I think you’ll agree with me that taking lecture notes can be frustrating. Often teachers talk too fast. You end up unable to keep detailed notes.
Or, there’s too much information on lecture slides to write it all down.
Sometimes you can get home and the notes end up looking illegible when you go back to review them.
The best students have some killer strategies to ensure their lecture notes are as useful and effective as possible.
One key element of this is making sure your lecture notes are specific, memorable, and relevant to your assignment topic.
I can’t tell you how many times students have come to me with a mess of lecture notes, wanting me to repeat what I said in the lecture.
Most of these students haven’t mastered the top note-taking methods that are required for ensuring you get the most out of your lectures.
Over the years I’ve developed some note-taking strategies that I teach my students so that they can take effective lecture notes that will help them in their assignments.
Here are some of the top tips I give to my students about how to prepare lecture notes in order to make sure they’re as useful as possible when it comes to assessment time:
1: Print out the Slides and bring them to the Lecture
Your teacher should usually upload lecture slides onto your class’s webpage (usually on Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle).
As soon as the lecture slides come online, ensure you download them and save them to an easy-to-access file on your computer.
This way, you can prepare your lecture notes well in advance to make taking notes in the lecture much easier.
Teachers often set lecture slides to only be available within a few days of a lecture. Therefore, it’s super important that you save them onto the computer so you can have them for future dates.
Once you’ve got the lecture slides saved on your computer, you can print them ready to bring to the lecture and take lecture notes directly onto the slides.
Using software like Microsoft PowerPoint, there’s also the option to print slides on one side and lines on the other side of the page. This is a great note-taking method that helps you to take lecture notes with ease.
Here’s an image of how these lecture notes slides will look when you print them out. Then, you’ll be prepared to take lecture notes from Slide 1!
If you use this print option, you can take notes on the lined side of each slide. This makes it easy to take notes in a way in which the slides can be simply referred to while taking and re-reading notes.
You’ll find that your lecture notes make a ton more sense when paired with an image of the slides. Furthermore, you can draw on and around the margins of the slides to show exactly which element of the slides is worth remembering and reinforcing when studying later on.
If your teacher hasn’t provided lecture slides, you might want to have a quick talk with them about it. Try to argue your case for receiving the slides, including:
- Dyslexia or a learning difficulty. At every university I’ve ever taught at, it’s been compulsory for me to provide slides to students with learning disabilities;
- If you wear glasses, this one’s extra believable. Explain to the teacher that your eyes get tired looking at screens, so you want a printout in front of you to help out. You could also explain that you like to format the slides into the simple colors and font styles that you find most readable.
- Explaining why you want the slides. Teachers refuse to reveal slides in order to ensure you actually attend the class. Explain you your teacher that the slides help with your note-taking. Tell them how you actually write on the slides during the class in order to convince them that you want the slides because you are taking the class seriously, rather than the other way around.
2. Prepare before Class
Preparing lecture notes before the lecture is a super effective strategy for taking lecture notes.
In Tip #1, I gave you a great preparation strategy. Here are a few more:
1. Make sure you do the Weekly Readings before the Lecture
Most teachers set weekly readings. They’ll be very relevant to the lecture content.
In fact, many teachers use the weekly readings as a framework for their lecture slides.
You should read any assigned journal articles and take notes on them before coming to your lecture.
This will ensure you’re as prepared as possible on the topic. You’ll find that the lecture makes a lot more sense and you’ll be able to take more specific effective lecture notes.
2. Read over the Lecture Slides in Advance
Make sure you’ve got a good general idea of the lecture structure and content. This doesn’t take a long time.
In fact, you might want to turn up to the lecture ten minutes early and review the lecture slides before the lecturer starts their talk. This will help you to foreshadow what the teacher will say. You’ll find that it’s a lot easier to keep track of what’s going on.
3. Check the Morning of the Lecture for Changes to the Lecture Slides
A lot of teachers write their lecture slides over the summer, upload them to their course websites and then forget about them until it’s time to give the lecture.
These teachers have a tendency to make last-minute changes the night before the lecture. Therefore, I strongly recommend re-downloading and checking the lecture slides the morning of the lecture.
You’ll find that this will save you a lot of stress when you realize the lecture slides you printed out last week don’t align with your professor’s lecture!
3. Leave your Phone at Home
Phones are an epic distraction.
Millennials: take note. This one’s for you.
Bank of America recently conducted a study that showed Millennials spend more time on their phone than with their significant other.
What a world we live in!
If you’re addicted to your Smart Phone, it might be best to leave it at home, in your car, or turned off in your bag.
Without your Smart Phone you’ll be less likely to be distracted.
I know lectures can be boring: but don’t give yourself the temptation to start searching social media. Leave the phone at home to ensure you don’t miss a thing while taking lecture notes.
