How do I taked notes?
February 9, 2007 8:03 AM   Subscribe

I don't know how to take notes. No. really.

I'm a third year English major, and I've never really learned how to take notes in class. In my high school years, I was able to pick everything up with loosely paying attention in class, reading the text, and not writing a thing down. As my educational career advances, though, I'm beginning to see my inability to take notes is going to hurt me, particularly if I go on to Grad School.

When I do take notes, or try, I can't help but feel I'm missing something. I write what's on the board, if there is something, or key phrases quoted in a lecture, but it's usually very disorganized. Also, it's hard for me to focus on note taking. I've tried writing notes by hand, though my terrible handwriting makes this a chore, and writing on a laptop which is annoyingly distracting[1].

Not every class requires the same degree of note taking, too. My Philosophy class is a lecture course where I have to take notes, but some of my upper-level English courses are discussion where note taking is de-emphasized (though I should take notes as I read the books.)

So, in short, if someone could point me to a "Note Taking for Remedials" book, or explain the basic ideas to me. I've looked at note taking systems like the Cornell Method which strikes me as absurdly complex. I'm not a good spacial/visual thinker, mind-mapping doesn't work well for me at all (tried it.)

What works for you? How should I take notes? Do I dump the laptop? Record my lectures? I'm sort of lost here.

1.I use an iBook G4, and try to type notes in WriteRoom to minimize distraction. It doesn't work well as I can still alt-tab out, run a web browser, etc.
posted by SansPoint to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
A lot of people use the Cornell Method for note taking, which is part notes-part procedure.

My personal method involved avoiding the computer, and writing in a notebook obsessively. From power-point lectures, you cry, but if they're handwritten, I write down everything on the board with pictures.

Make sure you take notes of the important things, but mention the smaller details, too.
posted by that girl at 8:19 AM on February 9, 2007


re: distraction, you may wish to check out this project.
posted by dobbs at 8:31 AM on February 9, 2007


First step is to write EVERYTHING down while in class or a meeting. Then later, rewrite everything, organizing/summarizing as you go along. Maybe do this more than once.

Your first set of notes are going to be disorganized. You will only feel like you got it all after you review/rewrite them.
posted by frogmoses at 8:34 AM on February 9, 2007 [4 favorites]


Put away the computer and use pen and paper. It will reduce the number of distractions and force you to learn to record ideas concisely and summarize (which is a matter of practice).
posted by Krrrlson at 8:38 AM on February 9, 2007


Your ability to take notes well is limited by the lecturer's own degree of organization. I remember a biology prof who spoke in perfectly formatted outlines, and my notes from his class looked great and were actually a useful study tool. OTOH, I had a history prof who basically rambled, and was easily sidetracked by a student's question. My notes from that class looked like a random jumble of names and events.

If you're lucky, the lecturer will tell you what to expect at the top of the class. That can help guide you. You should also meet with your prof outside of class and ask for tips "Is there something I should be listening for that I'm not picking up on?"

I also have atrocious handwriting, and wrote all my notes in all-cap block letters. This was in the pre-laptop era; if I had it to do over, I'd be using a laptop and somehow find the intestinal fortitude not to start browsing the web in the middle of class.

If that's too much, you could get a dumbed-down wordprocessor [1], [2] or perhaps a palmtop with a full-size external keyboard.
posted by adamrice at 8:38 AM on February 9, 2007


I can't believe you don't hear more about this type of thing, but many students I know secretly videotape lectures. With the tiny mini-dv recorders they have these days, it's an easy and relatively inexpensive (over time) way of studying.

Be careful. Most profs don't allow this type of thing, but it seems to be easy to get away with.
posted by ColdChef at 8:51 AM on February 9, 2007


Writing everything may not work as you may not be able to keep up. it will take some time/practice, but try to write the key points, the main idea of whatever is said. You can also use your own abbreviations, etc, as long as you remember what your shorthand means. I try to stick with the I, II, III, a, b, c heading, subheading, etc. method, but sometimes this doesn't work b/c the speaker doesn't organize his lecture that way. On preview, as adamrice said.

Ultimately, your method of taking notes will develop with practice. It's not something someone can tell you how to do, b/c each person takes notes a bit differently. The key is trying to capture the "essence", ie the main idea, of what the speaker is saying. You need to do this b/c you might not be able to keep up with the speaker if you write down every word. Still, you will find yourself writing as fast as possible often.

