How to Take Notes During Class?

Aug 2016
How do you take notes during class? I'm interested in learning what people's methods are since I tend to suck at this.
Oct 2015
Tough question, because everybody has their own study methods and so much depends on the teacher.

I always tried to make an outline of each class, with main headings and subordinate points; thinking about how I would answer an essay question. That way you have to think about and analyse what the teacher is saying. But that doesn't 't work for everybody or with all teachers.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
Depends on the course. If it was a history class, I tried to capture in phrases the important parts of the professor's lecture. I would write the phrases down in a way that I could follow. Of course, this implies the student can distinguish the important from the aside or the mundane. Often the instructor would give clues or hints, emphasizing or repeating things that appeared to be important. If you have the same instructor for a few classes, their teaching style becomes more apparent. Today, students have more options for capturing lectures.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2014
Lower Styria, Slovenia
Like Rodger said, it depends on the class. In history classes I focused on names of people and places or treaties, write down the date and a short commentary of what happened in a few words, focusing on key elements. This was usually enough for me to later remember what the whole deal was about or to look it up on my own if I had trouble with something.

Now in uni we often have access to the profs' ppt presentations and other documents or they give it to us printed out or it's our textbooks ans workbooks (I study German and Dutch, so we use those in some courses). In come cases I write short commentaries of what the prof says, again, focusing on the key words, write down explanations and definitions of termini etc. I always have a regular notebook in all my courses and write in it with a chemical pen. This comes especially handy for writing down new Dutch words and phrases and their meaning in my native language, perhaps also a German or English word that is really similar to make an association to.


Ad Honorem
Apr 2010
I followed similar practices as already outlined. I would write down names, places, dates etc as main headers, with more details below. I also re-wrote my notes while prepping for tests. This helped me organize it a bit more.
Jun 2018
New York
When I took notes my professors tended to use powerpoint, so i would copy everything up there as well as anything extra they wrote on the board. I would also write repeating notes from class to class to reinforce what I was learning and listening too. In short I would write down everything on the board and then when the professor got to writing on the whiteboard I would copy that as well. I wasn't the best at studying, but writing down everything helped me stay focused in the class and I was always a bit disappointed when it wasn't a note heavy class. This ended up coming in handy when I had and essay to write since I had written down everything I needed to help me along.

It would have been easy to just ask for the powerpoint itself, but I always internalized things better when I wrote them down.


Forum Staff
May 2013
Albuquerque, NM
1. Keep your priorities straight. Your purpose is to score well on examinations, graduate and pursue the next step in your education, not to keep great notes. Why keep notes in the first place? To jog your memory may be the best answer. If your memory doesn't need the prompt, then don't make a note of it. From wide experience, I believe many students take far more notes, and spend more time managing them than is necessary.

The final exams are next week and its critical you do very well on the exam. If you have a dozen three ring binders of extensive notes organized and indexed, when it comes time to review and prepare a whole semester has to be reviewed. Since you spent all that time getting the notes organized and filed, you probably will now need all the review you can get. Most, in my experience, end up with a jumble of mostly illegible notes scattered and unorganized. Recognizing the insanity of trying to convert those notes into exemplary test scores is so futile, that its just easier to go have a beer and slice of pizza.

2. Once you've decided not to record the lecturer's every word and emphasis, you will need to adopt something better. That begins with actually listening and following the lecture rather than focusing on taking notes. Lecturers, the good ones anyway, have organized what they believe are the important elements to understanding the topic. They generally publish that in the first week and its called the Syllabus. That outline of the class is a preview and map for the coming semester. Keep your copy handy, and as one class follows another use the syllabus to: 1. Prepare for the next class by reading and thinking about the recommended material. That in turn will make following and getting the most out of the lecture easier, with fewer notes needed. 2. Knowing the map route intended for the course, helps the student's orientation and prevents getting lost in the details ... the details will generally be in the lectures themselves. The syllabus map is an essential element to review prior to examinations, and it only takes a moment to review it; it is the big picture that is the foundation for the whole course. Its a great "note" that takes zero time to make-up and that can be reviewed quickly.

