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Effective Notetaking

Strategies and templates for taking effective notes in lectures and from your reading.

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Effective notetaking banner. Black text on orange background.

 

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Before the Lecture

It is helpful to prepare by taking a little time in advance of the lecture to orientate yourself:

  • Look back at the module overview to check how does this lecture link to others?
  • Revisit your notes from previous lectures to refresh your memory. (Creating quick summaries after each lecture can speed up this process). 
  • Prepare any notetaking templates to use in the lecture (on paper or laptop) - If you have access to PowerPoint slides before the lecture, highlight key topics and create a list of subheadings that shows how the lecture moves from A to B.  In your template, create subheadings, grids or mind-maps with key topics and subheadings to create a template for notetaking in the lecture.
  • Spend 30 minutes reading (independent research) around the topic of the next lecture to get a general overview of the content. The reading list in the module guide is a good starting point.
  • It can also be useful to make a list of questions that you want the lecture to answer, and to follow up with the lecturer or seminar tutor if these are not answered in the lecture.

Strategies for notetaking in lectures

There are various strategies you can use in your lectures that can help to make your notetaking more efficient, and more useful to you. Two approaches that can be used in all contexts to improve your listening skills are:

Develop an active listening approach:

  • Just like in conversations, we listen more when we are actively engaged with the speakers and the subject.  So use physical cues to help your mind to focus:
  • Sit where you have a good view of the speaker;
  • Try to sit up straight, lean forward and nod when the lecturer is speaking. These physical cues can trick your brain into staying focused;

Top-down' listening:

  • 'Top-down' listening is a form of active listening where we use our interpretive skills to engage with the content.
  • When you arrive at the lecture, take one minute to free write and jot down all the ideas or questions you have about the topic.
  • Listen out for keywords that you recognise.
  • Word association: if the lecturer triggers an idea, make a note or add an icon to follow up later.

Explore the other tabs to find out about other strategies for notetaking.

Abbreviations

Use abbreviations to speed up your notetaking. Don't write word for word - use abbreviations or invent your own system:

  • You can use mathematical symbols, e.g.:
    & for 'and',  + for 'plus',  < for 'less than',   > for 'more than',   and = for 'equals'.
  • Also use shortened forms, e.g.:
    'discn' for 'discussion',  or 'popn'  for 'population',   'expl ' for 'exponential', or 'v.' for 'very'.
  • Make up your own acronyms, e.g.:
    'wrt' for 'with respect to', and 'IWB' for Interactive WhiteBoard'.
  • Also use other symbols - e.g.:
    arrow pointing forwards for 'resulted in', arrow pointing upwards for 'increased', and arrow pointing downwards for 'decreased', Cross symbol for 'incorrect', and tick symbol for 'correct'.

Unless you are being given new key terminology, aim to capture the meaning of what has been said, rather than the precise words.


So instead of a whole sentence…

'In the 20th and 21st centuries, the introduction of new digital technologies in classrooms, such as 
interactive whiteboards, and social media such as Twitter, have gradually increased demands on teacher's skills, leading to more stress for teachers.'
… you could simply note down:
20thC intron of new tech, e.g. IWB & Twitter,  arrow pointing upwards teacher skills + arrow pointing forwards more stress.


Gradually incorporate more abbreviations into your work.  You can find more examples of standard note-taking shortcuts online (e.g. From University of Plymouth), as well as inventing and using your own.

Concept mapping

Alternatively, you can use concept mapping. Concept maps and mind maps allow you to look for links between key subjects and get away from structure, linear notetaking in the lecture:

When making a mind map, don't worry about perfecting the layout and presentation - focus on creating an area for each topic and using arrows or icons to indicate links:

Branching diagram to note down relevant evidence and questions arising

Hand drawn diagram showing links and branches between many concepts

Structured notetaking

Develop a notetaking template that allows you to extract key words, terms or subheadings and gives your notes structure, such as the Cornell method:

Steps for the Cornell Method:

First set out your paper, keeping a margin on the left hand side (this will become your 'Cue' Column for review purposes), and a summary area at the end.
  pide your page into a narrow 'cue' column, a wide notetaking column, and a space for a summary at the bottom of the page.