Re-writing and summarizing later sounds good and is certainly good review, but I never found the time for that. Some people do. I did do this at the end of the semester though, when studying for exams. At that time I look through my notes and summarize each topic/section, etc in some way, be it on another sheet of notepaper, or on notecards - try different methods.

You will find your personal method by trying out different things, and modifying as you go along.
posted by cahlers at 8:52 AM on February 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


If you decide to start recording lectures, make sure to get your prof's permission first. Some can be weird about that.

What's more important to you--having a resource you can tap later, or motivating yourself to just take the notes in class? For me, it was quite simple--it was either take notes and remember stuff, or totally zone out and remember nothing. So it was really the act of taking notes, rather than having them for reference later, that really helped me. To serve that purpose, the straight forward "scribble as fast as possible" method worked for me, which is essentially the central part of the Cornell Method anyway (which the asker mentioned in the question, by the by!) I think just having to quickly summarize what the prof was saying as he was saying it (since you can't literally write down every word, unless you know shorthand) went a long way toward cementing the info in my brain. I just ignored my handwriting. I was an English major, too. I now use the same method to take notes that I later have to type up for work--it inevitably results in a few cryptic lines such as "umbrella Gail Italy" that I can't for the life of me make sense of--in those cases, I just ask.

Also, it's silly, but having a notebook and pen you really like can help, too. It's fun filling up pages.
posted by lampoil at 8:57 AM on February 9, 2007


I'm with lampoil. I was a lot like SansPoint in High School/College, and when I came to grad school I really had to be better about my note taking (which is hard because professors in my field like to ramble, and others, while organized, talk way too fast to write everything down)

What helped me the most was just trying to get as much down as possible, even if I didn't go back to them until it came time to write a paper.

I also second having a pen you like. I never used to care, and thought it was stupid to spend money on pens. Then I found pens with which I can write significantly faster and still stay legible.
posted by chndrcks at 9:09 AM on February 9, 2007


I'm an academic, yet my mind wanders in lectures. If I need to absorb the material, I will do what others have said here -- try to write down as much of it as I can with pen and paper. I'll put thing in "outline" structure where possible, but it's often not possible until I look over the notes later. I sometimes don't need to look them over later - depends how complex - sometimes just taking the notes is enough to get the stuff into my head.

It also usually helps if you've done all the reading and thought about it beforehand, so you know what the lecturer is talking about. In college, I was amazed by the difference that made.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:13 AM on February 9, 2007


If I can get an agenda or summary of topics ahead of time, computer-based note taking is a lot easier for me. Even an incomplete one. Or one that's based on headings, summaries, etc. I've gleaned from reading.

It doesn't matter if the lecturer pursues tangents, because you're not going to run out of room when you jump around in your notes.

I make a table in my word processor with agenda items in cells down the left hand column, and then I fill the right hand column. Bullet points, whatever.

I add rows as I identify truly unique topics, and I can jump around. Especially if conversation jumps around. And I can always reorganize later.

I do this because, frankly, my handwriting is terrible and my hand cramps when I write for more than 45 minutes.

For work, I can add another column to that same table with, for example, action items, status, and the brainstorming that pops into my head.

For school, I can use an additional column with supporting materials from my reading, questions I need to ask or find information for later, ideas for assignment topics, and academic epiphanies.

Finally, for reminders that people write on white boards and the like, I stopped writing that down. That's not something to learn, that's a deadline or a reminder of what to read. I started photographing those with my cell phone and emailing them to myself from my phone. And, for more learning geared stuff, I photograph those anyway. I can always chuck 'em.
posted by nita at 9:39 AM on February 9, 2007


It helps for me to turn off my wireless internet when I'm in a classroom. I'm incredibly OCD and like having things in an outline format, but then teachers jump around and my notes got completely disorganized. I switched to a laptop this semester and it helps me a lot -- before my hand cramped after awhile and my pencil lead would get smeared and pages would get torn up, etc. A laptop helps me focus not so much on the structure of the notes so much as the content.

One of the things that keeps me from getting off-track when I use a computer in class is to sit in front of somebody -- that way somebody can see everything I'm doing, and it forces me to reconsider going to off-topic web-sites.

