How Do I Take Notes?

Q: I am a new college freshman. How do I take notes at college? What are the best ways to take effective notes?

A: This is a great question, because when you are new to college taking good notes can be a challenge.

Unlike high school courses, college professors will test your knowledge of the assigned reading and also the classroom lectures.

In fact, in many cases the classroom lectures are more important than the required reading, because the professor will be emphasizing what he or she thinks are the most important points of the lessons.

Some new college students make the mistake of trying to write down everything the professor says word-for-word. This is the wrong approach! Instead, you need to be listening for key elements, main points, and the overall purpose of the lecture.

Here are four great ways to master taking notes:

1.) Understand the Main Purpose of the Lecture: Normally, a professor will start a lecture by stating what the purpose of the lecture will be. This is similar to the way a term paper is structured, with an opening statement that states the purpose of the paper, followed by supporting points that support the general theme.

Once you understand the theme (or main purpose) of the lecture, you can start breaking the lecture down into major points and sub-points.

For example, the theme of a history lecture might be:

Events that Led Up to the Revolutionary War

A key point of this lecture might be:

The Boston Tea Party: What happened? A 1773 protest by colonists in Boston, a town in the British colony of Massachusetts, against the British government.

A key sub-point might be:

The passing of the 1773 Tea Act by the British Parliament: Why was it passed and what was the reaction of the American colonists? Colonists objected to the Tea Act for a variety of reasons, especially because they believed that it violated their constitutional right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives.

As you are structuring your notes, you need to look to answer the Why, How, Who, and When questions.

Why did these events occur? How did these events occur? Who was involved? When did it happen? These are the questions that you may be tested on later.

In science and math courses of course, the focus will be more on the How and the Why.

2.) Watch Body Language and Listen for Emphasis: When you are new to taking notes, you might be wondering what parts of the lecture will be on the test and what parts will not.

To figure this out, you need to pay close attention to the voice and body language of the professor. What elements is he or she emphasizing? Does the professor stop at certain key points and ask a question of the class? Does the professor pause for emphasis at certain times?

These are the points of the lecture that the professor thinks are important. Therefore, you need to understand why he or she thinks these points are important and record that in your notes.

If your professor if emphasizing a point, there is a very good chance it will be on a test at some point. Many times a professor will even say that this or that point would be a great question on a quiz. Do not miss these clues! Your professor is helping you.

3.) Make Note of Definitions: Whenever the professor goes out of his or her way to define a word, an event, or a theory, make sure you understand the definition and that it is in your notes in a way that you can understand it later.

If you are confused, ask the professor to clarify or restate the definition. And if your professor is going too quickly, be sure to say something about it. Most professors will gladly slow down a bit or restate something important. In fact, they might even take your request as a compliment because it shows that you are working hard to capture everything they are saying.

4.) After Class, Try Typing or Re-Writing Your Notes: This is a great way to clean up your notes for later study, revisit the key points of the lecture, and to make sure you understand the key points.

When you type or re-write your notes, you will probably find some areas that do not make sense. If this is the case, these are great opportunities to talk to the professor after class or during his or her office hours.

Again, your professor will most likely be very pleased that you are working so hard to take good notes. So do not be afraid to ask for help or more information.

Search for Scholarships