Gather your note-taking materials. It may sound pretty basic, but it's really important to have all of your note-taking materials organized and ready to go before the start of any class, meeting or lecture.
If you're writing with paper and pens, make sure you have a notebook with plenty of blank pages and extra writing utensils. If you're using a laptop, make sure it's fully charged or that you can sit near a power outlet.
If you wear glasses, make sure you have them with you in case the teacher/lecturer writes down any important information on a black or whiteboard. If you bring your glasses, make sure to bring a small microfiber cloth so that you are able to clean them should the need arise. Also, remember to position yourself in an area of the room where you can effectively see and hear the speaker.
Be sure to come prepared. Before you come to a class, lecture, or meeting, make sure to review your notes from the last time round. This will bring you fully up to speed and ready to pick up where you left off.
If you were advised to do any background reading to prepare for the class, make sure that you read and annotated the assignment. This will help you to understand any themes, concepts or ideas that the teacher/lecturer is likely to present in class. A good idea would be to outline the section, article, or chapter before hand. Write your outline on one side of the paper so that you can add your class notes to the other side.
Remember the old adage “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.
Be an active listener. When note-taking, many people make the mistake of mindlessly taking down every word, without really comprehending what is being said. Instead, make an effort to understand the topic while you're in class. Focus on what's really being said, then ask questions if you don't understand.
Determine the best time to ask questions, then raise your hand to get the instructor's attention. They'll appreciate that you're listening attentively and want to understand.
Do your best to understand the information during class so you won't have to work so hard during the review.
Take notes by hand. Although taking notes on your laptop is convenient, research shows note takers actually retain information better when they take notes by hand. This may be because people typing on a laptop tend to transcribe every word without understanding the meaning, while people writing by hand are forced to pick out relevant information in order to keep up.
If you do take notes by laptop, don't try to get down every word. Make sure you're understanding the meaning of what's being said.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. When you come across something you don't understand, don't just jot it down and tell yourself that you'll worry about it later — ask the teacher/lecturer for clarification.
Think about it — if you find something confusing now, you'll find it twice as confusing during your note-review later.
Don't be afraid to ask the teacher/lecturer to repeat themselves either — particularly if you feel that they've said something important.
Focus on key words and concepts. The most important change you can make to improve your note-taking skills is to focus solely on taking down key words and concepts.
Identify the most relevant information. Write down individual words or key phrases that are most relevant to the topic at hand — things like dates, names, theories, definitions — only the most important details should make the cut. Eliminate all the filler words and secondary details — if you wanted those things you could read a textbook.
Think about what you want to retain. Why are you taking the class? Why are you attending the seminar? Why did your employer send you to the conference? While it may be your first instinct to try to write down what you hear or see verbatim, you have to remember that you are taking notes in order to learn something from them — you're not writing a novella.
Prioritize any “new” information. Don't waste time writing down information that you already know — this is useless to you and just wastes time. Focus on writing down any new information that you've never learned before — this will give you the most value from your note-taking.
Use the “question, answer, evidence” method. This is a very effective method of taking notes, as it forces you to engage with the material as you write and allows you to describe the topic in your own words. This technique of paraphrasing information has been proven to help students understand and retain material much more effectively.
Instead of copying down line after line of information, listen carefully to what the speaker is saying and make an effort to understand the material. Once you've done that, formulate your notes as a series of questions raised by the material, then fill in your own answers.
For example, if the question was “what is the central theme of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?”, the answer could be “more than a tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet is about the consequences of holding grudges”.
Then underneath this answer, you can provide evidence for your conclusion by pointing to specific examples from within the text. This strategy allows you to record all of the relevant information, in a concise, easy-to-read format.
Use shorthand. The average student writes 1/3 word per second, while the average speaker speaks at a rate of 2/3 words per second. Therefore, developing your own system of shorthand writing can help you to write more efficiently and avoid falling behind.
Try writing things like “wd” for would, “cd” for could and “w/” for with. Write a plus sign for the word “and”. Also try to abbreviate long words that appear again and again throughout the class or lecture — for example, instead of writing “popular sovereignty” 25 times over the course of a history class, write “pop sov”.
Of course, it's essential that you're able to decipher your own shorthand later on — if you think you might have difficulty, try writing out a key on the inside cover of your copy.You could also go back and fill in the full-length version of the words after class.
