Taking Notes

Be Your Best
>Study Skills


By the time you finish this you unit, you should:
  • know how to recognize and record important information while listening to lectures, participating in class activities, and reading text books and other materials; 
  • be able to organize notes.
Updated August 17, 2001
© Mark Canada, 2001


Learning about other cultures, great works of art and music, and the chemistry that makes us tick can be exciting--and dizzying.  The best way to manage this deluge of information is to take clear, detailed, concise, and organized notes.  Below is a description of a strategy that I have developed for studying literature.  You can adapt this strategy to study other subjects, as well

Strategy for Taking Notes

  1. While reading, place a star in the margin of the book next to passages that reveal important information about the plot, setting, characters, themes, or literary devices. Write a brief comment next to the passage. Examples: *Nebraska, *card game, *fight, *community, *symbol 
  2. Bring your book and notebook to class. During lectures and group exercises, write in your notebook any names, dates, terms, and ideas that your professor and classmates mention. Pay especially close attention to anything that the professor repeats, writes on the board, or mentions in handouts or study questions. Try to organize this information in a rough outline. For example, if the professor defines the term "sonnet," write this term along the left margin; below the term, move over a half-inch or so and make a list of the characteristics of a sonnet, placing a dash before each characteristic. Place a star next to passages that your professor and classmates note as important. Finally, include an example you can use to illustrate the term. Example: 
    • sonnet 
      *-14 lines 
      *-iambic pentameter 
      *-rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg (English) 
      -originated in Italy; English poets adapted it 
      -used by Shakespeare, Donne, and others 
      -example: Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" 
  3. Optional: Bring your notes to a computer. Make sure you have a dictionary and, if possible, a subject encyclopedia nearby. Using the outline function in a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word or Corell WordPerfect, type the notes from your notebook, as well as key passages you noted in your text book, followed by the numbers of the pages on which they appear. As you input this information, make any necessary changes in organization, add some of your own ideas, and use the dictionary and subject encyclopedia to define important words and terms. If your professor has given you study questions on the material, practice answering--either in your head or in writing--some of these questions by referring to the material in your notes. If you don't have any study questions, simply think about questions someone might ask you about the material and consider ways you might use the information in your outline to answer such questions. Save this outline on a diskette, back it up on a separate diskette, and print a copy that you can place in your notebook. This extra step, while time-consuming, has three benefits. The most important benefit is that it gives you the opportunity to review and synthesize the material you have covered, especially when you take time to reorganize the information and add your own ideas. Typing your notes in an outline also makes them neater and thus easier to read. Finally, storing this information in the form of a computer file allows you to find information very easily. For example, you can use the "find" function in the word-processing software to find a term or a character's name in seconds. 
  4. Review your notes, both new ones and old ones, at least twice a week. If possible, do this reviewing immediately before class. 
Of course, this process requires a lot of time, but it dramatically improves your ability to absorb the material covered in reading assignments, lectures, class discussions, and group activities. Remember that your long-range success depends not on the amount you read or hear, but the amount you understand and retain.


  1. Self-test: Use what you have learned to take effective notes in your courses. Study these notes carefully and come up with an essay question that you could answer with the information in these notes.  Write this question at the top of a page and, without looking at your notes, write a 200-word essay in which you answer this question. 
  2. Comparison: Compare your notes with those of someone else in the same class. Discuss why each of you included what you did.