Finding What’s NOTEworthy

Have you ever had a hard time determining what to take notes on?

When it comes to the crucial skill of note-taking, there are really two main skills involved. First, there’s knowing how to take notes (e.g. how to use different strategies and shortcuts to increase efficiency so you can remember what was said). Sometimes, however, it’s hard simply to know what to write. When should you take notes? How do you identify the main points? This is the area of note-taking I will be addressing.

Taking Notes from Textbooks (and Other Class Materials)

1. Survey the Chapter/Article

It’s important, to begin with, the big picture. For example, whenever I am going somewhere new, I will look at a map or my GPS before I even begin driving. I feel safer on the road when I already have a sense of direction. In the same way, don’t start by simply reading the textbook and taking notes. Stop and survey the chapter sections. This is the first step in the SQ3R method which is addressed in Coach Emily’s blog post about how to read your textbook.

2. Find the Structure

No matter how dense or confusing your textbook is, there is always some type of outline to be found. Your textbook chapters will generally show part of this outline format simply by their headings and subheadings. Finding the structure helps you navigate the main points. As I write this blog, I’m surveying through a chapter of one of my most difficult textbooks. Without even reading it yet, I know that this chapter is about:

  1. Main Point
  2. History of Main Point
  3. The Components of Main Point A
    1. Type 1 of the components
    2. Type 2 of the components
      1. Different categories of Type 2
    3. Applying Main Point

These are generic terms, but you get the idea. I could even continue dividing the sections into smaller points. This doesn’t mean I have to write my notes in an outline format, but by taking time to navigate the chapter, it is easier for me to mentally break up the content into smaller sections. When I go back to read the chapter, the notes I take will follow this structure without getting lost in a sea of words.

3. Look for Clues

There are additional clues that your textbook gives to help you find what’s most important. Pay attention to…

  • Definitions
  • Lists
  • Categories
  • Processes (step 1, step 2, etc..)
  • Comparing or Contrasting concepts

Many textbooks have “Learning Objectives” at the beginning of each chapter. Use those as a guide to finding the crucial parts to remember. Last, but certainly not least, pay attention to what the professor says (whether in-person or online) regarding the chapter. In many of my online classes, the professors will post weekly announcements on Canvas summarizing what the week’s chapter is about.

Taking Notes in Class

Paying attention to the professor leads me to my next point. . . taking notes during class. Deciding what to take notes on in class can be tricky; after all, you can’t go back or pause an in-class lecture. If you are too focused on how you take your notes, you can miss a lot of what the professor says.

1. Come Prepared & Ahead of the Game

The key to improving your note-taking in class is to come prepared. Make sure you have an idea of what the professor will discuss before the day of class. Review your syllabus and the assigned reading. You could even take time to write some basic notes of the main concepts from the assigned reading. That way, you are not starting completely from scratch so that you can take more detailed notes during class. Reading ahead will also help you familiarize yourself with the new vocabulary that the professor will use. 

2. Follow the Structure of the Lecture

If you’re like me, you’ve probably found yourself simply copying the professor’s Powerpoint. While using Powerpoint is a great place to start, you don’t want your mind to zone out so that you’re just focused on words on a screen. I have never been in a class where I didn’t have access to PowerPoint outside of class. Keeping that in mind, try to expand your note-taking beyond the Powerpoint slides to the lecture itself. Here are some ideas:

  • Prioritize writing down the headers of every section (to keep you from falling behind)
  • Rewrite the content in your own words (especially if the slides are unnecessarily wordy)
  • Take notes when the professor further explains a Powerpoint slide
  • Take more time on points that are less familiar
  • Balance eye contact between your professor, your notes, and the screen

You can learn more strategies on this topic from our post “Class is in Session…What’s Next?”.

3. Look for Clues

Professors provide the same kinds of clues that textbooks do. However, you should also pay close attention when your professors:

  • Repeat keywords
  • Write content on the whiteboard
  • Use phrases such as “This is important…”, “A lot of students miss this…”, “This will be on the test!”
  • Return to a certain slide in their Powerpoint

While it’s important to come to class with an attitude that everything you are learning is valuable, it’s not realistic to try to take notes on every word your professor says or to rewrite your textbook. I hope these tips will help you with your note-taking as you find and prioritize what to write down. Remember, like any other skill, it takes practice, but don’t feel like you have to work at it alone. Feel free to come to see an Academic Peer Coach to talk more about note-taking.

About The Author

Certified Peer Educator


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