Attending class lectures is one of the most important things you can do for your academic success. Taking effective notes in class ensures your time spent in class is productive and useful.

According to experts, taking notes in class has two primary functions: (a) it keeps you alert, attentive and accountable as you listen, and (b) the notes themselves become a record of what was said in lecture or discussion that can be used later for studying and review (Seward, 1910).  According to Hartley & Marshall (1974) students who take notes experience increased attention and concentration in class (as cited in Cuseo, Fecas & Thompson, 2007). In addition, writing during class and reviewing notes before tests produces better recall which is important to your performance on exams (Kiewra, 1985).  When evaluating your own note-taking strategies, ask yourself if you're achieving those two primary functions. If you aren't, consider ways you could alter your strategies to be more effective.

It's important to keep in mind the different levels of note-taking. Surface-level note-taking involves writing down the words you hear but not really paying attention to the meaning or topic; this might be similar to a court reporter taking a transcript of a trial: they record information but may not be personally processing it (Anderson & Armbruster, 1991). In comparison, as you seek to be effective in your note taking. and to get the most out of the practice, you should aim for meaning-based note taking which is characterized by thinking and processing what's being said. Rather than trying to write down every single word that you hear, you listen to the lecturer and begin to make connections and form your own understanding of what's being presented; you write down in your own words what's being discussed. This level of note taking is ideal for the classroom lecture when you listen for main ideas, make inferences, and identify question areas.

Remember, too, that notes are only as good as what you do with them. Go back into your notes and be sure you've gotten all the answers you're looking for to the questions you had during the lecture or reading or pre-work that you did ahead of class. Then, see how you can transform what you've recorded.

  • Can you turn it into a study guide?
  • Can you combine several sets of notes on the same topic? (notes from reading, from discussion/recitation/lab, notes from the lecture, etc.)
  • Can you take your notes and turn the information into a diagram or a mind/concept map?

By going into your notes and turning them into something new, you're asking yourself to make connections, to continue to put information into your own words, and to identify gaps in your understanding and the information you've taken down. If you're interested in more note-taking information, take a look at our Note Taking 101 material below, and if you'd like some additional tips, read on:

  • Prepare your brain for its information intake. When you read and take notes before you go to class, it primes your brain for the content you'll encounter in lecture. You can develop questions about what's unclear, or what you want to know more about, etc. All of this allows you to anticipate the lecture and make connections between what you've read and what you're hearing, and to fill in gaps.
  • Print any provided lecture notes. At times, instructors will post lecture notes or PowerPoint slides on Canvas or the class website prior to class. If you print these out, then you can write your notes directly into the slides. You're not writing down what's already there; rather, you're trying to capture new information from the lecture.
  • Pay close attention to the entire lecture. Listen for main ideas, relationships between concepts, and examples. Actively think about what you’re hearing and make choices about what to write down in your notes. Why is the instructor choosing the examples they do? How do the different parts of the lecture all connect? What's the point?
  • Take notes on assignments and exam information. If the lecture includes any discussion of expectations for an assignment or exam, this is important information to write down. The information may not be included on a formal assignment description or on Canvas, or there may be an additional detail that will be helpful for you to think about.
  • Revisit your notes and their information. After class is over, spend time revisiting, rewriting, transforming and/or studying your notes. Add to your notes with information from the book/videos/discussion boards. If you meet with peers to study, connect with them about their own notes, as they may have written something down that you missed and vice versa.  
  • Evaluate your note taking. Compare with other students, check in with the instructor, and try to use your notes to teach someone the material. If your notes don't seem effective when you revisit information or are studying later, revise your note-taking strategy.

  Want more information about note-taking? Our Note Taking video can tell you more, and show you more, too.

  Interested in seeing some note-taking styles? Check out these examples of note taking!

  Want more of the strategy/science? Check out our Note Taking 101 packet below.

Still have questions or want to talk with someone about all of this? Come and see us in the Academic Success Center:

Waldo Hall 125 | Monday through Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM

You don't need an appointment, you can just drop in and ask questions and we'll sit down with you and chat about your experience and what you're trying. It's one of our favorite things to do, is talking with students about their classroom and study strategies and processes. We can't wait to see you!


Click below to download this Note Taking powerhouse handout!

Click the image to find 7 different ways to take notes!