How to take lecture notes

By @liz.thescientist


Good notes are one of the keys to success at university. When you come to exams, you are going to want easy notes to revise from that make sense and include all the important information that you need. Here is a guide to writing notes so good, everyone in your class will be wanting to borrow them!

1 - In the Lecture

So, you’re new to university. You’re attending your first lecture (in person or online). How do you go about taking good notes during the lecture?

First, decide whether you want to take your notes digitally or on paper. I personally prefer paper, but you should choose the method that works best for you! You will want to be able to write or type fast - so if you can’t decide, then choose the one you are fastest at.

The key is to try not to write down EVERYTHING – you won’t be able to, as much as you might try. You will end up getting behind, or missing points out. Instead, you should pick and choose the most important points and examples from the lecture and note them in a way that you will understand later on.

In a lecture there will likely be a slide show presentation with the speaker narrating. The slides from the presentation will usually be available online either before or after the lecture. If the slides are available, don’t write them out as you will be able to access this information later. Instead, focus on what the speaker is saying. Write down the key points or the take-home message from the speaker. This does not have to be in full sentences - in fact, the quicker you can write it, the better. Make good use of bullet points and short phrases! Focus on the speaker’s dialogue and scribble (or type) down anything you want to remember or deem important. If they refer to a particular article or book, write this down to look up later. If the lecture slides are available before the lecture, consider printing or downloading them so that you can annotate them – this helps to keep track of which note was for which slide. Otherwise, make a note in the margin of which slide the note is for.

The lecture is not the time to try to make the notes ‘pretty’. You can write up the notes later, and put in diagrams and colours then, should you so wish.

Make sure the notes (a) make sense and (b) are legible so you can understand them later on! If you struggle with the pace of the speaker and you can’t keep up, think about investing in a sound recording device – but make sure you have the lecturer’s permission if you would like to record the lecture.

Last but not least, ask questions if you need clarification or do not understand. This is what the speaker is there for – to help you learn! Sometimes they request for questions to be at the end, and if this is the case simply write down your question to ask at the end. If you are feeling shy, you can also ask the speaker one-on-one after the lecture has finished.

2 – After the lecture

Now is the time to work on those notes. I would advise you to write up the notes in the same week that you had the lecture, so that it is fresh in your mind.

To get the highest marks at university, you will need to do ‘extra reading’. This is usually advised and guided by the lecturer, but not included in their presentations. I liked to merge my lecture notes and extra reading into one mega-note, but others like to keep them separate.

Write up in neat your lecture notes into full sentences and continuous prose. I liked to do mine in the style of a textbook, as if I was writing my own personal textbook with all the information that I needed. I found this useful as it helped cement my understanding, but also when it came to exam season, they were easy to understand and revise. Plus, it’s a great excuse to buy a really pretty exercise book!

This is when you can integrate the information from the lecture slides and your written notes to form one very informative text. Make good use of colour-coding, diagrams and highlighting. I liked to colour-code my notes according to topic and write key words in a coloured gel pen so that they stood out. Find a system that works for you!

With the extra-reading, the same points apply. Don’t try to write out an entire book or article, it isn’t a good use of your time. Instead, read it through once, highlighting the key points and take-home message. Then write those out and remember to cite/reference them!

Follow these tips and you’ll have easy-to-read informative notes that will take you successfully to exam season!