Alternatively, having the web can be a great help for some of my classes -- for my history classes I keep wikipedia open so I can look up the topic if I want. Because I'm a total geek, sometimes I link my notes to a Wikipedia page.
posted by cschneid at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2007


I've been trying to use the Cornell method, but have not made time for going back and picking out summeries etc. (I know I should.)

Lately I've been using this for taking notes on my readings though, and it is really helping! I think it would also work well for going back and 'taking notes on your notes' which, as everyone has emphisized here already, is super important.
posted by serazin at 9:55 AM on February 9, 2007


Any book on study skills will have a chapter on taking notes. Here's a list of suggestions.
posted by russilwvong at 10:14 AM on February 9, 2007


Be sure to do the reading before the lecture so the ideas are already forming some sort of shape in your head.

Ditto the Cornell note-taking suggestion.

Ditto serazin about using mind maps. Don't think of them as a replacement for more conventional notes -- they're the wrong place to put long quotes or formal proofs. They are, though, a great tool for organizing your thoughts and expressing things in a way meaningful to you, making for faster learning and better studying. (I loves me some mind maps.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:25 AM on February 9, 2007


I didn't know how to take notes at all until I was a junior in High School. That's when one of my teachers taught us his dot/dash note taking system.

It's nothing more than a very simplified outline style of note taking, minus having to keep track of a bunch of roman numerals and cardinal numbers. It might be helpful to realize that a professor who is lecturing in a note-intensive course is probably lecturing from their own notes, which we would all hope are in some sort of order. So therefore the structure of your notes in the class would be simply:

* main point
- subpoint
- subpoint
- subpoint

* another major point
- subpoint
- subpoint
- subpoint

and so on. Using appropriate abbreviations also speeds it up -- w/o for without, a triangle for "change", a triad of dots for "therefore" - whatever you're used to using already. No need to write complete sentences, or write down something verbatim unless it's exactly the sort of idea that you must remember, verbatim. The note at each dot and dash should be long enough to get the idea back when you're reviewing your notes later, but brief enough that you can write it down roughly in the same time that it's being spoken. If you want to practice just do it to the evening news, as though the anchorman is your lecturer, and see if you get the hang of it.

The reason I would ditch the laptop is that it's not as flexible as a piece of paper if you need to go freestyle on something, like draw a diagram or picture or make arrows from one idea to another. Plus, a notebook and pen are much more portable and much much less valuable.
posted by contessa at 10:39 AM on February 9, 2007


I can't take notes either, but I managed to get a Master's, so there is hope.

I have a slight learning disability so it proved too difficult to concentrate on writing when I needed to be listening. So I just found a person who took immaculate notes and asked if I could copy them. It worked out well.

I think if I never came to class, was graded poorly, or didn't engage in the class discussion it would have looked like I was being lazy, but an honest disclaimer or perhaps some kind of trade off might work.
posted by stormygrey at 10:56 AM on February 9, 2007


mindmapping can be helpful, especially if it happens after you have taken your original notes.
posted by craniac at 10:57 AM on February 9, 2007


Why don't you watch a couple videos on YouTube.com and practice taking notes in different styles while you watch them? See what works, and what you remember about the videos based on your notes.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:13 AM on February 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'd highly recommend something like contessa's method of simplified outline and symbolic abbreviations. Using more or less that method, try not to let a "point" go by. Chances are you may not even have to refer back to your notes -- the very act of writing down all the points in an improvised, yet organized, way may well be enough to make you remember them.

It's up to you to determine what constitutes a "point" -- with every professor, it will be a bit different, and chatty professors who go off on tangents will be particularly challenging -- but that very struggle ("was that a main point or a sub-point or just an aside?") can do wonders for helping you remember the information & grasp the organizing concepts.
posted by treepour at 11:23 AM on February 9, 2007


I also used a method similar to contessa's in law school, except I used different kinds of bullets. Law students live and die by their notes, which they use to make outlines at the end of every semester. I wouldn't have ever made an outline of notes in undergrad, but having notes you can cut and paste is great if you want to go that route.

