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Tips for College Note Taking

Jun 08, 2011

While you might have been able to slide by without taking notes in high school, learning to take good notes is essential for most college students. Taking poor notes, or not taking notes at all, can have a detrimental effect on your grades. Read on to learn some tips and tricks for getting the most out of your classes and readings.

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Pay Attention

More essential than any note-taking strategy is paying attention. A lot of students make the mistake of taking so many notes that they're not in the here-and-now of the class. Others are surfing the Net, facebooking, texting, or tweeting. Focus on what the instructor is presenting, and make an effort to learn the material right then and there:

  • Sit in a place where you can see and hear the professor clearly - the front of class is usually best (it's okay to be a nerd!)
  • Clear your space of any distractions that could prevent you from focusing on the class
  • If you're taking notes on a computer, turn off your wireless connection so you're not tempted to go online

The same goes for reading: Clear your space. Find a quiet, distraction-free spot, like the library. Take regular breaks so you can maintain the focus you need.

Get the Right Materials

Make sure that all of your note-taking materials are easily accessible in class or during a reading session. The following supplies can help you take good notes:

  • Notebooks or binders, one for each class (3-ring binders can help you organize notes, syllabi and class handouts - you'll just need to invest in a good hole punch)
  • Graph paper for diagrams, if applicable
  • Pencils or pens (always keep extras with you)
  • Highlighters
  • Small sticky notes and/or flags

Take Good Notes in Class

Remember that you're a student, not a court reporter. You don't need to write down every word the instructor says. If you've done the reading before class (which is strongly recommended), you'll know what's in the textbook and won't need to write much of that stuff down.

Instead, write down info that isn't in the textbook and points the instructor emphasizes as important. Write in phrases, not whole sentences, and use abbreviations to save time and hand cramps. Here are some of the things you'll typically want to include in your notes:

  • Info the professor puts on the board
  • Facts you need to memorize, like names and dates (if this information is in your textbook, don't waste ink writing it down)
  • Formulas you need to know, particularly in math or science courses
  • Details emphasized by your professor (keep your ears perked up for signal phrases such as 'the most essential part is...' or 'this will be on the test')

Take Good Notes on Readings

You'll have a lot more reading in college than ever before, and you'll sometimes need to refer back to specific passages for class discussions, exams, and essays. Here are some methods for taking notes on key ideas:

  • Highlight or underline text
  • Use small sticky notes or flags, noting the line number, paragraph number, or first few words of text
  • Write down info you want to remember in your notebook or on loose leaf paper, noting the page and paragraph numbers
  • Record your thoughts in the margins as you read
  • Write down any words or concepts you find challenging and want to spend more time on later

Organize Your Notes

Notes are pretty useless if they can't help you find information later. It's essential to write legibly and keep everything organized. There are no hard-and-fast rules for note organization, just find a system that works for you. Here are a few ideas:

  • Write the course name and date at the top of each page, just in case some pages get separated
  • Keep all of your materials and reading notes for each course together
  • File your notes chronologically (this is where a 3-ring binder can come in handy)

Experiment and Find What Works for You

Ultimately, you'll need to decide which note-taking strategies work best for you. Fortunately, you'll get regular feedback through grades on exams and quizzes. If your grades are good, keep the system you've got. If your grades could be better, do some readjusting.

If you'd like additional help with note-taking or other study skills, look for an academic support or learning center on campus. If you're struggling due to a disability, contact your school's disability services office. They can help with any necessary accommodations, such as a note-taker or written transcripts of lectures.

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