Structured note-taking for students

Note-taking is not just “copying down” information, it takes active work. To convert what we hear into notes, we have to first process the information, i.e. sort it (we won’t note everything down) and rank it (we have to decide what is important).

Is there any need to point out that, to take usable notes, you must have first understood everything, otherwise there’s no point?

A useful tip: if you don’t find the lecture particularly interesting, concentrate on your actual note-taking technique. It’ll stop your mind wandering!

Spot the essentials
Your notes should bring out the key message (fortunately this is often given in the introduction), the plan and the keywords.

What to note
Bear in mind that examples are not just there for “decoration”: they are often essential for a proper understanding of a concept. That said, there’s no need to list them all: one’s enough for your notes. A figure on its own may not mean much, but it becomes meaningful if you relate it to another figure, or if it becomes a percentage, for example.

The more you know about a subject, the less you need to note down, which is why it’s useful to reread your notes between lectures! If you use the SCRIBZEE® app to scan your notes, you’ll be able to reread them on your smartphone or PC any time you like, wherever you are.

As a general principle, you should note down anything that is not readily memorisable, such as new words, figures, dates, proper names, etc.

What about rephrasing?
Rephrasing eliminates words but retains the meaning:

  • Use fewer words (e.g. “is able to” becomes “can”)
  • Eliminate unnecessary terms (e.g. “with regard to the political aspect” becomes “politically”)
  • Use telegraphic style: remove determiners (a, of, to, etc.)

Rephrasing is concrete:

  • Leave quotations and definitions intact
  • Don’t write lists of isolated keywords
  • Write all sentences in the subject+verb+complement format

Rephrasing makes the logical connections clear:

  • Use the standard operational signs: >, <, <=>
  • Clearly identify oppositions and differential causes and effects
  • Don’t overuse arrows or they end up being meaningless!

The art of abbreviations
If a term comes up twice in a row, you can abbreviate it. You may need to create your own glossary of abbreviations, either at the top of the first page or right at the end of the lecture notes. But whatever happens, do it while it’s still fresh in your memory.

What will useful notes look like?

Read over and finish your notes

  • Ideally, complete them after the lecture
  • Rewrite anything illegible
  • Underline, put boxes around, colour: it’s not just to make it look pretty, it really does aid memorisation. The colours come out just the same in a SCRIBZEE® scan
  • Check that you’ve got the page numbers right
  • Correct your mistakes by referring to the bibliography or asking questions in the next lecture
  • Scan your notes with SCRIBZEE®

When to complete your notes

  • During any pauses in the lecture
  • By asking questions straight away, after the lecture or in the next lecture
  • A few days later, by comparing your notes with your class mates’ notes (you can share them on your cloud with SCRIBZEE®)

Read on the same topic
8 great tips for improving your note-taking skills in class

About Laurence Einfalt
Laurence Einfalt