I also agree with others who said it's a matter of trial and error to find a method that works for you. I took terrible notes in undergrad, but eventually worked out a method that worked for me in law school.
posted by Mavri at 11:43 AM on February 9, 2007


This may be off-track, but have you tried skim reading....it forces you to only read words that have significance in a document.

Its a long shot, but it just maybe that if you try skim reading it may have a positive effect on the words that you choose to note and thereby reducing the volume of what you need to write down.

The down-side is that I can no longer read a newspaper without skim reading!
posted by pettins at 11:47 AM on February 9, 2007


In meetings I try to tape record them but I still take notes of key things or mental associations that I think as other people talk. It makes it easier to make sense of the recordings if you make a framework with your notes.

Even the most disorganized professor has something they are covering in their lectures. With a syllabus you should have some idea beforehand of what they will be covering. The key is to be prepared by reading the appropriate material ahead of time. That way you will not be struggling to understand and remember at the same time. If you don't understand material it is much more difficult to comprehend.
posted by JJ86 at 11:53 AM on February 9, 2007


Also, if you have a genuine learning disability and get categorized as such, sometimes the disability services people will pay someone in your class to take notes for you.
posted by craniac at 1:01 PM on February 9, 2007


Seconding the YouTube videos for practice. Pick classes that are related to courses you're enrolled in now, so you're not trying to take notes on nuclear physics if you are an English major with only basic Biology under your belt.

Nthing "don't try to write every word" and "learn appropriate abbreviations" I use the delta for change, the triad of dots for therefore. I also find these useful: bx for between, bc for because, rlsp for relationship, nt for nature, tx for treatment (or just treat) and ppl for people. am and pm work well for morning and night.

Learn to read your professor's cues about what is important. Sometimes a professor will say "this is really important," underline those statements. You can also discuss with prior students what kinds of exams are given, and that will give you an idea of the structure of notes. If a professor really likes to give essay questions about character development, and mentions it in class, you had better believe you need to write that down. If the professor talks about word choice or syntax in every lecture, that might be a crucial theme.

Review your syllabus before each lecture. What have you already discussed in class? If those things come up again, take note. What are you expected to discuss today, if that comes up, write it down. Most syllabi entries aren't even whole sentences, but they often include a major theme and then a smaller part of it, like "Neo Impressionists, Cezanne." From that, in an art history class I expect we'll be talking about some Neo Impressionist painters, and that extra attention will be paid to Cezanne. Comparisons to art movements prior to this one will be important because we've talked about them recently.
posted by bilabial at 3:04 PM on February 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I can't believe this hasn't been mentioned in here. I hope it's because it's so obvious as to not need stating, but in case it's not....

Read the assigned texts before the lecture. If there is anything in the lecture that you don't understand, it helps if you can raise your hand and say "hey, I didn't quite grasp that in the book, article, poem...Can you help me hash that out?" It's also really great when the professor asks if anyone has questions about the reading to prove that you did, uh, do the reading. Most professors totally get a hard on for answering well reasoned questions.

Sometimes those questions are best left for office hours, but man, the text can illucidate a lecture, and vice versa. If you haven't read the text you may have some difficulties with:
spelling
name recognition
chronology
theory

It's really embarassing to raise your hand and say "How do you spell Cloissonism?" (happened to the kid next to me) and have the prof respond, "It's on the syllabus and in the text. Find it." Sure, the prof is a dick, but you're paying to be in these classes, and you are expected to treat it like a job.
posted by bilabial at 3:09 PM on February 9, 2007


Oh, Zed_Lopez beat me to it 5+ hours ago. Sorry, I couldn't even be that succinct.
posted by bilabial at 3:10 PM on February 9, 2007


iamkimiam, and bilabial, I can't find these videos on youtube about taking notes. Can you provide a link?
posted by SansPoint at 4:46 PM on February 9, 2007


If you're handwriting notes, leave lots of space between points. Lecturers often go back to earlier points, or something they say later may resonate with an earlier point and you'll want to add to it. If you've left space on the page to add additional notes, it's so much easier than trying to write small in the margins.

