Today’s post is one that I would have been excited to see before I went to my first class in university, so I hope you also find it useful! Today’s post will focus more on the cognitive side of note-taking and will dive into what your brain actually experiences when you try to take notes in class. It will walk you through some tips before, during, and after lecture and will include suggestions for how to listen to your instructors to get the most out of what they are saying.
Let’s start with some facts about what makes note-taking difficult:
“[…] the average talking speed is about 125 words a minute, and intellectually you can process about 400 word a minute. This means that your thoughts can be very far ahead and far away from the speaker’s words” (Hay et al., 2012, p. 7).
When you take notes in lecture, know that it is not possible to record every single word that your instructor says. Instead, understand the core essence of what is being said (as well as its context) and record it in a way that will allow you to understand it. This is what we mean when we say that note-taking is about processing and not verbatim transcription!
“Note takers must coordinate the attention and storage demands of both comprehension and written production” (Piolat et al., 2005, p. 297).
Your brain is trying to understand and record information at the same time when you are taking notes, so its understandable if this seems a bit daunting. With practice and trust in yourself, you will learn what works for you. Effective note-taking should not seem impossible or out of reach! When you understand what your brain is trying to do, you arm yourself with the desire to rise to the challenge.
“[…] from a cognitive perspective, note taking cannot be conceived of as only a simple abbreviated transcription of information that is heard or read. Rather, on the contrary, it is an activity that strongly depends on the central executive functions of working memory to manage comprehension, selection, and production process concurrently” (Piolat et al., 2005, p. 306).
This might sound complicated, but this quotation breaks down the difficulties of note-taking into digestible categories of comprehension (of what is being said), selection (of what to record), and production (of your own notations).
If you’re thinking that this seems a bit overwhelming, I understand. The important thing to remember is that you are in control! While we can suggest a number of tips and strategies for how best to take notes, ultimately this is about you identifying what’s important.
For now, here are some super simple and effective listening tips that might steer you towards the strategy that works for you:
Listen for INTRODUCTIONS
Get to class on time! Don’t underestimate how useful it will be to hear the context of a lecture as well as what will be highlighted.
Listen for EMPHASIS
Signposts (prof. slows down/writes on board, prof. says “this is key”, or “here are three main points”) reveal important information.
Listen for CONCLUSIONS
Listen until the last moments! Conclusions usually summarise information and clearly highlight key messages.
Following these listening tips will help you decide which information will be central to your understanding of the lecture. My hope is that today’s post acknowledges that note-taking is a difficult mental task and a skill that takes work to build. Knowing what your brain is trying to do gives you insight into what makes note-taking challenging in the first place. This Thursday’s post will build on this to give you concrete strategies for note-taking that lend themselves well to processing information and studying from it later on–stay tuned!
Hay, I., Bochner, D., et al. (2012). Starting Out: University Study and You. In Making the Grade (Canadian ed.) pp. 2-19. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.
Piolat, A., Olive, T., & Kellogg, R. T. (2005). Cognitive effort during note taking. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(3), pp. 291-312.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART ABOUT TAKING NOTES? IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT TAKING NOTES AT UNIVERSITY THAT IS INTIMIDATING?
How do I prepare for lecture? How can I stay organised? Do I really need to do anything before I show up? Lecture Preparation 101 has the answers for you!
What makes note-taking difficult? What is my brain trying to do when I take notes? How can I get the most out of what my instructors say? Read Note-Taking 101 to find out!
What is going to distract me during lecture? Do my peers also get distracted? Is there anything that I can do to keep focused? Distraction 101 has the answers to these questions!