Then follow the 5 stages:
Stage 1: Record
Take notes, including any important information and diagrams, and relevant questions or answers.
Stage 2: Reduce
Review your notes as soon as possible, using the Cue Column to condense your notes in the fewest words or questions possible, and then summarise the notes in a couple of bullet points.
Stage 3: Recite
Cover your notes, and use only the Cue Column, see if you can talk through the whole page.
Stage 4: Reflect
Reflect on how well you understand the topic, and how useful your notes and 'cues' are.  Consider whether you need to do further reading.
Stage 5: Review
You can quickly review the cue column and summary before your next lecture, or to prepare for an exam. Repetition improves your familiarity with the concepts.

Using a template or layout like this allows you to:

  • Build structure into your lecture notes;
  • Create a resource for revise for subsequent lectures;
  • Add visual notetaking techniques icons, arrows, colour and highlighters, and piders to break up sections;
  • Revise from the cue or key word column to test your memory and understanding at the end of the module 

 

Assistive technology

It's fine to use notetaking software or a digital recorder to record lectures, but please follow  Hallam's 'Guidelines for students on recording teaching'.
There are several benefits to recording lectures, because you can:

  • Concentrate more fully in the lectures because you don't have to worry about missing crucial content.
  • Listen again while walking or exercising to help you process and evaluate the content.
  • Organise and develop your notes when listening again
It may help to use software to help you as you organise and improve your notes - Sonocent Audio Notetaker is available on AppsAnywhere anywhere on campus:
Screenshot from Audionotetaker showing options to play recordings, add categories and notes
Using Audio Notetaker, you can:
  • Import slides or other materials in advance, and make notes alongside them,
  • Record the audio in chunks, with breaks where there is a pause, to make the audio more manageable,
  • Colour code the audio chunks and sections as you listen (e.g. 'important' or 'don't understand'),
  • Add in references in an additional box,
  • Review and develop your notes after the lecture,
  • Export the text into other documents.

After the Lecture

The last stage of taking notes in lectures is consolidating your learning and finding a way to convert your notes into meaningful and memorable content.

How you consolidate your notes will depend on how you plan to use the information:
 

Building subject knowledgeA pyramid of layers, from 'remembering' at the bottom, through 'understanding', 'applying', 'analysing', 'evaluating', up to 'creating'.

Bloom's Taxonomy shows increasingly complex levels of learning -
see if you can consolidate your understanding:

  • by applying your knowledge;
  • analysing how it works;
  • evaluating strengths and weaknesses;
  • or creating new theories or interpretations.

 
Writing essays

To convert your notes into the basis of an essay, try using a paragraph structure model or framework to translate your notes into possible paragraphs, for example:

  • Topic sentence - Use key themes, concepts or ideas from lectures.
  • Evidence - Bring in examples and references from sources and independent research, and look back at your lecture notes for recommended theorists, authors and publications.
  • Discussion - These should develop your ideas, comments or questions about the topic or theme. Use your lecture and seminar notes as a starting point.
Revision

For revision, turn your lecture notes into a versatile resource, rather than copying out and replicating information.

  • Highlight key information and collect quotes, examples and references that you could integrate into your answers and essay questions.
  • Always condense your notes - create a Cornell layout from existing notes, or simplify further with a flow chart or tree diagram on key information.
  • Add post-it notes (different colours for different categories) to quickly navigate your folders.
  • Find a consistent format - familiarity with your notes will boost recall and memory during revision.

Strategies for notetaking from reading

There are also strategies that you can use for notetaking from your reading. These are based around the use of approaches, templates, and technologies that help you to be strategic and efficient in your reading and notetaking.  Explore the other tabs to find out about each strategy.

