Why take this module?

Being able to take effective notes whilst reading or listening to a lecture is a key academic skill that will contribute to your overall success as a student, but will also help save you time.

You will develop:

  • Active listening skills, distinguishing between details, key ideas and supporting facts.
  • The ability to take effective notes and review and organise them.
  • Better study strategies which will save you time.

How to take notes effectively:

Whether you are taking notes during a lecture, in a tutorial or whilst reading, there are a range of techniques that can be applied that will save you time, assist you in presenting the information clearly, and ensure that there is sufficient useful information when you refer to your notes at a later date.

There are three stages of note-taking, with each stage involving different techniques.

Stage 1: Preparation

Before commencing a course, consider what system of note-taking is most meaningful and useful for you. You could structure your notes in sentence form, dot points as a table, chart, diagram, branching tree, star, boxes or spokes. Sometimes you might add colour, symbols or arrows to emphasise relationships between items in your notes. An advantage of creating more interesting notes is that you are more likely to re-engage with the content during revision, a potential disadvantage may occur when notes cannot be deciphered at a later date so it is important to develop a note-taking system that you understand.

Images available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia licence

Prior to attending a lecture familiarise yourself with the topic that is about to be discussed — find out what the lecture is about, and complete any assigned readings before the lecture, not afterwards. If power point handouts are provided either print or download an electronic copy so that slides can be annotated and important points highlighted.

Stage 2: Attentive listening and making notes

Part of being able to effectively take notes requires the ability to know how to listen. It may sound strange to talk about ‘how to listen’ because it’s something we do naturally without thinking about it. However, we all know there’s a difference between half-listening to a song or the TV playing in the background, compared with attentively listening to some important news a friend has.

If we think something is important to us we concentrate on what the listener is saying. We try to block out distractions, and we think about what we are being told, judging it, comparing it to what we already know, analysing it.

Listening in lectures and the classroom requires active listening — you should have a clear listening ‘goal’ or aim in mind. Use concentration strategies such as mindfulness exercises or sitting in a quieter part of the lecture theatre to avoid distractions and help you concentrate. Try to visualise what is being said: can you picture in your mind what the lecturer is talking about?

As well as focussing your attention and trying to visualise what is being discussed, try to pick up on what are called ‘signposts’, words that signal to the listener that an important point is being made. You should listen out for:

  • Signal Words
  • Main ideas

Signal words do what they sound like they do: they ‘signal’ something important to the listener. This might be a change in topic, a key point, an introduction, a supporting fact, a conclusion or other key point. Signal words for a change in topic, for example, might include: ‘next’, ‘in contrast’, moving on now’, ‘on a different topic’ and so on. Signal words for a key point might include: ‘It is important to note the following’, ‘one key fact to remember’, ‘crucially’ and other similar words and phrases. As you get more experienced with lectures, your ability to pick out and distinguish signal words will improve. Signal words help you by ‘signposting’ the direction the lecture is taking, so you know what to expect next.

Main ideas are the ‘meat’ of the lecture. They are the central themes and key points that the lecturer wants to communicate with you, the student. Think of them like the headline in a newspaper article: they are supported by facts, figures and details without which they wouldn’t make much sense, but the headline summarises the most important and relevant thing to grasp about what is being said.

Listen to the 3 minute lecture below:

  1. As you listen take notes as you normally would in a lecture
  2. Compare against the sample notes at the end of this module
  3. Consider any changes you may make to your current note-taking style

Notetaking Exercise

Tanya Weiler

Stage 3: Annotating and organising notes

This stage is useful to prepare for future assignments and/or exams.

Look over the notes you have made. Think about what each part of the lecture was saying and how you could ‘tag’ that part with a ‘key’ word, phrase or question that helps to start organising your notes. Three or four key words, phrases or questions are all that’s needed.

The next stage in organising the notes is to collect the notes themselves and the key points into a summary of a few sentences. In your own words, write down three or four sentences that sum up the notes. Depending on the length of notes the summary may either at the end or at appropriate sub-sections. This summary needs to be done the same day as the lecture, whilst it is still fresh in your mind.

Cornell Method of note taking

Skim reading

Summary of tips and tricks for note taking in lectures:

  1. Listen for ‘signal words’ that signpost a new heading or direction in a lecture.
  2. Listen for repetition – if something is repeated it is probably because the lecturer considers it important and wants to make you understand.
  3. Listen for main ideas, often indicated by bullet points or a new lecture slide
  4. Pay particular attention to the introduction and conclusion of a lecture which will introduce and sum up what the lecture is about.
  5. Avoid writing notes that copy what the lecturer has said word-for-word, translate into your own words.

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