Note taking isn’t just in class. It should start before class and end after class. It is more than writing down what’s said.
Learning requires fitting new stuff in with old stuff. You don’t start the day with a blank slate. You have interests, hobbies and previous experiences. You already have a mental structure.
Review what you know before class. Quickly assess what you know about the topic and what questions you still have. Off the top of your head, summarize what you know about the topic.
If you’ve had other classes cover some or all of the material, check your notes. Look for holes in their presentations. Hunt for things you want explained.
If there are assigned readings, skim or read them. Get a feeling for what the book says.
Find out what resources are already available. Are there notes online? If so, you can study them before class, annotate them during class or review them after class. Your choice. You can even do all three.
Taking notes is not dictation. You shouldn’t try to write down very word. You want a summary of the lecture, not a transcript.
Some people like an audio recording of the lecture. This can be helpful if you have a long commute but most it delays the study process. If no notes are online, an audio recording can provide an archival copy but it is best to convert the lecture content to something shorter. Something you can remember.
There are three common note-taking strategies. Choose one of these or make up your own.
First, there is the outline approach. Outlines reduce the lecture content into easily scanned bullet points. You can quickly see which are main points and which were minor points. You can also see where the instructor went off onto another topic (presumably related but probably not on the test).
Here is an outline of this post:
Second, sketch or mind map. This is a graphic approach to note taking but you don’t have to be an artist to use it. Doodles and chicken scratch writing will work too. Start with the topic of the day in the middle of a piece of paper. Each main point is drawn off this center circle. Minor points are drawn as extensions of the main points.
Here is a mind map of this post:
Third, create a chart. This is particularly helpful if there are categories of information you need to organize. Think of it as a 2-dimensional outline.
Here is a chart of this post:
In many ways, how you take notes is less important than what you do with them. Think of notes as the building blocks for constructing knowledge in your mind. Notes are the starting place, not the end point.
The end point of learning is to store it in your head. Notes are an interim step.
One of the best things you can do is rewrite your notes right after class, when you can still ready your handwriting and things are clear in your head. The rewrite can be literally rewriting the notes in the same form but prettier. Or you can be more creative.
Create a summary of the notes, not a duplicate copy. Paraphrase what you notes say, filling it in with what you remember from class. This gives you a synthesized view of the lecture.
Make memory cues for the most important points. Use a single word for a main point or a phrase to trigger your memory of an entire section. These cues can be acrostics (first letter of each word) or other mnemonic device. Write down anything that helps you remember the underlying content.
The Cornell Note Taking System combines an outline (indented bullet points), cues (written in the left margin) and a summary (at the bottom of the page). Only the outline is done in class. Everything else is part of the review process.
The idea is to reprocess the information. This is what your brain does at night. It’s called consolidation. While you are sleeping, the hippocampus region of the brain makes patterns which it runs over and over, simplifying them over time. In the morning, you have a sparsely encoded representation of what you learned the day before. Actively reviewing-reworking your notes is thoughtfully doing what your brain will try to do later. By doing it ahead of time, you are making it easier for your brain to store the information.
Some people like to write outlines in class and mind maps after class. Other prefer to make a mind map in class and then rework it into an outline after class. Try it out and see which works best for you. The important thing is to restructure your notes.