Note Taking Strategies

The following ideas are ways to improve your ability to take and use notes. Even if you will have a notetaker as an accommodation, you can still adapt these suggestions to improve your ability to listen (even if you don’t take notes yourself) and to provide suggestions to help your notetaker take the kind of notes that you will benefit the most from.

  • Come to class with a purpose for listening in mind.
    Listen intentionally.  What information do you need/want to know?  What are you listening for?  You can find out from the syllabus and the readings that are due that day what topics will be discussed.  What information about those topics do you need to know?  Listen especially for the answers to your questions.
  • Date your notes and put the topic of the day’s class on the first line.
    This sounds easy enough but sometimes students forget to do this.  It is much easier to study off of notes that are dated and labeled with the topic of the lecture than from lecture notes that run into each other day after day.
  • Develop a system of abbreviations of commonly used words to help speed up your notetaking (e.g., "with" = "w/", "+" = "and" and "plus").
  • Develop a visual system that works for you as you are writing notes to keep the notes organized.
    Some examples are: underlining key points, marking them with an asterisk (*), or writing headings in the margin or in the center, with the rest of the text either indented or at the left margin.  Some people can write standard I, II, III, A, B, C outlines as their notes while others are better with pictures, symbols or diagrams.  If these work better for you, include them in your notes.
  • “1/3-2/3” Notetaking System:
    Use 2/3 of the page to write notes on and the left margin and leave 1/3 of the page for writing comments. Ask questions after class that cover the information that is in that section of your notes.  This will allow you to “quiz” yourself before an exam by folding your paper so only the 1/3 of the page with your question or topic is showing and the notes with information to answer your question (the other 2/3 of the page) is hidden.
  • How do you know what is important to write down in your notes?
    There are several ways to figure this out if you are not sure.  Your professor may change the tone of his voice by raising it to emphasize a point.  He may spend more time talking about topics that are important and will likely be on an exam.  Be sure to take more complete notes on topics which you do not fully understand.  If you learn best by having examples of concepts, be sure to write down any examples that the professor discusses in class in your notes.  Note lists of items that fit under certain categories.  Be sure to not only include the list of items in your notes but also the category that they fit under.  For example, “Characteristics of Freshman Students at U of I” (category), motivated, nervous, excited, high achievers in high school, etc. (list of items in the category).
  • If you have a question about what your instructor has mentioned in class, and you are not able to ask the question in class (large lecture hall), put a "?" next to the part in your notes that is confusing and plan to meet with your instructor (or teaching assistant “TA” or a classmate) to ask your question.  Be sure to follow up—don’t ignore your question!
  • It is sometimes helpful to experiment with different notetaking techniques and determine what works best for you (this may vary by class). 
  • There are active strategies you can use to edit your notes to make them more useful to study from. These include asking questions about what is in your notes, rearranging information into different sections where they may fit better, filling in missing information (e.g., from your textbook), and typing your notes into a computer to make them easier to read.