How to Take Lecture Notes

For many classes, attending lecture is necessary for success in the course, especially if it’s a difficult subject. Even if attendance is not a part of the grade, exposure to and retention of the material  certainly is, and lecture is a great place for it. I know not everyone has to attend lecture to understand the material or get a good grade, but this article is not for those people! This article is about how to take appropriate notes based on how the lecture is structured.

Lecture Based on Textbook.


These are lectures that ask you complete assigned readings prior to coming to class. The textbook is mandatory, and the readings are expected. For these notes, I draw a line down my notebook paper that is roughly ⅔ of the way across (see photo). In the large portion (closest to the binding/spine) I take my reading notes from the book chapter. Major points, definitions…important stuff. Then in lecture, I highlight whatever the lecturer says that coincides with my notes. So if I write about a term or example and the lecturer mentions and elaborates on it: highlight. The ⅓ portion is for writing (pen) important things from the lecturer that are not included in my reading notes. When studying for an exam using a study guide, I highlight in a different color the notes that are used to answer the study guide (including the lecture-only portion). Exposing myself to the material 3 times (reading, lecture, study) helps me to understand it very well, and the second highlight color assists me in quick review and study for the exam.

I used this for: Biology, Applied Physiology, Human Anatomy & Physiology.

Lecture Based on PowerPoint.

The best thing to do is to print out the lectures and write directly on it. Similarly (and since I’m working on “digitalising”) I save the slides onto an app that lets me write or type on it (I like Noteability). I highlight what the lecturer reads or mentions, and write any extra information given on the slide. (If I have both readings and a powerpoint is given, I need to decide which is most important or contains the more relevant information.)

I used this for: Psychology, Sports Nutrition,

Class Based on Lecture only.

I’ve only had one class like this, but the best thing for it was to just type out my notes. There was not a powerpoint or textbook, just topics that the professor discussed. (Note: there was a powerpoint but it wasn’t downloadable. The lecturer just used it as a guide for flow of information.) Yes writing out notes is more effective for catching the main or summary points (because you have to listen and decide what’s the important gist that makes it into your notes). However, if all I have is the lecture, I’d like to type in as much information as I’m given. It’s faster than writing so I can get more information down, and also allows me to go back and format it easier than rewriting a page. But if you love to write, you could ask the lecturer if it’s okay for you to record the lectures so you can slow it down or study how it was organized.

I used this for: Motivational Behaviors, Intro to Religion.

Classes That Heavily Feature Examples and Practice Problems

These are pretty much the math and physical science (chemistry, physics) classes. Fast(ish) paced, conceptual, and lots of drawings and diagrams. Even if there is a textbook and powerpoint that guide or direct the class, so much information is found in the lecture. So I say write it out as best as you can during the lecture, even if I have poor handwriting and end up writing a lot in shorthand. As long as I can read it, it’s fine because there is an opportunity to rewrite and transfer it to a neater, easier-to-study notebook (you can even digitize it if you want). Additionally, the second rewrite has me review/study the material, condense it to the important information, and organize it.

For these classes I like to have a simple, spiral notebook that I take with me to lecture. I write down the rules, concepts, definitions, formulas, sketches, examples, and show my work. I don’t worry about being neat as long as I can understand what I’m writing. Sometime after lecture (sooner is better than later), I go back and transfer the notes to a more formal notebook for studying/reviewing it later. I use bullet points, tables, and highlight similar information. (A color for all laws/rules, one for formulas, one for examples, etc.) This is much easier to study because it’s visually organized and the information is important (after all it got written down a second time!).

I used this for: all my math classes, Chemistry, Physics.

This information is from 4 years of college, and what I’ve found most useful for me to get the most out of lecture. It took a lot of trial-and-error, but I think I’ve finally found a system for note-taking that works for me and here I’ve shared it!




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