Note-taking in university
By: Tory Dockree
One thing that may be new for you as you transition into your first year will be note-taking. I found that not having the skills to take proper notes posed a significant challenge for me throughout my first semester. I didn’t have the skills that I needed because I didn’t have to take formal notes throughout high school; most of the information that I needed to record was already organized for me onto handouts. However, when I started university, I soon realized that I was going to have to take my own notes and that they would be a necessary part of preparing for tests and assignments.
So let’s discuss note-taking. In this post, I will guide you through some tips that can be used to help you effectively engage with lectures. I will also include suggestions for how to follow along with your instructors so that you can get the most out of lectures, as well as strategies for taking useful notes (by hand or digitally).
What makes note-taking difficult?
Note-taking may seem a bit daunting. This is because your brain is trying to understand and record information at the same time. For me, note-taking is overwhelming when the lecture is moving faster than I am able to write, but what I try to do is remind myself that it’s not the quantity of notes that is important, but the quality and comprehension.
Note-taking requires me to juggle listening, processing and recording information all at the same time. I find that I often need to get a sense of my instructors’ teaching styles and how comfortable I am with different approaches to note-taking in order to find what works for me in each class. What works in one class may not work in another.
Another thing that may make note-taking challenging is staying focused during lectures. I still find that, sometimes, my mind naturally wanders instead of actively focusing on the content. However, instead of scrambling to try to write down everything my prof says, I try to remember the importance of processing it and recording it in a way that makes sense to me.
Here are some super simple and effective tips that may work for you.
- Introductions: I’ve found that one of the best things I can do to take effective notes is to get to class on time. In September, this will mean I am logged in for my virtual lectures a few minutes early. Most of my professors have used the first few minutes of class to either review the most important information from the previous lecture, or to provide context for the material that we will discuss during that lecture. In each of these instances, listening to the professor’s introductions puts me in the right frame of mind to both take notes and participate in class.
- Emphasis: It can be difficult to know what to write down when taking notes. I found this to be very overwhelming in my first year. Over time, I’ve learned that the best way to know what information I should be recording is to listen to what the professor emphasizes. If someone writes something on the board or repeats themselves, the information is most likely important.
- Conclusions: Although it can be tempting to pack up before class ends, it is really important that you stay for the professor’s conclusion. This is because the conclusion usually summarizes the information that was discussed that day and highlights the key messages. I personally have a habit of not paying attention during the last few minutes of my lectures, especially if the class is later in the day, and really have to remind myself to keep focused.
Following these tips will help you decide which information will be central to your understanding of the lecture. Knowing what your brain is trying to juggle means that you can better prepare before your first lectures — and, as you’ll discover, managing your attention during class is one of the most critical parts of effective note-taking.
Should I type or hand-write my notes?
Taking handwritten notes can give you a deeper understanding of course material; this is because you risk simply transcribing the lecture when typing. By slowing down your writing speed, you will take more time to process the information properly as opposed the simply annotating. So remember that even if it seems slow at first, writing is worth a try, especially if it means that you won’t get distracted by your computer!
If you do choose to use your computer, as I do, it is important to be cognizant that your computer can be distracting during lectures. With that being said, there are ways of limiting how distracting your computer is. For example, during in-person lectures, I often turn off my Wi-Fi while taking notes so that it’s more difficult for me to peruse the internet. Now that classes are online, a great way to avoid distractions is to log out of your social media accounts so that you don’t receive notifications and are less inclined to begin scrolling.
Finally, know that you don’t have to commit to a note-taking strategy at this moment. Effective note-taking is different for everyone, and the only thing that is important is that you find what works for you. Be sure to tune into the academic skills webinar this Wednesday so we can continue the discussion on note-taking.
Don’t forget to check out our Webinar Wednesday and Feature Friday Webinar. Both go live at 5:30 p.m. (EST). Learn more about our webinars and contests by visiting the Academic Skills Prep Series page.
Don’t forget about our contest and grand prize! Write a 250–300-word response sharing what you found interesting and new in the Academic Skills Prep Series and how it may help you prepare you for your first year of university. Find more information on the contest by visiting the Academic Skills Prep Series page.
Tory is going into their fourth year of Arts & Science with a combination in Philosophy and currently works as a student staff in the Academic Skills area of the SSC.