Note Taking

Developing listening and organizational skills will make your note taking easier and more effective. IMPORTANT: no matter how notes look, reviewing them on a regular basis is the key to retaining the information.

Engaged listening

Active engagement will help you learn and retain more information from lectures.

  • Attend class regularly. Arrive early and stay late in case the professor makes announcements, or introduces or summarizes important information.
  • Sit in "T section" to minimize distractions.
  • T-Section Example
  • Pretend you and the professor are engaged in a conversation: make eye contact, nod when you agree, and ask questions when you are confused. Making this connection improves comprehension and lets the professor know you are interested in the class.
  • Concentrate. If you are concerned about something, write yourself a reminder to deal with it later then put it out of your mind. Calmly remind yourself to pay attention.

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Listening For Main Ideas

Are you unsure about what to include in your notes? Write it down when the professor:

  • Says it's important or repeats the information.
  • Writes information on the board or overhead.
  • Breaks concepts or processes into steps.
  • Gives contrasts or pros and cons.
  • Changes vocal tone or volume. This may indicate excitement; information a professor is excited about often ends up on tests!
  • Signal words and phrases may also indicate that a professor is saying something you should remember:
    • Introductory words give a basic outline of what the day's lecture will cover ("Today we'll discuss..." "After today you should be able to...").
    • Qualifying words note exceptions to rules and clarify information ("However..." "Nevertheless...").
    • Cause and effect phrases show relationships between ideas and events ("Therefore..." "As a result...").
    • Contrast words show relationships between ideas and events ("On the other hand..." "By comparison...").
    • Repeated words rephrase and clarify information (In other words..." "This simply means..." "In essence...").
    • Test clues alert you to possible test material ("This is important..." "Remember this..." "You'll see this again...").
    • Summary words ("In a nutshell..." "To sum up..." "In conclusion...").
    • Example words explain and clarify information (To illustrate..." "For example..." "For instance...").

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When Professors Talk Too Fast

Taking notes can be difficult when the professor speaks quickly. Students can take steps to make sure they record all of the important information.

  • Prepare before coming to class—read the assigned material, review previous class notes. This will make the lecture more interesting and easier to follow.
  • Combining sets of notes can provide more complete information; compare notes with a classmate or form a study group.
  • Leave space in your notes to make it easy to add information later.
  • Indicate in your notes if you get lost during the lecture. This way you can keep pace with new information and figure out after class what you missed.
  • Ask your professor for clarification if you are lost or confused about specific information. Most professors are happy to talk with students after class, during office hours, or by appointment.
  • Record the lecture (ask your professor first).
  • Use abbreviations! Try standard symbols such as ">" for "greater than," or make up your own. Either way, be consistent and review and annotate your notes as soon as possible after lecture to eliminate confusion.

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Cornell System

The Cornell Note Taking System is based on strategies found to improve understanding and performance. Consider the following:

  • Unless lectures notes are reviewed, most people forget up to 80 percent of what they have heard in class within 24 hours.
  • Active processing of information (analyzing, summarizing, paraphrasing, and reciting) increases comprehension and retention.
  • Students who anticipate possible test questions and practice answering them perform better on tests than students who do not.
  • Taking time to review and study notes on a regular basis is one of the most efficient study skill improvements a student can make.


  • A loose-leaf notebook allows you to insert handouts and supplementary notes.
  • Paper: paper used for the Cornell System has 2 ½ or 3 inch left margin. Take all notes to the right of the margin line.

After Class (within 24 hours):

Review your notes; make them as complete, legible, and accurate as possible.

  1. Identify key ideas and terms.
  2. On the left side of the margin, write down key words or ideas opposite the complete notes. You can also write questions on the left side that can be answered using information on the right side.
  3. Cover up the notes on the right side of the paper with another sheet of paper. Look at your key words or questions on the left side and attempt to recite (out loud if possible) the related information in your notes.
  4. Check to see if you have remembered the information correctly. If you missed something, study it until you feel comfortable with it and try again. Continue this process until you are completely familiar with the material.

Weekly, throughout the quarter:

Set up a time to review all notes for the week, e.g. 30 minutes every Sunday afternoon. By covering up your notes and reciting key words and questions you will reinforce the information and prepare yourself for exams.

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The Importance of Review

The most important part of note taking is reviewing your notes after class. The average person forgets up to 80 percent of what they've learned within 24 hours of learning it. You can dramatically increase retention by reviewing information within that first 24 hours.

Edit and clarify them your notes when you review, focusing on main ideas and key points. One way of doing this is by using the Cornell System. To further improve retention, do a weekly review as well. Choose one night of the week to go over notes from the past week for all of your classes. Plan to spend about 30 minutes per class.

Reviewing reading material also improves retention of information, and can be done in almost the same manner. After reading each chapter or section of the text, do a short review within 24 hours and a comprehensive review on a weekly basis.

Nobody is anxious to add another task to their list of things to do, but reviewing often saves time in the long run. Studying for a short period each day is more effective than studying for many hours on a single day.

memory diagram

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Page Updated 11.27.2017