Now that university classes have once again commenced, it’s time to bring out the notebooks and pens and fervently write down every. single. thing. the professor says. Writing lecture notes is a fundamental part of attending university.

writing lecture notes

Running yourself into the ground isn’t going to help anyone, though, so it’s useful to do a little preparation work ahead of time and think about what exactly you want to accomplish with the notes that you take in class. Every year I see people struggling with organizing their notes and figuring out what to write down and what to ignore. Actually remembering the information often gets shoved by the wayside, too—writing down page after page of notes isn’t going to help anyone if it’s all going in one ear and out the other. There is an art to writing lecture notes!

Tips and Tricks for Writing Lecture Notes:

1) Take the first class to just listen to what the professor says. The first class is usually an introduction class anyways. You’re there to get a feel for what the class will be about and to get to know your professor and classmates. Pay attention to the professor especially in the first class so that you can know ahead of time what their sense of humor is like and to understand what they mean by the term “deadline.” Writing lecture notes isn’t as important the first day as really listening and understanding what the professor and course will be like.

2. Read the course syllabus very carefully. It includes your deadlines and mark breakdown. If it looks as though you’ll have to write a few papers regarding topics that are discussed in class, it’s going to pay off if you take more notes. Be especially diligent in writing lecture notes for classes which don’t include a textbook or course pack; in these instances, you have to rely on your own notes and attendance in class.

3. Develop friendships with your classmates and with your professor. There might be a day or two in which you won’t be able to make it to the class, so you’re going to want to have yourself covered ahead of time. Ask them if you can borrow their notes if you miss a class. Always return their notes as soon as possible and in as pristine a condition as possible (who knows when you might need their notes again!).

4. Communicate. If there’s something you didn’t understand in the class, make a note of it when writing lecture notes and ask a couple classmates or the professor about it afterwards. Better yet, speak up in the middle of class! Chances are if you don’t know what’s going on, someone else doesn’t know what’s going on, either.

5. Create your own shorthand. You know your own writing better than anyone else. A few shorthand symbols that I use frequently are a triangle of three dots for the word “therefore,” “b/c” for “because,” “w” with a line over it for “with,” and “+” for “and.” We are a generation of texters, so it’s likely that you have the shorthand all figured out already! Make good use of it when you’re writing lecture notes.

6. Use pen. Pencil smudges and can be rubbed off. If you write down the wrong thing in your notes when you’re writing with pen, cross it out and write the correct note beside it; it’s good to have the mistake still there crossed out just in case. It’s also a little neater than having messy eraser marks across the page.

Some people like to take a laptop to class to write everything faster, but I find that I don’t take in the information as much when I use a computer. When I’m typing it all out, my fingers can fly across the keys without my brain registering anything that the professor has actually said. Laptops can also be distracting if you start opening up other documents or if you have an Internet connection. They’re also a pain to lug around.

7. Keep your notes organized. Use one notebook for each course; if you have a two or three subject notebook, make sure that you keep each course separate. Date everything when writing lecture notes. Keep a few different coloured highlighters in your bag to highlight key information.

8. Pay attention to the blackboard/whiteboard, handouts, overhead, and PowerPoint presentations. Actually read the handouts. Write down everything that goes on the boards and overhead projector; draw diagrams if necessary. If the PowerPoint presentation goes too quickly or if the notes on the overhead projector are taken down before you can copy all of the information, approach the professor after class and ask if you can take another look at it. They shouldn’t be unreasonable about it.

9. Use the course packs and texts. Do your readings by your deadlines so that you know what to expect. For course packs, take advantage of the fact that it can’t be returned to the bookstore and highlight the crap out of it. If you want to keep your textbooks in better condition so you can sell them in the future, use sticky notes for relevant pages or copy down specific passages (or page numbers) in your notebook.

10. Know what is relevant and what is not. You don’t have to write down absolutely everything the professor says, but if it’s something that is repeated a couple times, it’s likely to be important. You be the judge of what you’re going to want to remember in the future. Don’t rely solely on your brain to store all of that information—no matter how interested you are in the class, or how redundant you think the information is to you, when it comes to exam or essay time you might find that you forget obvious things due to stress. When in doubt, write it down.

Have any other note-taking tips you’d like to share? What are your best techniques for writing lecture notes? Share in the comments below!

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7 thoughts on “Writing Lecture Notes: Tips for Being a Straight A Student

  1. This is perfect for me since I’m going through an identity crisis becoming a student again! I definitely have to write things down in order to remember them, and these tips are wonderful. Otherwise, it’d make for a tired hand and VERY sloppy writing. 🙂

    Posted on September 11, 2009 at 1:58 pm
  2. Holly- I’m glad you found it useful! Sometimes it takes a little while to get into the swing of things when classes start up after a long break.

    Posted on September 13, 2009 at 10:09 am
  3. what a helpful collection of tips: A few of my own notes on shorthand…
    1) be aware if you use it alot in classes that in handwritten exam situations it is not appropriate. if writing class notes is the only handwriting you do (which i guess in this internet/wordprocessing age is the case)give yourself a little extra time in exams to check through your paper that you haven’t inadvertently written parts of sentences or answers in shorthand.
    2)a ‘flying’ (like the mathematical ‘squared’ symbol) ‘m’ is useful for ‘ism’ words such as symbolism, absolutism, activism, fascism, socialism…etc etc
    3) a ‘flying’ ‘n’ is useful for words that end in ‘ion’ such as addiction, abolition, deforestatation…etc etc

    Posted on September 18, 2009 at 4:02 am
  4. CC- Thanks for your tips! And yes, during exam time it definitely is NOT a good idea to use shorthand, but it’s handy for personal notes. I love the “flying” m/n idea; I’ve never heard of that being used before and will definitely start using it.

    Posted on September 19, 2009 at 8:47 am
  5. Well, that is the polar opposite of everything I do.

    I pull out wads of crumpled paper, write down everything the professor says and completely disregard anything on boards or powerpoint. I then re-crumple the wad, empty my bag three weeks later, muddle through my completely unintelligible handwriting, and produce a gorgeous set of type-written categorized notes. Then I take those and try to teach the material to anyone who will listen to me. Usually my bird. And then I go write the exam/paper, and do damn well.

    My point: you gotta figure out your own way. Something different works for everyone.

    Although one thing I would suggest adding… the most important thing of them all… go to class. Then you don’t have to waste money on textbooks. Profs only test on what they like or are interested in, and that’s what they talk about, excessively.

    Posted on September 20, 2009 at 11:57 am
  6. Alana- That’s funny! But you’re right, it’s going to be a little different for everyone. These tips are what work for me, and might work for someone who has a really tough time with note-taking. And YES for going to class; it makes such a difference.

    Posted on September 22, 2009 at 8:58 pm