each other.

It is claimed that they are particularly beneficial because they mirror the way the brain organises information. Many people find they are easier to recall than linear notes.

Mind map example


Methods of making notes

Most people will just take in a ruled or blank pad for making notes. However, there are some specific methods and technologies that can help:

Cornell method

With this method you split your page into 3 areas as shown in the diagram here:

Cornell lecture notes

 

Notes area:

The main body of the page is for your actual notes - these are usually linear but there is nothing to stop you drawing concept maps or mind maps or illustrating with drawings and cartoons.

Cue column:

Cues can be written in the lecture or soon after the lecture. Cues can be any of the following:

Main ideas/key points

Questions you want to ask (either for your lecturer or to research yourself)

Gaps you need to fill in (leave a space in your notes and a reminder in the cue column)

Categories the notes alongside fit into

Summary area:

Within 48 hours of the lecture, review your notes and summarise each page into two or three sentences. This is a great way of making sure the lecture content is stored in your long-term memory. It also helps you recall information in a condensed form which is great for exams.


Annotated PowerPoint printouts

If your lecturer puts up their PowerPoint slides before the lecture, print them off as hand outs (3 per page) and you will have images of the slides with lines alongside on which you can add your own notes if necessary.

Powerpoint handouts for note making

Alternatively, you can open the PowerPoint file on a laptop and capture notes directly into the notes section under each slide.

Either way, it stops you spending time noting down information that is already on the slides (which you will often do automatically, even if you know the slides are on Canvas).

An added bonus is that it encourages you to look through the  lecture slides in advance helping to put the lecturer's spoken narration into context during the lecture.

You can also look up any words or terms you do not understand so that you can follow the lecturer's arguments more easily.


Digital notetaking

A lot of people use their laptops or tablets to take lecture notes, often in simple word processors or text editors. This is fine - just make sure you back up to another location or the cloud regularly.

There are lots of apps now available to help you with lecture notes - including ones that sync your notes with audio recordings of the lecture. Just search for lecture notes in your app store.

See our Notetaking software pages.