22

I am struggling with note taking during lectures for a long time. I find that if I only listen to the lecture I am able to understand the concepts properly. But the downside is that I often forget some important details. On the other hand, when I concentrate on taking notes, often I just end up writing a lot of things without paying much attention to the concepts. I have been trying to improve my note taking skills by watching video lectures from OCW or YouTube. My lecture notes look more like lecture transcripts. I pause and rewind the video and end up writing a lot. I can't figure out how to improve. I would really appreciate if anyone could have any suggestion.

PS. I take notes with pen and paper and I haven't tried note taking on a computer.

4
  • 8
    When I was a student and a professor explained the passage from one equation to another, maybe giving explanations for half an hour, on my notes (not very many, admittedly) between the two equations I'd only write the word then. When studying later on, I'd have usually wondered: "then what?!". But the process of reconstructing what was in-between those two equations was quite educational :-) – Massimo Ortolano Mar 5 at 10:39
  • 3
    I never really took notes, just wrote down some questions or spontaneous ideas for side-projects. The only time I took notes was when we had to (at high school, as instructed by some teachers), which usually was pretty counterproductive... Therefore, I'd ask myself whether note-taking really does something good for you, or restrict it to the few things that you need to look at again, where you need to ask for clearification or which you can use in some other way – Mark Mar 5 at 11:02
  • 1
    re-writing what's in your textbook is completely pointless. – FourierFlux Mar 6 at 1:40
  • I'd say it should be a mix of writing down what the lecturer is saying and listening to what they are saying, don't just frantically scribble down everything if you are not listening carefully. – Tom Mar 6 at 17:31
16

I answered a similar question at CSEducators a few years ago.

I agree that taking notes with pencil/pen and paper is superior to doing it by typing into a laptop (see the reference). But to be truly effective you need to do more than just take the notes. I suggest that you re-read and annotate them as soon as possible after a lecture, adding questions as well as notes/corrections. The second pass will help firm up the ideas. This is best done immediately, but certainly within a few hours if classes are taken back to back.

Another trick is to capture, from the notes, the most important ideas given in the lecture. The instructor will possibly point them out, but most of us would go in to a lecture wanting to especially make one or two points. It is good if you capture them.

But a single pass over anything is unlikely to lead to deep learning. And utilizing the information (exercises) is even better for firming up the ideas.

As to taking transcripts of video lectures, the same can apply. When you finish such a video, re-read and annotate the notes, marking or extracting the key ideas and making sure you understand what is being presented.

For situations in which you have access to the lecturer, write out any questions you still have and try to ask them at the start of the next lecture, or using some other communication channel.


There is a joke that the "purpose" of a lecture is to get the teacher's notes into the student's notes without going through the mind of either. Don't let that become a reality.

I once took a "course" in which that was literally true. Two of us had an independent study with a professor who gave us the task of literally copying his written notes (no lectures) but gave no real opportunity for questions, exercises or feedback. It was among my worst educational experiences ever.


Also note that learning requires reinforcement. The review of the notes, with annotations, provides the start of that. See The Art of Changing the Brain by James E Zull for some of the science behind that. A search of this site for "Zull" will turn up some further mentions of these ideas.

8

Here are a few practical suggestions from a former student who also only took notes with pen and paper.

  1. You can't write everything down from a lecture, to attempt to do so is counterproductive.

    Unless you are an incredibly fast writer, there is no way you are going to be able to simultaneously write everything down that is said and understand/learn what is being said. Based on your post, it sounds like you have already encountered this conundrum.

  2. Because you can't write everything down, you need to filter the incoming information stream for core concepts or important ideas/insights

    When I took notes, I was constantly monitoring what was being said and trying to pick out what the key ideas and important points were, and then only writing those down. This sort of forces you to learn/comprehend on the spot, because you can't figure out what is a key concept vs just an example unless you actually understand what is being communicated to you.

    The main idea here is to differentiate between what you think will be important to know/remember later and what is closer to "trivial" information (anecdote/filler material/example).

    For example, if a professor introduces a new equation that is related to the theme of the lecture, write it down. If he then talks about how that equation was developed in the 1800s by some scientist or briefly shows another equation that seems unrelated, don't worry too much about not writing that down. The chance this information ends up being important later is much lower.

  3. This method actually follows the flow of most lectures fairly well

    Most lectures generally follow the pattern of core concept, further details, examples and background, core concept, ...

    If you follow my strategy, you will identify and write down the core concept immediately. You then have some time to digest the core concept while also half listening to the details and examples that inevitably follow. If something jumps out from that section you can also write it down, but if not, now you have more time to chew over the main ideas in the background while continuing to listen to what is being said.