3. There is no substitute for concentrated study and the diligent pursuit of learning. Freshmen almost universally take a semester, sometimes more, to adjust from regimented high school classes to the relative freedom on campus and in the Dorms. Part of higher education is for students to develop self-discipline, self-motivation, and understanding of the fundamentals of a "good education". Gotta read quickly with understanding of essentials camouflaged in a complex jungle of new materials ... under time pressure. Let the other guy go party, we have more serious fish to fry. Attend every class you aren't qualified to teach, and then think again. Listen to that lecturer that you are paying huge sums to for teaching you new things. Try to understand the rhythm and flow of the lecture series, and it will help you understand what the lecturer wants to communicate. Be prepared. You should have read and thought about the materials assigned. When you read that book on, say Caligula, what was it that seemed to you most important. What did you think about the book/essay/etc.? With textbooks, you may have high-lighted the stuff you think important. Generally found in the early paragraphs, or the subject sentences within a graph. Authors tend to tell you their Thesis and assertions early (over view), and then finish with a review. Re-read those. I do a fast review of the last lecture, and preview what I take to be most important in the coming class. Then I would dip into some of the materials relevant to the up-coming lecture. Try to stay just a step ahead, and never fall behind. It is serious work, but it in many ways that is the foundation of your education. We all forget many of the fine details, but learning to get from ignorance to knowledge is the true education. Ask yourself continually, "will this be on the exams, and how can I best answer"?

4. Most commonly, student notes are linear reflecting the course of each lecture. As the lecture proceeds, the students attempt to write down what is being presented. To do that they shift focus from the lecture to writing, and the length and number of notes add up. Don't miss the lecture by recording every little bit. Only record the important stuff, and those bits are most often hard to miss. Experiment with alternate ways of taking those notes you believe are truly important. One way is to use a short-hand symbol or word(s) to kick start your memory later. For instance, "Teddy & Taft" sets the mind to that long relationship. A following note might be "falling out ... why?" Now there will be a temptation to write down an iterative list of why Teddy & Taft's friendship sank on the reefs of politics. No need, at most "see txBk p. 133".

Lecturers being human don't always stick to their own plans. Their lectures almost always vary from the Syllabus as circumstances in their classes and personal lives interdict the plan. Some find it useful to put the topic centrally on your note page, and then branch out as each sub-topic of the lecture is made. "Teddy & Taft" has like spokes in a wheel, a separate line of "mind-hooks" with simple lines between those elements to demonstrate relationships. When the lecturer departs from the syllabus, or departs from the natural order of his remarks, this system has worked well for me. Those asides, are often significant but if your are fully engaged in your education those asides might pay great dividends sometime later in your life, maybe even on the exams.

5. The whole purpose of advanced education is to provide each of us with the tools needed to lead life to its optimum. University education has for many come to be little more than getting "their ticket punched" so they can pile up wealth. A good education should render graduates whose values and expectations provide opportunity for students, and we are all students for life, to fully optimize their lives. What we are is the result of many thousands of years of historical trends, and trends are made up of events. Some of our most cherished beliefs and values are less based upon reason than on dogged acceptance of tradition. The educated person will have been taught to question, to take a skeptical stance to radical change. Change. That is what life is about, and we need to be prepared for challenges. Ten years after graduation, all those notes will be gone and what you are left with is a "need" to find those solutions that mankind has generally found useful.

6. Exam time. In the week(s) leading up to the exams, try to determine where your knowledge base is strongest and weakest. Tackle your weaknesses first. Review your textbook high-lighted passages, and marginal notes made when your read the material. If you've been smart, there will be a single page of notes for each class you attended. With syllabus and notes in hand spend some time recalling each of those lectures. What did it all mean? Was there anything in the course that will almost certainly be on the exam? If so, return to the textbook, class notes, and the bibliography for the course. This takes some time, but as exams approach there will be a temptation to pull all nighters, or get drunk. Neither is good for your education. The day before exams, take a hike, or see a comedy. Get away, if you can from campus for a few hours of quiet solitude with nature. Have an early, but light dinner and go to bed early. No study, if you've been preparing all semester you know what you know, and it'll be too late to improve upon it. No alcohol or drugs for at least 48 hours before exams. Rise early, shower, and dress like you are being interviewed for a great job. Carry extra exam supplies (sharpened pencils, pens, note paper, etc.). Arrive early, but not too early. Don't discuss the exam with anyone, but silently review the most likely exam questions and how you've decided to answer those. When the exam starts, I quickly review the whole thing, identify the easiest (for me) questions and answer them almost automatically. On a good day, that might take care of upward of 33% of the questions and for most that is at least a passing grade. Next, I move to those parts of the exam where the answers aren't obvious. Read'em, think, read'em again and write the answer, briefly but covering all the essentials as I understand them. This is applying thought to questions that may have a wide range of possible answers, some of which may apply while others do not. Don't linger, let your sub-conscious off the bench. Finally I move to the toughest questions, and take them one at a time.

Normally, I finish examinations very quickly. For the Bar Exam I was the third to finish out of fiver or six hundred. However, I failed the Bar by 12 points. Argg. Usually, I finish early and score at the top of the class. It wasn't always that way, but by the time I left Alma Mater in Ashland Oregon, I had it pretty much down pat.
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