“I listen, I hear, I read and I forget.”

This is what happens to most students when it comes to listening in class. That is why taking notes during class plays a crucial role in retaining what you have learnt.

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According to Walter Pauk (84), people lose their retention at the following rates:

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This article will give you insight on how to make the best possible notes from a lesson/lecture.

Step 1 Come Prepared

As simple as this may sound, the first step is to be prepared to take notes.

First of all, make sure you sit at an area where you can see and hear clearly. This allows you to absorb the information you’re hearing to the maximum which increases the efficiency of taking notes.

Also always remember to bring your pens, notebooks and any other accessories you require to take notes before the lesson.

If you intend to take notes by hand, you should bring an A4 sized notebook with plenty of blank pages as well as 3 pens of different colour (black, blue and red).

If taking notes using laptop suits you more, make sure your laptop is fully charged each day. In addition, close all the distraction such as Facebook, Youtube…whatever prior to the lesson. Just make sure you don’t get distracted during class.

It is highly recommended that you take notes by hand. The benefits are as follows:

  • Hand writing your notes allows you to really process the information.
  • Writing your notes by hand also forces you to engage with the material as this enables you to pick out the most important and relevant information.
  • Improves your writing speed during exams as well as your own handwriting.

Here is how my handwriting has improved after developing the habit of writing all my notes by hand.

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2012 handwriting

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2014 hand writing

Step 2 Be An Active Listener

When note-taking, make sure you don’t mindlessly transcribe every single word said by the lecture, without really understanding what you actually wrote down.

This will lead to confusion and pain in reading your notes when you are reviewing them later.

“There is a great difference between knowing a thing and understanding it.” – Charles Kettering

As a result, you should try to absorb the information you’re hearing the first time. Not only will this shorten the amount of information you are taking down, but also speeds up the process of notes reviewing.

If you are having any trouble understanding what is being said in class, always ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher/lecturer to repeat themselves or explain the information more precise way.

Step 3 Paraphrase The Information

The most important thing when writing your notes is to paraphrase the information in a clear and succinct way.

  1. Include ONLY the relevant information. Write down individual words or key phrases that are most relevant to the topic at hand (for example, dates, definition, number and formula). Eliminate all the filler words and secondary details. Try to also abbreviate long words which are important, but already familiar to you.
  2. Think about what you want to gain from the class. The purpose of you attending a class is to learn something. It maybe an instinct for everyone to write down everything during their first lesson. But the sole purpose to write notes is for you to learn, not to make you look like you are learning.
  3. Prioritise new information. Don’t waste time writing down information that you already know. Focus on writing down any new information that you’ve never learned before. This is where the value of note taking in class comes from.

Step 4 Make Your Notes Look Nice

It would be a pain reading your own note if you cannot understand or read it.

Isn’t this beautiful?

In general, you will also be reluctant to go back and study your notes if they are messy, disorganized and difficult to read. Here are some tips on creating visually appealing notes:

  • Organise your notes. You’ll find your notes much more organised and neat if you start on a fresh, blank page for each new class or topic. Put the date in the top right hand corner and only write on one side of each page, especially if you’re writing with very inky pens.
  • Write neatly. Taking notes will be a complete waste of time if you can’t read them afterwards! Make sure your writing is small, neat and legible, and avoid using fancy handwriting if possible. If you are a messy hand writer, avoid using inky pen.
  • Use wide margins. Line each page with a pen and ruler, giving yourself a wide margin on the left hand side. This will prevent the page from becoming too overcrowded and will give you space to add any additional information once you review your notes.
  • Use appropriate headings. Always use headings and subheadings for each topic. Not only will your notes be much more organised, but it will save you heaps of time in future if you are trying to look for something.
  • Add symbols and diagrams. Things like arrows, dots and boxes, diagrams, charts, and other visual aids are excellent ways to represent and simplify key concepts. In addition, it would increase your engagement in reading the notes.

So these are the tips on how to write the best notes! Now it’s time to review and keep editing your notes! Always remember to take your knowledge into practice by constantly doing practice questions. This is an equally important way to absorb everything you have learnt.

Good luck!

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Yifan Shen completed his HSC in 2014 and is currently studying the Bachelor Of Economics/Advanced Mathematics at UNSW. Apart from nutting out equations and helping out students with their academic pursuit, you will find him either reading thriller novels or introducing a range of new people to the intricate and mysterious world of mathematics as the marketing representative of UNSW MathSoc. When he is drained from all of these work, you will also see him hiking, planking and water bending in his recovery mode.