    This essentially ensures you are focusing on what is critical for keeping up with the lecture (and by extension learning). If you get all of the core concepts but miss a few details along the way, will you still be able to keep up? Yes. If you record lots of the details but then miss or are fuzzy on some of the core concepts, will you be able to keep up? Probably not.

    Your ability to comprehend and record information is both a fixed and limited resource during a lecture, so spend it on what matters.

  4. What if I have trouble figuring out what matters and what doesn't?

    This is a skill you develop over time and also something that often develops over the course of a class as you begin to learn the material and understand how it all fits together. That being said, there are a few practical tips I can offer.

    • Is this something I can easily look up later (either in your book or online)?

      If it is not, then consider writing it down.

      A good example of this might be a mathematical proof. If you know your course textbook doesn't contain very many proofs, and the professor is starting to give one on what seems like an important equation, then you should consider writing it down. This might be one of those situations where you have to decide to sacrifice understanding for the sake of recording information. Often for me this went something like, "I am just going to focus on writing this down as fast as possible without errors. I won't be able to understand it because I am so focused on writing it, but that's ok. I know I have it written down here and I will come back and actually review/learn it later if it ends up being important."

      If, on the other hand, you know your book often contains proofs for important equations, or you will be getting a copy of the lecture notes later, I would recommend not trying to write it down. Focus all of your energy on trying to understand it instead, and maybe just write down "proof given" in your notebook to record that it was discussed. This gives you an opportunity to understand how the proof was constructed and potentially develop and ask questions if something is not clear. You can always consult your book/lecture notes later if you really need to review.

    • Think "meta"

      A big part of being able to filter information well is not just thinking in terms of the current lecture, but how the information provided fits into the bigger picture (of the week, the unit, the course, your degree, ect.). Try to ask yourself, "Why am I learning this? Why would this be important for me to know?"

      Often people will recommend you read/skim the material before hand to help you get a better sense of what the key points are. If you have time to then go ahead, but being in an intense program myself I found I never had time to do this.

      What worked better for me was to just review the syllabus and skim over the table of contents/chapter headings to get a rough roadmap of the course. This helps you know what topics are going to be covered and roughly how they all fit together.

      For example, if I'm taking an algorithms course and a whole week is going to be spent on learning how to measure algorithm performance, I am going to pay careful attention and make sure I really understand the concepts because they are likely foundational and going to come up a lot during the rest of the course. If we are covering a particular algorithm one week, however, and there are some technical details I can't quite get, I might not worry too much about needing to fully understand that information. Especially if I already know we are going to cover 20 other algorithms as part of the course, there is no way I will be able to remember that level of detail for all 20 of them, so it is a poor use of my limited resources to try.

    • Filtering is learning

      Simply being able to take in information, understand it, and then pass judgment on it's relevance is an act of learning in and of itself. In this sense, learning how to take good notes is also learning how to learn. Once I became good at taking notes, I found I needed to do very little review outside of lecture because I had already grasped a lot of the material simply by ingesting it.

      I bring this point up mostly because I don't want you to be discouraged. Learning to learn is hard, but it will pay big dividends in all of your future coursework. Don't be afraid that you are struggling now, because that is a normal and expected part of the process. If you really lean into that struggle and keep going at it until you improve, it will pay off big for the rest of your time as a student.

      Essentially, I encourage you to view taking good notes (and learning how to learn) as an additional class you are enrolled in every semester. Things are going to start out hard and uncertain, but if you continue to put time and effort into your "course" you will improve and things will begin to make a lot more sense.

A few final suggestions. If you are really worried about missing information, see if you can record each lecture on your phone or laptop. Rules around this likely vary by institution, but it probably involves asking each professor for permission. I don't think this should be a long-term solution for you, but it might help in the short-term if it removes some of the pressure to feel like you must write everything down.

Finally, as I alluded to before, view note-taking as more of a learning method and less as an archive of everything the professor said. I often took a ton of notes while reading and during lectures but then rarely reviewed any of them. In retrospect this was because the act of ingesting, processing, and then writing the information I was receiving was really how I was learning. The fact it produced information on paper that I could review later was really more of a byproduct rather than the primary benefit.

EDIT: One important thing I forgot to mention is that shorthand is your friend. You shouldn't be writing in full sentences (and frequently not even full words). Jot down the minimal amount of characters necessary for you to remember what was said.

Instead of

Isaac Newton published the universal law of gravitation in 1687

Write

Newton pub univ law grav 1687

If Newton is mentioned frequently in the lecture or course, you could further abbreviate to Newt or even N/ as long as you think you will remember what N/ means if you were to review your notes later.

