How to Take Good Notes

by KJ, Carleton College, June, 2003

I don't know of a good, succinct guide to note-taking, but here are a few random observations based on my own experience as a student and listener.

1. Taking notes in class is important because it helps you to stay alert and focused on the class, and because you'll walk away from the class with a fairly detailed record of what was said. Memory is imperfect and won't last long, but you'll have the notes for review throughout the term.

2. When I was in college, I kept a lined 8 1/2 x 11 spiral notebook for each of my courses and took my notes in this notebook. I would usually write from one side of the page to the other, leaving very narrow margins. This was a mistake because it made the page hard to scan over quickly. A better way is to run a vertical line down the page about 1/3 over from the left edge. Take detailed notes to the right of this line, leaving the left-hand third of the page free so that you can later add brief summary notes, jot down a question, or whatever.

3. I think it's a good idea to take notes in ink and to use just one side of the page. A spiral notebook is best because the pages won't get separated from one another.

4. The professor may put an outline on the blackboard, but that is usually just a barebones list of topics to be covered during class. You can use the prof's points as the major headings in your notes, but you will need to fill in a lot of information that isn’t on the blackboard.

5. Liberally use abbreviations and short forms of words. Why write out "popular sovereignty" when you could write "pop sov"? John C. Calhoun can become JCC, Abraham Lincoln AL, etc. In your blank left-hand column you can provide a key to the abbreviations. Every note-taker also develops short forms of words such as cd for could, wd for would, w/ for with, n for not, k for can, gd for good, etc. Start by using one or two such forms and then gradually add more.

6. In any course, some of the lecture material will actually present factual information not available in the reading. So you should get some of this factual stuff down in your notebook, not just the prof's big generalizations.

7. When a primary source is discussed in class or other students ask questions, jot down some notes. If you have been given the source as a handout, you can add some notes right on the sheet of paper. Student comments and questions are often every bit as insightful as anything the prof says, so they are often worth preserving in your notes. Even if a question never gets a satisfactory answer, the question itself may be worth putting in your notes.

8. If the prof puts a list of names or terms on the board, write them down. If it's a list of important points, such as the terms of the Compromise of 1850 or the war aims of the U.S. and Britain in World War II as stated in the Atlantic Charter (1941), obviously you should get these down too.

9. If the prof reads something aloud and you can’t get a lot of this document down in your notes, at least try to jot down the name of the source and the circumstances surrounding it, and try to summarize its main significance. Perhaps you can chase it down later and read it in full.

10. After class, sit down somewhere and take five minutes to go over your notes and amplify or clarify them if necessary, while the class is still fresh in your mind.

11. Don't lean on other people for good class notes; take notes yourself. By writing things down, you take the first step toward putting the information and ideas in your own words and making them part of your own intellect. It’s hard at first, mostly because you are trying to write down the last point while simultaneously listening to the next point. But keep practicing and you will find that it gets easier.