How to Take Lecture Notes

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Most students at one time or another fantasize about either using a tape recorder or shorthand to capture every word a lecturer says. But in fact, both of these fantasies are unrealistic.

In the first place, if you turn on a tape recorder with the intention of listening to the lecture again before the exam, you'll in effect have to double your lecture time. You'll not only spend twenty-five to thirty hours or more in the classroom; you'll also have to spend another twenty-five to thirty hours listening to the tapes. On top of that, at some point you'll have to take notes and study them. As for short hand, you'd need to spend hours transcribing the symbols. Then, you'd have to sort through the verbatim text to find the nuggets you expect to be on the test. Multiply these time requirements by all your courses, and you can see why I say these approaches are unrealistic.

With such an exhausting, time-consuming prospect, it's not surprising that most students opt for the traditional approach: They simply take notes during the lecture, and then study those notes later for their exams.

But there's a better way to take lecture or discussion notes. Taking a cue from the instructor who visited Julie's psychology class, I'd suggest that you rely on the recall pattern concept. Keep these points in mind:

First, it's best to begin with the slash recall pattern because of its flexibility. If you discover later that the teacher's approach is such that a radial or linear pattern will work better, then feel free to switch.

(Note: In a very few cases, when a teacher is exceptionally well organized, the old-fashioned outline approach may turn out to be an efficient way to take notes. In other words, the teacher might actually read from an outline by saying, "I have five main topics, which you may want to put under five Roman numerals. Now, Roman numeral one . . ." But for the large majority of lectures—and all free-wheeling class discussion—the slash recall pattern is the best technique.)

Second, try to take one page of recall pattern notes for every hour of lecturing.

When you first attempt this approach with class presentations, you may find that you can't get everything on one page. In fact, it may take as many pages as you were using with the old outline or paragraph method. But with practice, you should develop the ability to put all the pertinent material on one page.

A word about the type of notebook you use: Most people keep their class notes in a letter-sized spiral notebook, but some students, especially those who like a little more room to operate, may use a legal-size pad to draw their patterns. You'll probably have to experiment to find which kind of paper is best for you.

You may have already noticed as you write on a slash or other type of recall pattern, that it's awkward to record notes on the branches that travel in a nonhorizontal direction on the paper. So when you find yourself writing in a cramped position, just turn the paper at an angle that allows you to write more easily. The more comfortable you feel taking notes, the more quickly you'll be able to write— and speed can be especially important in a fast-moving lecture.

Third, as the teacher begins to speak, listen to understand, not to record notes.

Your goal is to think, not just be a stenographer. Try to grasp the main ideas and facts first. Then jot down on the pattern a summary in your own words of what you've heard.

Among other things, you should pay attention to the following:

Note the logic and reasoning process the lecturer uses to make his main points. It's essential for you to understand how he gets from point A to point B. This kind of thinking will promote your own ability to remember and will also place you in a position to make strong, cogent arguments on essay questions.

What examples is he using? Note them and fill in facts when necessary from your reading assignments. Then, plan to use these examples—which are obviously your teacher's favorites—on your tests.

Do you agree with her position? Be sure to add your own opinions to the pattern as you go along. The more you can engage with the lecturer at this point, the more you'll understand and be able to use what you've heard. If you find you do disagree with something, you should try to get some answers from your teacher during class discussions or after the class sessions.

Fourth, when possible indicate connections between ideas and concepts on the pattern. For example, you might link related sets of branches on a pattern by drawing arrows and inserting a key word or two to indicate the connection.

Fifth, write down only main ideas, key words and essential data, not every little detail. As you jot down these major points, you might "talk" to yourself, continually evaluating and sifting the information you're hearing. If you have trouble understanding anything the lecturer is saying, include a question mark with an appropriate word at that point. Then, immediately after the lecture, you should ask the teacher to clarify the matter.

Sixth, be alert to ways of reworking the speaker's organization into a more logical format. To illustrate: You may find that you've included anger as a theme in a lecture on political revolutions. The lecturer may mention this theme several times in different locations in his talk. In this case, you might include a subsection entitled "Anger" in three different locations as the speaker did; but you may also set up a separate major heading for anger and place various relevant items under that heading.

Seventh, go over your recall pattern immediately after the lecture is finished. Think through and try to "talk back" the lecture, just to be sure you understand what was said. If necessary, fill in points that you failed to include while the speaker was talking. At this time, you may want to reorganize your notes or condense them on a separate sheet of paper.

The process of checking over and reworking your notes just after the lecture is an important part of the learning process. This reexposure to the material will help fix it better in your memory and make you more effective in later study.

Eighth, after you've checked your lecture notes following a class, schedule a reading and study session on the course material as soon as possible.

A lecture can be a useful warm-up for study. The more you immerse yourself in the subject through lectures and reading, the more complete your understanding of the material is likely to be.

Ninth, review your recall patterns regularly throughout the term. This way, you'll be in a better position to retain the information and retrieve it later to answer test questions.

Students who develop an expertise at using recall patterns for lectures and class discussions have several advantages over those who rely on extensive outline or paragraph styles of note-taking:

• Students using recall patterns no longer need to take such extensive notes because their approach encourages them to summarize what they hear.

• Even with shorter notes, they are likely to have more thoughts about the subject matter. Remember, you have to think before you can summarize a point in your own words.

An aphorism frequently heard at the Evelyn Wood program over the years has been, "The less you know, the more you write." I certainly think this observation applies to lecture notes.

• Students who use recall patterns tend to respond with greater understanding to the teacher.

• They automatically develop an effective retrieval system for drawing on information later in preparing for tests. It's much easier to study lecture notes that cover only one page per hour of class time and are presented in a striking, graphically memorable format. (Some students have found that drawing a few impression-producing pictures or stick figures on their patterns can enhance recall during study.)

Finally, here's a model you may find helpful as you practice using the slash recall approach in your lectures. Some major headings, which apply to many lecture situations, have been included. But of course, you should change those headings as necessary to accommodate your note-taking to the particular class presentation.

REMEMBER EVERYTHING YOU READ Model Slash Recall Pattern for Lectures

Slash Recall Pattern Notes Taking


1. Use a slash recall pattern for lecture notes.

2. Take one page of recall pattern notes for every hour of lecturing.

3. Listen to understand, not to record notes.

4. Indicate links between ideas and concepts on your recall pattern.

5. Record only main ideas, key words and essential data.

6. Rework the speaker's organization into a more logical format.

7. Review your recall pattern immediately after the lecture.

8. Schedule a study session as soon as possible after the lecture.

9. Review your recall patterns regularly throughout the term.

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  • Liz
    I started using this method halfway thru my degree. The results were immediate and phenomenally successful. It was great for exam study and also for reading articles. Can't recommend it highly enough!
    9 years ago
  • Zak Wright
    How to make short notes during lecture?
    5 years ago

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