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I am a math student and never take notes in class. I feel like I am offending the professors by not taking notes. In general, do professors like students to be "active" during class? I have never learned much by taking notes.

I see other graduate students furiously taking notes...and then I am afraid that professors may write that I am lazy in recommendation letters. So maybe I should just takes notes?

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Do you care more about learning stuff or making believe others that you are learning? –  Piotr Migdal Jun 9 '12 at 8:27
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I generally frown on students who worry more about whether I'm frowning on them than about learning stuff. –  JeffE Jun 10 '12 at 2:16
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As a teacher, I rather have students nod and "I get this, cool"-mindset rather than furiously taking notes without listening. –  Paxinum Jan 12 '13 at 12:29
    
Many professors used to be students who didn't take notes during lectures, especially in maths. –  Federico Poloni Nov 10 '13 at 9:23
    
I almost never took notes since I found it too difficult to think deeply about what the professor is saying and write at the same time. I have no problem with students doing the same. –  Bitwise Nov 10 '13 at 16:15
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6 Answers

Sometimes I wish students would stop taking notes and actually think about what I'm saying. I provide the lecture notes before/after class anyway...

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I am afraid that professors may write that I am lazy in recommendation letters.

I can assure you that there is no reason to be afraid of that. That is just not something that would ever get written in a letter. Not taking notes might lead to a poor first impression, but it is your knowledge of the subject (something like your grade, but not exactly) that influences letters.

When I am teaching, I don't pay attention to if people are taking notes or not. I do pay attention to if students are paying attention. As long as you can remember the things you need to remember, then you do not need to write them down.

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Good recommendation letters (for PhD programs) address the student's research potential, not their academic performance or their note-taking habits. –  JeffE Jun 10 '12 at 2:22
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I'm a math professor. (I have taught at Stanford and several other universities.)

I prefer that my students do not take notes during my lectures. Before the lecture, browse through the relevant chapter of the text book. During the lecture, focus on what your professor says. Taking notes will just distract you, and make it harder for you to follow the lecture. After the lecture, read the textbook carefully. It is much more well written than any notes would be.

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What's a "textbook"? –  JeffE Jul 12 '12 at 21:50
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@JeffE A textbook is a mapping from a tree to a wad of cash for the publisher. Corollary: A textbook is a mapping from a tree to an empty pocket for the student. –  Jonathan Landrum Nov 12 '13 at 17:11
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Use whatever study habits you need to succeed. Your performance on assessments will make more of an impression than how you absorb the material. If you can perform well without notetaking and your professor recognizes it, he/she will more likely be very impressed with you.

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For very standard, orthodox material based on a textbook, it is reasonable to not take notes and do as much engaged, active thinking-or-questioning during a lecture. One should be alert to insights (hopefully!) from the person in the front of the room, and from others, so a bit of note-writing about the peripheral things is to be expected.

For advanced courses, and for seminars based only loosely on publicly-available material, or actually intended to be _explications_of_ otherwise-opaque material, the task is to both take as many notes as possible (even if/when printed material is provided), and think as much as remaining resources allow, because without notes the words spoken and written will mostly vanish. Here I overlook the possibility that one's memory is so excellent and so practiced that one truly can perfectly remember things one does not understand. The latter possibility is very important to cultivate, but this question wouldn't have arisen at all if that were already in reach.

And, yes, in advanced courses and seminars, although I've gotten over the surprise, I am baffled at the claim that people can't usefully take notes. The usual claim is that by not taking notes they think about the material in real time. This would be great if it were usefully true, but I find that my students do not have total recall... so that mostly they have neither notes nor recollection.

Perhaps the main practical trick to learn is to be able to write, very fast, without looking at the paper, and be able to "copy" the visual layout of the blackboard (whiteboard, whatever) without necessarily stopping listening to the audio. Yes, this does require a lot of effort, but, hopefully, it gains something.

Belated Edit: thinking about (perceptions of the idea of) "learning styles"... If the material in a class is truly available in many places, and the instructor has no insights to offer, is just rehearsing it for those too passive to do it themselves, well, sure, note-taking is a dubious ritual. But, as my biased language was entirely meant to communicate, there's no operational issue there. There is of course the risk that the students fail to appreciate that the instructor offers genuinely new insights, but nevermind. A much more serious issue arises if we're talking about more-advanced graduate-level material. Of course, once again, if the lectures are mere quotations from a standard text or extant notes, with no "added value", ... sure, scant need to write anything down. However, and I think this is the interesting and most dangerous case, if, heaven willing, your instructor is really an expert with hard-to-objectify understanding of significant things, one should expect to fail to understand, or seem to understand but actually fail, or ... so having a written transcript to study later and deconstruct is incredibly useful.

That is, in the interesting/serious/dangerous situations, it's not about "learning styles", but about preservation of information per se. All my experience indicates that students misjudge the cut-off for this, too, so, ...

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"I am baffled at the claim that people can't usefully take notes" - All I can say is, I would encourage you to consider the possibility that some people's learning style may be different than yours, and to be tolerant of different learning styles. It sounds like you've concluded that everyone ought to take notes, but from my own personal experience in school, I learned more in most classes when I did not take notes. This may not be the way your brain works -- but it is the way that mine worked, for better or worse. Different people learn best in different ways. –  D.W. Jan 13 '13 at 0:13
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@D.W., somehow only just noticed... I am not convinced that this is about "learning styles". If one is blessed with an amazing memory, that can include things one does not understand at the time, this is wonderful, and obviously no notes are necessary. Otherwise, my point about notes is that it affords some chance to reconsider later things that were incomprehensible at the time. Srsly, I am not aware that this can be a "learning style" issue, without some assumption of incredible (eidetic?) memory. For that matter, I know of essentially $0$ cases where peoples' claims of doing better ... –  paul garrett Nov 10 '13 at 1:14
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... not taking notes resulted in any apparent recollection of things... perhaps sad to say. If I were to be a little harsher, I'd claim that, yes, obviously, taking notes is a chore, all the worse when one doesn't quite understand what's happening (and I agree I myself tried to avoid it until I got to grad school at Princeton, when I realized the infeasibility), but it is a rationalization. In some decades of observation and personal experience I see nearly zero credibility to claims of understanding better without it... except in cases of experienced experts... and often, even then, ... not. –  paul garrett Nov 10 '13 at 1:16
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One of my professors forbid to take notes during the lecture, unless it helps you learn and memorize during the lecture. The slides were available online.

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