Be an Expert Note-Taker

Business notes

Be an Expert Note-Taker

Many students struggle with taking useful notes. Note-taking is a high-level skill that requires constant learning, practice, polishing and improvement over time—but once mastered, you will reap immeasurable benefits, and this skill will serve you well after graduation and throughout your life.

Students often aren't sure what to write down during lectures. The best approach is to consult your syllabus or course schedule and preview the material before class, so you know the key concepts and content to be delivered, as well as specific terms that will be used. This is not the time to understand everything, but previewing will help you have a bigger picture of the topic and focus on the most important parts of the lecture. If it is a continuation of previous lectures, you should also review previous notes.

If you don't have time to read all the assigned pages of text before class, read the introduction, summary, graphs, diagrams and tables-they usually provide information to help you decide what to write down. In addition, prepare questions to ask during the lecture, which will help you actively engage.

Previewing material before lectures will make note-taking a lot easier and more efficient.

Pay Attention and Be Selective

Arrive to class early, with a positive attitude toward the material and instructor. Find a good seat where you can hear and see clearly.

Once the lecture begins, participate, asking and answering questions when appropriate. Take notes, but do not attempt to write down everything the instructor says, because you will miss important points while trying to write every word. Listen carefully and jot down only important information and main points.

Not all lecture material carries the same weight. Most of the time, 80 percent of test questions come from 20 percent of the material taught. The secret of knowing what is in that 20 percent lies in paying attention to cues instructors give, such as spending more time explaining a concept; repetition; emphasis via tone or gestures; writing on the board; review or summary at the beginning or end of class; printed handouts; and questions asked or quizzes given. Since you are studying to be a health professional, always pay special attention to material with clinical significance.


Be brief. Notes are not meant to be a dissertation, so use words or phrases instead of complete sentences. Also use abbreviations and symbols, but be consistent. Use indentations and bullets, draw arrows, sketch diagrams, and create concept maps, tables and flowcharts. Use existing acronyms or create your own to remember lists of materials.

Customize your notes based on whether your learning style is more visual or verbal. Different instructors also have different styles. Explore and find ways that work best for you and for different classes, whether that means drawing pictures, creating rubrics or writing words. You can also try recognized note-taking systems such as Outline, Cornell, Charting, Flow or Mapping methods.

Hands-on classes may require a different approach. As a massage therapy student, you need to make notes on your instructor's maneuvers, positions, directions, pressure used, sequences of steps and other details during demonstrations. Some trial and error may be necessary to find your best system.

As you take notes, it is inevitable you will miss some points, so leave spaces for adding information later. Make a quick note of what you missed and catch up with your instructor or classmates to fill in the blanks.

Process and Repeat

Taking notes paves the way to excellent academic performance, but by no means is it the ultimate goal. Reviewing and editing is even more essential to learning. Without reviewing, most people retain less than 50 percent of information in their short-term memory within 24 hours, according to many sources. Budget time for reviewing as soon as possible. Add or complete anything you didn't have time to note during class. Seek clarification from instructors or other sources if you have questions.

Organize notes into formats that are easy to reference and remember. Condense and summarize in your own words, draw figures, create charts and tables, and make sure information is accurate. Confirm with your instructor to ensure all key points are included. This will be helpful for the preview you do before your next class, and before exams.

Go through your notes, summarizing commonalities and picking out important exceptions. For example, when you learn about muscles, you discover each has an origin or insertion, blood supply, innervation and action. But you can organize many muscles into groups with similar origins, same action, or same blood supply and innervation. Then you only need to remember common features for each group, along with special features for exceptions. By doing this, you don't have to remember every detail for each individual muscle, but you'll still know what's common and different within the group.

Highlight notes to emphasize important information. Use tools in a consistent way-colored pens and pencils, highlighters, sticky notes, tabs—so whenever you see that color, shape or sticker, you know what it indicates. Don't overuse highlighting, though; highlighting the entire page defeats the purpose.

Review notes regularly to solidify learning, and at least two or three times before an exam. Each review should take less time to finish. The time you spent in your first review will be significantly wasted without subsequent reviews; I have had students who claimed they never heard of something they saw on an exam, but could find it highlighted in their notes. I've had others with perfect-looking notes, color-coded and well-organized, who still failed an exam. Why? They didn't take time to review after spending so much time creating perfect notes. You need to use your notes, not just produce an eye-pleasing collection.

Because teaching is one of the best ways to learn, compare notes with classmates and teach each other. This will also help correct mistakes, identify areas needing further study and ultimately, facilitate your complete comprehension of the material.

Practice these steps and use trial and error to help you fine-tune which note-taking approach fits your learning style and works best for you.

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