Other shorthand notation such as w/ for which, what, and when, bc for because, eg for example, et cetera are also useful. It might not seem like much, but for a slow writer like me the small time saves from shorthand really add up over the course of a lecture and are instrumental in my ability to keep pace.

You want to do anything you can to minimize the amount of time your brain is distracted from processing the key concepts being presented, so try to shorten/condense what you need to write as much as possible.

1
  • 1
    Thanks so much for writing such an outstanding, elaborate answer. I am taking these points very seriously and I will try to implement them to the best I can. Thank you once again! – Noob Apr 1 at 22:59
6

I'm going to give you a very tactical recommendation. This is hard to keep up with, but is the premier way to engage with material in lectures is to PRE-WORK the content.

  1. For math/science/applied: Pre-read the chapter. Work any examples in the chapter. On paper, in your notebook. Work the homework problems. All of them. Check your answers to the extent possible. Rework (from scratch) any problems missed. Use your notebook to do this work.

  2. In the BACK of the notebook, write down any questions you have, with space to fill in an answer. Quite often, you'll actually figure it out yourself. Then fill it in. But in the cases, you didn't, these become questions to ask in class (or if too minute, will allow a very quick, targeted, efficient questioning of the instructor in office hours or even just ad hoc few minutes after class.) Note, that it is NOT just the answers to the questions that educate you. But the WORK you did to develop them and then record the answers.

  3. When you are in lecture, the entire lecture will be a refresher. Write down what you feel is important. The good thing is even if you do take long notes (not needed), because you know the material already, it will be very quick/easy to write down the content (more so than if fresh). Put little star icons on the pages with class notes (segregate by page, but will be in the "rolling forward" part of the notebook) for lecture notes. This allows you to differentiate them from HW practice. If anything new/important (as opposed to just a practice problem or derivation you already understand) is covered, than box or give it some little star or the like on the margin. Again, note that it is not just the nuance content itself that is educating you, but the act of thinking about it and registering it as such.* Also, given your level of understanding of the topic, lecture notes will NOT be a key to look at in the future. Your key content is the textbook and drill problems, when doing exam prep.

  4. Note, classes in history, lit, art, etc. will be a little less drill oriented. And the professor may do a bit more enrichment, discussion, etc. outside the text. However, even in this case, you should have read the reading AHEAD of time. At a minimum, this will make you familiar with the basic content. And able to come up with insights like what is ADDITIVE to the content versus what is in the text. Another insight might be differences in rationale or interpretation or emphasis.** Even in a pure discussion class, pre-work can make a difference. I took a 10 person at a round table history class (with a real historian and top majors types)...we had two discussions a week of comparative history. For the TUE, we had done a 2-page compare/contrast essay ahead of time. For the THU, not. And you can bet your sweet ass which day had a better discussion/argument amongst the students!

  5. Similarly, of course, classes with case methods and Q&A (think John Houseman in The Paper Chase, or perhaps Harvard MBAs) are much better, the MORE you have pre-studied the material. And it's not just not looking stupid when called on (though sure, that's a feature) but getting more out of the session.

*Humans are NOT computers (sorry comp sci folks) that just need a clear instruction set. Instead, we are more like animals (literally we ARE animals) that need training and repetition so that the learning is engrained in longer term memory and working ability. This is "pedagogy" as opposed to "content".

**For instance in history, there is a common issue of "historiography" (scare quotes intentional, this is basically people interpreting history in terms of whatever left/right, dreamy/practical, original/not-sin views they have).

0
3

What is the purpose of a course lecture for you? Do you see it as a resource to improve your understanding of the topics being presented based on what you have already read about them. Or do you approach it mostly as your first (and perhaps first in-depth) exposure to the course topics? You will more likely be caught in the quandary that you express for the latter case rather than the former. The less prepared you are with some knowledge of the topics in advance, the more you will fill a strong pull to one of two approaches. You will be pulled to listen intently to learn the topics for the first time, thereby having less time to take notes. Alternatively, you will be pulled to take copious notes to read later, thereby having less time to digest (learn) the topics as they are being presented.

One starting point to improve how you take notes during a course lecture is to read about the topics in advance of attending the course lecture. Indeed, take notes as you are doing your reading. Mark places from the textbook or course resources for the upcoming lecture where you recognize that you would like to learn more during the lecture itself.

The additional advantage to preparing in advance on what you know should be in the lecture is that you will be able to capture full context of any surprises. You might always anticipate that you will see something that you have not seen yet even in the best preparation. How comforting to be able to reflect on the new information in real time because your mind is not occupied still trying to make the best sense of where the new information originated or should fit in everything up to that point.

