Tips for Improving Class Notes

Taking notes in class can be a challenge. Figuring out what to get down, making sure that you have access to the resources you need, and the eternal struggle of the professor flipping through the lecture slides at breakneck speed all add up to a frustrating experience when trying to figure out how to take notes. Here are a few easy ways to improve your class notes.

1. Take Handwritten Notes

One of the first recommendations I make to students at the beginning of each course is that they consider taking handwritten notes. Often, students think that taking notes on a computer is an easy way to fix several of of the class note problems discussed above. Most of us (myself included) can type far faster than we can write by hand, alleviating the fear of missing getting down an important point. Typed notes can be cleaner than handwritten ones, making studying down the road easier. Typed notes can also let you have up multiple resources at once on your screen: you can even take notes directly into the powerpoint slides, assuming your professor handed them out before the lecture. So why do I persist in trying to convince my students to take notes by hand? It’s not because I’m anti-computer, or computer illiterate. It’s because research shows that taking handwritten notes can get you better grades.

When you handwrite your notes, you have to figure out exactly what is important enough to write down because you cannot write as fast as the professor is speaking. That additional mental step, which can often also mean writing down the lecture in your own words, has been found to improve student recall of class material over students who typed their notes. In short, handwriting notes keeps you more engaged with the lecture because you have to work a little harder. But the payoff is that you’re likely to do better come exam time.

Don’t take my word for it, here’s an article about the research in Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

But, sometimes, handwriting notes simply isn’t an option: maybe you need to have access to the internet for class resources and the desk area is limited, maybe your handwriting is worse than chicken scratch. Whatever the reason, there are better and worse ways to use technology to take notes.

2. Do make good use of new technologies

Some of the new tablet options are really awesome when it comes to blending technology with class note taking. If your handwriting could star in a horror film, you may want to look into features like the ability to turn your handwriting into typed notes. This kind of feature would allow you to reap the benefits of taking notes by hand while allowing you to make them readable down the line. It’s also probably going to force you to review your notes, so win-win.

Another cool feature you could consider is the sharing functions in programs like Google Docs or the online versions of Microsoft. Shared notes are a neat way to see what others picked out as important, and has the potential of giving you a more complete version of notes. This isn’t ideal in every situation, however, so tread with caution.

3. Don’t take down a transcript of the lecture

DON’T: try to take down a verbatim transcript of what your professor is saying. Remember the above tip about how processing the information while in class helps you later on? When we type up verbatim transcripts, we have a tendency to “check out” mentally. Believe it or not, we can actually take down every word someone is saying pretty passively.

Along these same lines, I’d avoid trying to take notes into the notes section of an existing powerpoint, especially if the powerpoint is text heavy. You’ll end up passively listening to the lecture and note writing down anything because it’s already written down for you.

4. Try using a split screen

Split screens have the advantage of allowing you to move around the lecture slides independently of the professor, but still give you space to write out your notes in a clean document. This can be helpful in a number of ways. First, it allows you to take notes more actively, since you will likely be recopying at least some of the information from the lecture slides. Second, it allows you to control the lecture slides independently from the professor. If they skip through slides too quickly, you can flip back briefly in order to make note of what you need to fill in your notes later.

5. Avoid the temptation to have open multiple non-class related windows. 

When you are not actively taking notes or using your laptop for class purposes, the professor totally knows. How, you may ask? The two main ways come from how you are using your keyboard. Like it or not, keyboards make noise. If you are typing at a time when no one else is chances are you are probably working on an assignment for another class or sending an email. If you are not typing when everyone else is, but you’re still staring intently at the computer, chances are you’re browsing some kind of social media site. So even if the professor cannot see your screen, they have ways of knowing whether or not you are engaged in the material. I can firmly attest to this, both as a professor, and as a student who has definitely gotten called on while browsing a non-class related website. THEY KNOW, and it won’t make them happy.

So, how do you avoid this kind of temptation? Obviously, using a notebook and not a laptop is the easiest solution. However, the split screen recommendation can also aid in keeping you focused on just the screens that you need to be looking at. Other options include turning off notifications (if you don’t know there’s an update, you’ll be less likely to check it), or installing a focus browser extension (personally, I’ve had good luck with Stay Focused, a Chrome extension, but there are multiple options out there).

Ultimately, there’s no perfect way to take notes in class. These are simply some of the biggest techniques and stumbling blocks that I’ve seen and experienced. What are some tips and tricks you’ve used for better class note taking?

 

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