4. Use Website Blockers to Turn off Social Media on your Laptop
Here’s another top actionable tip that totally boosted my own productivity: use free website blocker software.
If you’re taking lecture notes on your laptop or tablet, this is essential.
There are a ton of add-ons for your computer that are totally free and effective for blocking websites.
Personally, I use BlockSite for Chrome. It’s got over 1.6 million users and is totally free. It’s never caused me any trouble, so I’m sticking with it.
I don’t want to ban myself from using social media. All I want to do is give myself a little reminder: “Hey! Remember you weren’t going to use this website?”
That’s usually enough to re-focus me on the tasks I was supposed to be doing: in this case, paying attention to the lecture!
Here are the top sites I make sure I block to save myself from getting too distracted:
- News Websites
Some other website blocker software you might want to have a play around with includes:
- FocalFilter – Free for Windows Users
- WasteNoTime – Free for Chrome and Safari (Mac) Users
- LeechBlock – Free for Firefox Users
5. Take Notes on Paper
Here’s a great lecture notes solution that overcomes the challenges of the above two points: Take notes on Paper!
Yes, it’s old-school, but you can make your notes more creative, organized, and colorful when writing on paper.
Furthermore, taking notes on paper eliminates distractions even more!
There’s no shiny pop-ups or easy-to-access social media distractions with paper and pen.
You’ll find you use your ‘boredom’ simply coloring, organizing, and making your notes look fantastic!
Taking paper notes can also help the OCD-inclined students amongst us to stay organized. Get yourself a binder and keep all your lecture notes stacked up in week-by-week chronological order. It’ll make you feel more organized and ready to take on the world.
6. Color Code
It may look pretty, but color-coding your work is also scientifically proven to improve memory retention.
One of my favorite studies on Color Coding is the paper ‘The Influence of Colour on Memory Performance’ in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Science.
This study reported several very important findings. Importantly, this study didn’t just conduct an analysis: it actually summarized several key studies on color and memory retention dating all the way back to the 1970s.
Here’s what they found out:
- Consistency in Color Coding helps Memory Recall. Be consistent in your color coding each week. Use the same color to code the same types of information. For example, if you were studying a Second Language, you might want to use Green highlighting every time you examine Verbs; and Blue highlighting every time you examine nouns.
- Use White Paper and Dark Pens. Studies consistently show that the more contrast there is between colors, the better your memory retention will be. This means that you should aim to use dark pen colors on a white paper background.
- Use Contrasting Color Codes. Similarly, you should aim to use contrasting highlighter colors. Try not to use several different shades of Green. One color code will work for one category; then choose a totally different color code for your next category. This will significantly improve your memory recall and prevent confusion between categories.
7. Try the Cornell Method
This is a time-tested method for ensuring your lecture notes are organized effectively. Many students swear by it, so I thought I’d better introduce it to you, too.
Here’s how the Cornell Method works:
- Split your page vertically into a short, two-inch column on the left-hand side that you label ‘Questions & Keywords’. The rest of the page is the ‘Notes’ column.
- Take most of your notes in the ‘Notes’ column.
- Whenever an important question, keyword or key point pops up that you think is relevant to your assessment, jot it down in the ‘Questions & Keywords’ column. Make sure the question or keyword is parallel to the more detailed notes on the right-hand side.
Now, I want to give you all the facts here.
Studies have shown that the Cornell Method provides no significant benefit to students’ marks.
So, if you don’t like the Cornell method, feel free to ignore it and take notes however you feel comfortable. If the Cornell method works for you – go for it!
8. Use the Mind-Map Method
Mind Mapping is excellent for organizing ideas in your head.
In fact, unlike the Cornell Method, Mind Mapping is proven to support critical thinking and creativity.
One of the reasons mind maps are so powerful is that they help you to organize ideas into groups and categories.
A great way to start a Mind Map is to write the lecture topic in the center of the page. Then, draw a circle around it. As your teacher starts talking about related topics, draw lines out from the center circle to link new ideas to the central one.
This technique is really effective at showing relationships between categories, which is great for deepening your knowledge of a topic.
Here’s an example:
9. Compare notes after Class with Friends
The trick with doing this one is that you need a friend who isn’t going to abuse this relationship.
I’ve had friends who learned to take it easy in lectures, knowing I will take notes for them! This isn’t a fair relationship and one you should be wary to avoid.
You need to find someone with the same work ethic and interest in comparing notes in order to improve.
Using this method, you don’t want to just share notes; you want to go beyond that by comparing notes:
- Sharing notes. Sharing notes is, of course, useful. You’ll find that you missed key bits of information that your friend picked up on. If you were frantic trying to finish off notes from a previous slide, you’ll find you missed the first 30 seconds of what your teacher said on the next slides. This can be a big problem because the teacher tends to say the most important things covered on the slides in the first 30 seconds, then spends the rest of the time providing explanations and examples. Sharing notes will minimize the amount of information you missed.
