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I am looking for some advice on how to take notes effectively when the professor reads off their lecture notes or presents slides with marginal explanations. My preferred format is to have textual notes that I took myself, as I find that writing things down helps me remember and understand the material better. However, in these cases I struggle to keep up as I have to both write down stuff and follow the explanation, while the professor instantly has everything written down and only has to explain it. If this can be of any help, I am the first year of a PhD in mathematical economics, and I usually use a notetaking app and a tablet with a pen to take notes.

The two situations I encounter most often are:

  • The professor has really good lecture notes and reads off them while lecturing, writing some stuff on the whiteboard, adding explanations but not changing anything major from the notes.
  • The professor has really good slides and presents them and writes notes on them using an electronic whiteboard.

In the first situation, I find it challenging to decide what to write down and what to leave out since the professor is essentially reading from their lecture notes. Moreover, while the professor adds some explanations, they are usually marginal, and the bulk of the material is already in the notes. On the other hand, if I do not write down anything, I am afraid I might miss some crucial details or examples.

In the second situation, I find slides to be space-inefficient so I would prefer not to take notes on the slides. However, the professor can present complex mathematical formulae and derivations without writing them down, which makes it hard for me to follow and understand the material if I have to first copy the formulae and then write notes around them. Sometimes I screenshot the formula and paste the screenshot in my notes, which is not too uncomfortable to do on my tablet, but I still find it quite inefficient.

I would appreciate any advice on how to take effective notes in these situations. How can I avoid copying everything down (or not avoid it, but do so efficiently) and still capture the essential material?

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    What you are trying to achieve here is very sensible. If your professors are sensible it's maybe worth explaining the problem to them and ask them directly what they suggest you do. They might have good suggestions (and might even adapt their lecture style...). Mar 15, 2023 at 12:03
  • It might help some folks if you add a note where your program is located in the world, and what kind of institution? Mar 15, 2023 at 21:38

2 Answers 2

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I would ask the professor to make their slides available the day before the lecture. If they agree then download them as necessary and print them out.

If they permit it, you can also record the lecture (voice only, perhaps).

During the lecture, use the printed slides as your notebook, writing on them as needed.

But the key is that after the lecture (same day if possible), review your notes and extract the key points from them in another, cleaner, notebook. Annotate these with page numbers from any available text.

The summaries become your main review documents, but keep the messy slides you annotated for reference when needed.

Recording alone may be enough if they won't publish the slides.

But explaining to the prof how helpful the slides would be for learning may be enough to get them to go along. Even if they make last second changes to the slides the previous version would still likely be helpful.

Note that the revision step aids learning. We learn (deeply) through repetition (along with feedback).


If getting slides beforehand is impossible, another technique is to read the material from a textbook prior to the class, making notes as you go about what isn't totally clear. Then use those notes to guide your listening and note taking during class, perhaps asking the prof when your prepared questions don't get answered in the lecture.

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  • They already make everything available. So your idea is still take notes on the slides and then just revise them afterwards? I tried doing that, but I just don't have time between 6h of classes a day, problem sets, and graded homework. Maybe I should spend less time on the problem set, but then again, doing them is the most cost-effective way to study.
    – kmf
    Mar 15, 2023 at 18:41
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    Six hours per day seems like too much. How many days a week is that?
    – Buffy
    Mar 15, 2023 at 18:43
  • Monday to Friday. Sometimes it's 4, sometimes it's 8, but I just checked and that's the average.
    – kmf
    Mar 15, 2023 at 19:32
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    That seems outrageous for a university program. How many courses?
    – Buffy
    Mar 15, 2023 at 19:46
  • Five courses, but two are electives so we only have three hours a week each for those. The remaining three have 6hrs pw each, so that makes for 24hrs pw, to which we add tutorials, which are other 6hrs totals, and you get 30hrs a week of classes.
    – kmf
    Mar 15, 2023 at 20:36
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Here is what worked for me (20 years ago when tablets were not yet invented):

If a professor used slides, I would print them "4 up" and take notes right on the slides. That way, it wasn't very space-consuming but still leaving me enough space for all the notes I wanted to take. Plus, I could easily identify the important slides afterwards: typically, the amount of notes on a slide was correlated to its importance.

If a professor had a script or book that did not leave enough space for notes, I took some blank sheets with me and only took notes on those, always adding a reference to the book or script (chapter, page, formula, whatever seemed appropriate). Of course, having a pyhsical book / script and physical sheets allowed me to place them at approximately the right place, so I would stumble across them when revising. I can't tell if your tablet and notetaking app allow for something similar.

In general, I tried to take as much notes as possible without losing track of the lecture, because taking no notes often made me lose focus. However, I would never copy stuff that was already in the lecture notes or slides, as that was what I considered inefficient.

Have you tried different apps? I have only recently started using a PC with touchscreen during my teaching, and the first thing I did was to try different programs that allowed annotating PDF documents with a digital pen because the differences turned out to be huge.

Finally, you might consider not only downloading the slides before the lecture but also skimming through them and taking screenshots of the larger formulae ahead of time. That way, you could focus on actual note taking during the lecture and not on technicalities.

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