Strategy 1: The 4 C's

If you're struggling to make sense of an article, focus on four key overview aspects of any journal publication:

  • Context - What is the setting for the study?
  • Concepts - What key theories does the article use in the methodology?
  • Content - How would you summarise the content of the article?
  • Conclusions - What key findings are in the results?

This strategy can help in making sense of the overall structure and key points from an article. For most conventional articles, context will be in the first 1/3 of the article, concepts and content in the middle 1/3, and conclusions and findings in the final 1/3.

Strategy 2: SQ3R

This 5-step process is useful for helping you to keep your brain focused and active whilst you read and can be useful in preparing for exams:

  1. Survey
    • This first step helps with prioritising and sorting through reading to decide which articles or chapters will be most useful to read first.
    • Skim through the text, making a quick note of any sections or important keywords. Start with the abstract, introduction, findings and conclusion. If these look relevant, skim the rest. If not, stop and move on to your next text.
  2. Question
    • Put the text to one side and write down three questions you want the text to answer. This will help focus your reading and filter out excess information.
    • Your questions might be very basic at this stage, or you might just have a topic or keyword in mind from a lecture or seminar that you need to investigate. You will get better at developing critical and analytical questions the more you use this strategy. 
  3. Read
    • Read the text looking for answers to your questions. Highlight the text or make notes. Treat this as a hunt for information to help answer your questions or to find information on your key topics.
  4. Recall
    • Put your notes to one side and try to recall the information you have read. Talk through the key points (ideally talk them through aloud, working with someone else) and summarise the text. 
  5. Review
    • If you get stuck, look back at your notes make a note of anything you're not sure about. Re-read the text to check your understanding.  Any points you are still uncertain about can be good areas for further reading or to discuss in more detail in seminars or tutorials.
Strategy 3:  Analysis tables

Analysis tables are an effective way of taking systematic notes to allow you to identify trends in the literature and talk about multiple sources at once in your literature review.
Decide on 5-8 categories for taking notes - these can be based on the subheadings for your literature review, the structure of the article, or on ideas you have for evaluating and analysing the articles.
Try to find categories that will work across multiple articles so that you can start comparing your notes right away.

Two typical approaches are a) categories for evaluating experimental evidence from journal articles, and b) categories for analysing themes in journal articles from the social sciences:

Example of an experimental evaluation table:
Analysis topic Notes
Link between article and essay topic
Strengths of methodology
Weaknesses of methodology
Sample size
Key findings
Summary

Example of a thematic table:
Analysis topic Notes
Key themes
Theoretical perspective
Examples and key quotations
Conclusions
Works cited
Summary

For more examples, see Cottrell, S. (2011) Critical Thinking Skills: Developing Effective Analysis and Argument, Palgrave Macmillan.

Strategy 4:  Critical questions

Wallace and Wray presented five critical questions which are helpful for maintaining critical questioning whilst you are reading and writing.
Make a template with the following questions, and use these to frame your reading and note-taking:

  • Why am I reading this?
  • What are the authors trying to achieve in writing this?
  • What are the authors claiming that is relevant to my work?
  • How convincing are these claims, and why?
  • In conclusion, what use can I make of this?

Source: Wallace, M. & Wray, A (2016) Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates. (3rd Ed) London: SAGE 

Assistive Technology for reading and notetaking

Read and Write Gold is software which has features to make online reading and notetaking easier.

  • Change the colour of your screen: You can use the screen masking feature to change the colour of your screen, reducing eye-strain and making online reading easier. 
  • Highlight and collect:  This tool allows you to highlight multiple sections of online articles and paste these into word documents as editable text:

 Screenshot showing the highlight and collect functions of the Read and Write software
You can watch a video about this highlighting feature.

 
Read and Write Gold is available on campus through Apps Anywhere on all university desktops.

You can also visit the Assistive Technology website to book onto a training session or for online tutorial videos.

Next steps

Further resources:

Further actions:

  • Try out using different reading strategies to find which works best for different tasks, and adapt or combine them as much as you want to make them work for you.
  • Book for Assistive Technology workshops on Audio Notetaker and Read and Write.