Taking Notes in Lectures: The Why & How Of It All

Taking effective notes in class and writing down verbatim what the lecturer says are two very different things. Proper note taking not only assists with comprehension and retention but transforms you into an active learner.

Note Taking

The style of teaching at college level is very different from what you were exposed to in high school. During your school years, particularly Grades 11 and 12, teachers tend to focus quite narrowly on “textbook learning” and preparing you for your final exams. In college however, lecturers rely more on expanding on what is in the textbook, so as to provide you with a broader and deeper understanding.

This change in style and focus can be disorientating for students who are used to learning the content of a textbook by heart and having little experience in applying what they have learned.

A simple and effective way of improving your understanding and retention is by learning to take effective notes during lectures.

Why the Emphasis on Taking Notes?:

1. Retention and Review

First and foremost, studies show that retention (i.e. remembering new information) decreases at the following rate:


Thus, having good notes to review for exams or for use in assignments is essential.

2. Listen and Learn

Taking notes while in a lecture forces you to:

  • Actually tune in and listen to what is being said.
  • Analyse what is being said – sifting out what is important and should be taken note of, from what is not.
  • Be an active, rather than passive, learner – resulting in you thinking about what you are taking note of and identifying gaps in your understanding.

Note taking is in fact a high level skills involving complex cognitive processes such as: analysing, evaluating, reviewing, writing and synthesizing.

note taking.2


How to Take Good Notes:

DO’S –
  • Be attentive to the main points and important information i.e. facts, details, examples and explanations that expand on a main point.
  • Keep your notes brief. Take down key words and short sentences.
  • Where possible, use your own words – this helps with retention and comprehension vs. mindlessly writing down  what you hear.
  • Formulas, definitions, terminology and specific facts should be noted down exactly.
  • Write legibly – notes are of no use to you if you cannot decipher what you have written.
  • Create your own system of symbols and abbreviations that you use consistently e.g.


  • Use bullet points and indentations to indicate levels of related information and to distinguish between major and minor points.
  • Use one highlighter or pen colour to indicate new words, terminology.
  • Use a different highlighter or pen colour to highlight words or concepts you are not sure of or need to look up – you can then go back to your notes and add what you find out about the word / concept.
  • Start your notes for each new lecture on a new, clean page, date and number your pages – this will help keep your notes in order.
  • Do review your notes within 24 hours – look for and attend to any words or phrases you cannot make out or don’t understand; fill in key words, gaps, questions you might have; compare your notes to your textbook reading and add to them.

Note Taking

  • DO NOT try to write down every word the lecturer speaks. Be selective, seeking out the main points and information.
  • Do not use tatty, scrap pieces of paper to write your notes on.
  • Do not record a lecture using your cell phone voice recorder, in place of taking notes. By actively deciding what to take note of and the physical action of writing the information down, you are processing, analysing and comprehending the information. In addition to this, you can quickly read your notes later for points or facts you need or in preparation for a class vs. having to troll through the entire voice recording and all the added, unnecessary “bumpf” the lecturer also spoke about on that day, in search for a single phrase or point. Don’t be tempted. Don’t be that guy / girl.

How to Pick Up on What is Important?

The following is not a hard and fast rule…BUT…lecturers often give clues as to what is important and should be taken note of, the trick is to look (and listen) for the verbal and non-verbal cues (and blatant HINTS) given throughout the lecture:

  • If it’s been written down on the whiteboard…it is most likely important and should be noted.
  • If it is in bold or CAPS or BOTH in the lecture notes or PowerPoint notes…it is most likely important and should be noted.
  • Repetition. They aren’t repeating the same point over and over for their health…get the HINT.
  • Emphasis. This can be picked up in two ways: a) tone of voice and gestures used when discussing a particular topic / concept / theme e.g. “There are TWO THEORIES on the …”; b) the amount of time a lecturer spends on a particular point or topic, the number of examples they use in order to ensure that the idea is clearly understood.
  • Reviews given at the beginning of a class (highlighting important points or topics from the previous lesson) and summaries given at the end of a class.


Dietsche, V.K. (2000). Taking Notes: 5 College Success Tips. Retrieved from:  http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/academic1/taking-notes-5-college-success-tips/ [Accessed on: 07 July 2016]

Taking Lecture Notes. (2001). Retrieved from:  http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/success/notes.html [Accessed on: 07 July 2016].

Academic Skills: Methods of Taking Notes. (n.d.) Retrieved from:  http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/docs/notetaking.pdf [Accessed on: 07 July 2016]