A useful advantage here is to have the course lecture notes in advance. If this is your situation, here are some additional questions that you might answer to find ways to improve how you take notes during the lecture: How intently have you reviewed the lecture slides in advance of attending the lecture? Have you matched the content on the lecture slides to the topics in the textbook in advance of attending the lecture? Have you marked the places on the lecture slides where you will ask for help during the lecture?

What is the purpose of having the notes after you take them? Do you use them as your only resource for study? Do you use them as supplements to the other resources on the topics? You will be pulled to the quandary when you see lecture notes as the only study resource. When you develop habits to review the lecture notes in parallel with other resources from the course, you will be less anxious at the outset about the need to take copious lecture notes during the lecture itself. You will learn how to fill in the gaps from the lecture notes with the information from the other resources.

Finally, what do you do if you discover that your lecture notes have gaps in them? Do you skip over those gaps hoping for future insights? Do you try to fill in the gaps using the other resources for the course? Or even … Do you schedule a meeting with the instructor to ask for help on the missing information?

A useful advantage here is to have recordings of the course lectures. If this is your situation, you can certainly review the videos to see if you can fill in the gaps. What do you do if the lecture does not fill in the gaps? Again … Do you schedule a meeting with the instructor to ask for help on the missing information?

In summary, to improve how you take notes during a course lecture, determine the reasons why you are taking them. Do so at the front end: What preparations do you make before you attend a course lecture? Do so at the back end: What do you want to do with your lecture notes once you have them?

Finally, taking notes is only equivalent to making an inventory of information. Developing the expertise to review notes and put them in their fullest context to themselves and the other resources around them is where the real learning starts. Whether this is done with notecards or with the latest and greatest electronic gadgets, the goal is the same. For further insights, search for readings on personal knowledge management systems. A recent hot-topic approach in this field is the Zettlekasten method.

7
  • Very often (in my own experience most of the time), the lecture contains the first and only presentation of some material in a class. Even in classes that had textbooks, my professors would often present related material that was absent from the text. It wasn't even possible to anticipate what would be taught necessarily. – Alex Reinking Mar 5 at 20:12
  • @AlexReinking As I also do. We might agree that, with advanced preparation on the material that is not new, the ability to capture fresh material improves. Also, we might expect that the instructor would not simply leave the lecture as the sole source of that fresh material. Doing so is an injustice to the responsibilities to teach effectively. It still argues that one is better prepared for what should be there in order to be able to capture the surprises. – Jeffrey J Weimer Mar 5 at 21:33
  • Hi Professor @JeffreyJWeimer, Thank you so much for taking the time to write such an elaborate answer. I really appreciate it and I am very grateful. I am currently taking a course on Genetics and Evolution from Coursera where there are lecture slides available ahead of time and I am doing pre-lecture preparation as you suggested. At my university (I am from the Indian subcontinent), there is no scope for preparing ahead of time as we usually don't get any reading assignments and our instructors usually bring their notes to the lecture hall and write them on the white board word-by-word. – Noob Apr 2 at 17:57
  • Hi @AlexReinking, Thanks for sharing your experience. – Noob Apr 2 at 18:01
  • In case you do not get any reading assignments in advance, you can still benefit by having a report of the schedule for the lecture topics. Correlate the schedule of topics to the chapters or content for the course. Read what seems relevant even without having explicit instructions. The worst that can happen when you do is that you learn more than what you are required to learn. The worst that can happen when you don't is that you continue to fall behind. – Jeffrey J Weimer Apr 2 at 18:19
2

I personally adapt the method found in this talk by Marty Lobdell. The dilemma of writing to little or to much is solved by - doing both!

  • during the lecture, you quickly and superficially jot down keywords/concepts from the lecture, with no regard to utility even a day after the lecture
  • right after the lecture, take a new sheet of paper and now summarize the lecture using the keywords you wrote down, such that the note is usable later

Advantages are:

  • You can focus on what's being talked about during the lecture. It can help you from dozing off because you have to listen in order to write usable notes
  • You process the entire lecture again afterwards, expressing it it in your own words, which aids and tests your understanding, and shows you where it's still lacking
  • It's easier to judge what's actually important after you saw the entire class, so the notes get better for later reference

The disadvantage is, of course, that it's more time intensive - it my experience it usually pays off though in the long run, as it reduces the time you have to study later.

1
  • Thanks for the write up! I watched Marty Lobdell's talk a couple of days ago. Really an eyeopener. – Noob Apr 1 at 23:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.