- Comparing notes. You’ll find that sharing notes is likely to lead to comparing notes, too. Comparing notes is all about discussing what you thought of the lecture. You can consider the post-lecture recap as a mini-study group. You will find that your friends found aspects of the lecture interesting in a way you didn’t.
While looking at one another’s notes, make sure you discuss with one another what you thought of each section of the lecture, examples you came up with in your own mind, and even areas you disagreed with the lecturer on.
Use this time comparing notes to gain insights into your friends’ perspectives on the lecture you just attended.
10. Note where the Teacher got their Information From
Your teacher studied this topic in order to write the lecture slides. You will find that the information they chose to include in the slides is the most relevant, compelling information they could find.
You should therefore make an effort to read deeper into those sources in order to write a great paper on the topic or ace the test.
Teachers love to see that you’ve read the same sources as them, and gone into depth and detail on those sources.
In other words, the research presented on the slides is what your teacher considers the creme-de-la-creme of information on the topic.
You should therefore make sure that whenever a teacher mentions a theory, theorist, or key paper, this goes into your notes.
Lecture slides often have a reference list on the last slide or in-text citations in the format (Author, YEAR) on each slide.
If you’ve followed step 1 and printed the slides before the lecture, you can simply circle or highlight the author to remember to use and cite that author in your next paper.
If your teacher refused to give you the slides, you’ll have to remember to write down the author’s name.
Make sure you read my warning in Step 4 below, which adds context to step 3.
11. Focus on Notes that are Relevant to the Assessment
It helps to have a printout of the assessment details in your hand in every lecture. Most teachers offer an assessment outline that provides information about:
- What is the essay question or topic is;
- How the essay will be marked;
- Details about word count, key authors to cite, and what referencing style should be used
Keep the Assessment Outline in Mind
Use the assessment outline as a guide about what is most relevant to remember. If a slide or topic comes up in the lecture that appears to directly address the assessment question, you’ll need to focus really hard on taking notes on that particular point.
Often, teachers don’t tell you which slides are most relevant to the lecture. In fact, it’s very few teachers make this clear.
Usually your lecturer will weave in little useful gems throughout the course in order to ensure you pay extra attention throughout.
That’s why you need the assessment outline printed out and by your side at all times. It will be invaluable in helping you stay focused and ensuring all the notes you take feed straight into your assessment.
A warning about this: make sure your essay isn’t just a repetition of your teacher’s slides. I’ve had students who have used the exact same examples, explanations, and quotes that I provided in the lecture slides.
The trick is to ensure you record the key information and key authors that your teacher thinks are worthwhile, then take the time to read into those sources in more detail.
Repeating the lecture slides will probably get you a pass, but to really shine you need to show to your teacher that you read more deeply into the topic.
If a teacher recommended one particular author and you’ve made the effort to go into a lot of additional detail about the author, they’ll be very impressed.
On top of this, finding additional sources that your teacher didn’t provide will grow your marks even further.
12. Leave Gaps
Have you ever missed some of what your teacher said and panicked that it was an important piece of information?
Remember, if you find yourself in this situation, leave gaps to fill in later!
Here are the best times to fill in those gaps:
- When you get Home. Go home, look over the lecture slides, and see if you can use your own logic to try to fill in what content was supposed to go in that section.
- When comparing notes with Friends. In Point 9, I told you that comparing notes with friends is a great way to deepen your understanding of the lecture content. If you leave gaps where you missed something you think is important, you can fill them in with your friend’s notes. Remember, you don’t want to look like you’re just stealing information from them. Your study relationship should be give-and-take, so look out for opportunities to give your study buddy some support, too.
- During your Teacher’s Drop-In Hours. Most teachers reserve time each week for informal drop-in sessions with students. If you missed some points, make sure you go to the drop-in session and ask the teacher to help you fill in the gaps. A few words of advice here:
(1) Teachers like to be forewarned if they’re coming to a drop-in session. Drop your teacher a polite email letting them know you’ll be coming around to the drop-in session for a few minutes.
(2) Make sure you bring all your notes with you. Your teacher will be very annoyed if it looks like you weren’t paying attention. By contrast, if you show you missed a point because you were so frantic taking lecture notes from the previous slides, you’ll probably get a pass.
13. Record the Lecture
Lecture recordings are becoming increasingly common. Universities are working hard to increase access to courses for distance learners and people with learning disabilities. Lecture recordings are one key way in which this increased access is facilitated.
In fact, I would hope that every university at least has the technology to record lectures. Teachers are often very reluctant to use it, though.