Once you've taken notes, you need to transform them into sensible notes on a computer as soon as possible (before you've forgotten the lecture). The mere act of writing things down helps you remember things - the transfer of written notes to computer has the same effect, and it gives you the chance to structure them in a sensible way that the lecturer may not have bothered with.
posted by finding.perdita at 5:07 PM on February 9, 2007


Different note-taking styles are good for different kinds of classes. For classes where it's important (like your philosophy class), focus on writing as much as you can down. Don't worry about organization. Once you get home, you can type up your notes and structure them like finding.perdita suggested.
For your english class, keep a notepad handy so you can jot down people's comments and ideas as they come up during the discussion. That way, you can add any interesting points to the notes that you take as you read the books.
posted by snoogles at 6:49 PM on February 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm not talking about watching videos about taking notes. I'm talking about videos of lectures, so you can practice taking notes on real lectures until you find a system that you think works for you. Keeps you from a bit of trial and erroring your way through your real classes!

This talk on Renaissance Poems is short and might be done by a student, but it should give good practice.

First clip and second clip of Morgan Spurlock presenting at Iowa State University in 2004.

Here is Marissa Mayer at Stanford University talking about creativity.

This is Ken Miller talking about Intelligent Design and how it gets wedged into conversations about evolution.

Up next, Richard Dawkins talks about the God Delusion.

These results were all found by searching "university lecture" on YouTube. The phrase "English Lecture" didn't get me much. Wait, it got me the Renaissance bit above. You might try looking for lectures on specific topics that are related to your study.
posted by bilabial at 2:35 PM on February 10, 2007


I know I'm late to the discussion, but in terms of specific technology, I had excellent success with VoodooPad for in-class note taking (specifically English courses, graduate level).

I started off using Microsoft Word's notebook thingie which, when I recorded lectures, has the awesome ability to link the typed line with the place in the text. That way when I was not able to keep up, I could simply hit return and type "LISTEN TO THIS" to remind me to go back and get any important points I missed at that point. It also freed me up to jot down questions in my notes and not fear that I'd miss a key concept in discussion: I was recording it and had everything.

In case you were wondering, yes, my typing does interfere with the lecture on the recording. But it is only an annoyance; everything is perfectly comprehensible. You'll never make a mint selling recorded lectures, but you knew that already.

I had two problems with this: first, the files were predictably gigantic. Backing up was an extra hassle. And I had a dilemma with deletion even after the course was over. Because I was recording everything, I feared that some priceless nugget of information was hidden in that recording.

Second, it is tough to actually sit down and listen to a lecture again. Because the second time through is even more boring than the first. And heavens, it does feel slow. Makes you wish folks would just hurry up and make their point already. So except for key areas (where I made a note at the time to listen or where my notes were ambiguous and I though the lecture might clarify) I never listened to the recording. It was a safety-net, yes, but that's all. It was not a magic bullet.

I suppose there is a third as well, in that I didn't exactly reveal to my professors that I was recording class. Now that I'm teaching, the non-ethicality of it strikes me rather acutely. Then again, I knew I'd never do anything with the recordings and I do not trust my students to avoid the temptation of putting me up on YouTube for my eternal shame and embarrassment.

Eventually, the annoyances of Word drove me in search of other solutions, and I landed on VoodooPad almost on a whim. I mean, how could a wiki be really any different? After maybe two weeks of class, it hit me that VDP was the best thing that had ever happened to my class notes.

Learning the keystrokes so I could quickly create a new note and then quickly return to my original note allowed me to have a place to put tangential information -- whether from my professor or some idea I had at the time. Automatic wiki linking meant that every time the discussion veered toward, say, Queen Elizabeth I, her name would become a link, and I could follow that link for everything we'd said in the past about her. So my notes became automatically cross-referenced, and I was able to break out of a strict chronological format.

For me, this was magic. And it made me look like a genius. I use those notes still, having added on them with later research. Amazingly handy.

There might be other wiki solutions, but none that I've found for the Mac are as fast, responsive, and seamless.
posted by terceiro at 12:54 PM on February 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I just wanted to add a followup here that I've started using Voodoo Pad to put my notes in after classes. It's awesome.

If the professor giving your lecture is not the most, uh, organized, this program helps.

For my art history class, it's fantastic, because I can paste in images of the paintings we discussed in class.

I may even get it together enough to paste in the anticipated images before lecture (we got a slide list with the syllabus) and take my notes right into the laptop. Thanks terceiro.
posted by bilabial at 4:44 AM on February 19, 2007


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