If the speaker is still going too fast for you despite your shorthand, consider bringing a recording device to your next class — this will allow you to listen a second time and fill in any gaps in your notes.
Make your notes visually appealing. You will be reluctant to go back and study your notes if they are messy, disorganized and difficult to read, so it's important that they look nice! Here are some tips on how to create more visually appealing notes:
Always start on a fresh page. You'll find your notes much easier to read if you start on a fresh, blank page for each new class or topic. Put the date in the top right-hand corner and only write on one side of each page, especially if you're writing with very inky pens.
Make sure your writing is legible. Taking notes will be a complete waste of time if you can't read them afterwards! No matter how fast you write, make sure your writing is small, neat and legible, and avoid using cursive handwriting if possible.
Use wide margins. Line each page with a pen and ruler, giving yourself a wide margin on the left-hand side. This will prevent the page from becoming too overcrowded and will leave you space to write in any additional information once you review your notes.
Use symbols and diagrams. Things like arrows, dots and boxes, diagrams, charts, and other visual aids are often great ways to associate and remember key concepts, especially if you're a visual learner.
Color-code your notes. Many people find that adding a splash of color to their notes helps to make the information more readable and easier to retain.
This is due to the fact that color stimulates the creative side of your brain, making your notes more interesting and therefore easier to retain. Color-coding helps you to link color with memory, allowing you to remember the contents of your notes with relatively little effort.
Try using different colored pens for different parts of your notes — for example, you could write questions in red, definitions in blue and conclusions in green.
You could also use a highlighter pen to highlight key words, dates, and definitions. Don't go overboard though — you shouldn't mistake highlighting your notes for actual study.
Take notes from your textbook. After a class or lecture, you may want to supplement your notes with information from a textbook. Taking notes from a textbook is another skill worth mastering.
Preview the material: Before you jump straight into reading a text, preview the material to get a sense of what it's about. Read any introductions and conclusions, headers and sub-headers, and the first and last line of every paragraph. Also glance over any charts, illustrations or diagrams.
Actively read the text: Now go back to the beginning of the text and read it thoroughly from start to finish. Once you have finished a paragraph, go back and highlight any key words, facts, concepts or important quotes. Look for visual cues in the textbook itself — things like bold or italicized words and the use of color or bullet points are often used to highlight significant points.
Take notes: Once you've thoroughly read the text, go back and make notes from the information you highlighted. Try not to copy full sentences from the text — this simply wastes time — and paraphrase using your own words where possible.
Review your notes later in the day. Reviewing your notes after class, or later the same day will help you to retain the information much more effectively. You don't need to study them intensely — just spend 15 to 20 minutes going back over them each night.
Fill in any blanks. Use your review time to fill in any additional information that you remember from the class or lecture.
Write a summary. Another effective tool for committing your notes to memory is to summarize the information contained in your notes at the bottom of the page.
Test yourself. Test yourself on your understanding of the material by covering up your notes and trying to explain the topic to yourself — out loud or in your head.
See how many of the important details you can remember, then read the notes again to recap on any information you might have missed.
Explain the material to a friend. Teaching or explaining the material to a friend is a good way to test whether you've fully understood the topic and whether your notes deal with the topic comprehensively.
Memorize your notes. You'll really see the benefit of having good notes when it comes to exam time and you have to memorize all of the material. If you have been consistently reviewing your notes for 20 to 30 minutes each night, you'll find the memorization process much easier. Here are some popular memorization techniques you can try:
Line-by-line method: If you have to memorize a chunk of text, one good technique is to read the first line a couple of times, then try to repeat it out loud without looking at the page. Read the second line a couple of times, then try to repeat the first and second line out loud, without looking at the page. Keep going in this fashion until you can repeat the entire chunk of text without looking at the page.
Story method: This method involves turning the information you have to memorize into a simple story that's easy to remember. For example, if you wanted to remember the first three elements of the periodic table (hydrogen, helium, and lithium) you could use the following story “(H)arriet and (He)nry went to the (Li)brary”. The story doesn't need to make sense — in fact, the sillier it is, the better.
Mnemonic devices: Using mnemonic devices is a good way to remember lists of words in a particular order. To make a mnemonic, simply take the first letter of each word you wish to remember and come up with a short sentence where each word starts with those letters. For example, to remember the lines on a musical staff EGBDF you could use the mnemonic “Every Good Boy Does Fine”.
For more detailed instructions on popular and effective memorization techniques, see this article.