One way in which you can convince your teacher to record the lectures for you is to explain to them that you have a learning disability. As I noted in Point 1, it’s often compulsory to make recordings for students with learning disabilities. You’d usually need to provide the disability action plan provided by your university to pull this one off.
Another way you can convince your teacher to record the lectures is to ask them if there’s a way to only provide the recordings to the students who attended the lecture.
The teacher usually keeps a register of who did and did not attend. If your teacher sends out a quick email to each person who attended with a link to the recording, they’re able to have at least a little control over maintaining live attendance.
If your teacher refuses to personally record the lecture, you can record audio of it on your own phone or recording device. This is very common nowadays. You’ll need to politely request permission at the start of the first class.
I’ve never denied permission to students who want to make audio recordings, although I can imagine some teachers would. If you do this, sit right at the front of the class to get the best audio possible.
When making audio recordings, take notes on your page indicating the exact time the slides changed. I’ve taken audio recordings before and haven’t been able to link the audio to the lecture slides when going back to review!
All you’ll need to do for this is not the exact time on your recording device when each slide was turned. Do this on the top corner of each slide on your slides printout page (see Step 1).
For distance learning students, getting recordings of lecture slides is usually much easier. Distance classes often contain either pre-recorded lectures that are re-watchable over and again, or live online lectures through software like Collaborate Ultra. These live lectures are also usually easily recordable.
Make sure you ask the teacher right at the start of your live lecture to remember to hit the record button. I frequently forget if a student hasn’t reminded me.
14. Re-write the notes in Detail as soon as you Can
If there’s one key tip that I’d like you to remember from this list, it’s this one.
Re-writing notes on the day of the lecture are by far the most effective strategy for remembering information. Rewriting notes has two key benefits:
- Repetition reinforces information in your mind. This is an age-old strategy that goes all the way back to Pavlov training his dog in the early 1900s. Repetition of information is scientifically proven over and again to reinforce it in your mind. If you repeat this information while your memory is fresh, it will more likely settle itself in your medium-term memory than if you put the lecture notes aside until you need them to study for the end-of-term assessment.
- You will be able to use your fresh memory to build on the notes. I recommend typing up your notes from the lecture onto a computer. While typing them up, expand on the points you made in your lecture. Nothing is worse than reading students’ assignments that seem like little or no independent thought has gone into them.
When re-typing the notes, try to think of fresh examples and explanations that you can add to the notes to flesh them out.
If you do this, you’ll find that when it comes to writing your paper, the notes can easily be turned into full, detailed paragraphs with your own unique examples and additional ideas.
For this strategy to be effective, you need to take notes using a format that is fast, effective, and memorable. I recommend using key phrases and bullet points regularly.
You don’t need to write full sentences when taking notes in the lecture. Write key points as full phrases (not single words) in the lecture, then turn them into full sentences when you get home. Remember to do this on the same day as the lecture so your memory of the points that you wrote down is fresh.
One really big benefit of this method of taking short notes in the lecture and then expanding on them when you get home is that you’re actively paraphrasing information.
When you write up full sentences from your key phrases at home, these paraphrased sentences are ready and ripe to be dropped right into your paper when it comes time to write it up.
15. Differentiate between Key Points and Irrelevant Details
Teachers have a ridiculous habit of going off on tangents. Don’t be drawn into the stories of their own lives or their children.
If your teacher is talking about something that’s not on the lecture slides or directly relevant to them, you might be able to leave it aside.
I’ve seen teachers ramble on about politics, personal experiences, and their families’ lives for hours. They often do this because they feel pressure to go the full length of the lecture. If there’s a two-hour lecture slot, the teacher might feel that they need to drag out their stories to make sure the lecture goes that full time.
I think we’ve all been there.
If this is the case, actively reflect on whether their story is relevant. If it’s not, use this time to expand on the relevant points that you made earlier in the lecture.
You can use downtime to write up more detailed notes or come up with your own examples to reinforce the information in your mind.
Another way to know what the key points are and what the irrelevant details are is to reflect on whether this information will be assessed at the end of the course test or paper.
Usually, you are told end-of-course tests “assess everything in the course”. But, you can always go to the assessment outline page on your course’s website to find out what key areas of the course will be assessed in the test.
If your teacher is a rambler, make sure you don’t get dragged into wasting your effort writing up irrelevant notes. Focus on content that is relevant to the subject assessments.
Taking effective lecture notes can make a big difference in your marks at the end of the semester.
Recording the lecture to re-listen to it later, taking specific and detailed notes that are relevant to your assessment, writing up your notes in detail when you get home, and using friends to compare notes are all key ways in which you can create the best lecture notes possible.
Here’s my infographic with (most of) the fifteen top tips on how to take lecture notes that are memorable and usable to get you the best marks:
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]