What does good note-taking for university lectures look like?

There’s more to it than showing up and jotting down a few key phrases from your prof.

Follow these tips to focus your attention in lectures, retain information, and make reviewing your notes easier. 

Before your lecture 

Preparation is key. Get ready to take notes before you come to the lecture. This includes previewing the learning resources and having your note-taking materials handy.

You can handwrite or type your notes – just don’t get distracted! 

  • Complete assigned readings. Reading assigned learning materials will help you better understand the lecture content. Write down any questions you have and speak up if those questions aren’t answered by your instructor. This will help you comprehend the lecture content and resolve confusion.

  • Label your notes. Before the lecture starts, take a few minutes to write down the date, abbreviation of the course name, and page numbers so you know which lecture the notes were created for when you review them.

  • Leave plenty of space. Plan ahead where to start writing your notes and leave enough space for any questions you may have later in the lecture. This will make your notes easier to read and edit later.

  • Have coloured pens and highlighters at hand. Besides writing notes, you can also use coloured pens and highlighters to underline or emphasize certain parts of your notes.

During your lecture 

  • Be an active listener so you absorb ideas during the lecture. Instead of trying to put everything in your notebook, choose a preferred note-taking method to filter important information.

  • Use mind mapping to organize your thoughts. With mind maps you can quickly identify and understand the structure of a subject. You’ll see how separate pieces of information fit together, as well as recording the raw facts that usually make up lecture notes. 

  • Pay attention to keywords and ideas. Listen for keywords and take note of ideas that the lecturer emphasizes, repeats or spends a great deal of time on. If an instructor takes the time to write something on the board or adds it to their slides, it’s probably important. 

  • Develop your own style of speed writing. Make up your own abbreviations and use acronyms and symbols to save time. 

  • Make sure you understand the concepts and keywords. Ask for clarification questions during class. Don't wait to get help with ideas or concepts that you don't understand

  • Summarize your notes. Listen for and write out the lecturer's conclusion or summary at the end of the lecture to confirm important points.  

After your lecture 

Revisit your notes after the lecture to review what you have learned and what needs to be filled in for knowledge gaps.

This is also the time to check answers to your questions raised before and during the lecture so that you obtain a stronger understanding of the learning content. 

  • Set up buddy systems. Review your notes with classmates to go over ideas that you’re having trouble understanding.

  • Speak to your instructor. Take advantage of your professor’s or TA’s office hours for extra help. It’s what they’re there for!

  • Organize your notes. Have a file system or make your notes easily searchable. Enrich your notes by adding lecturer comments like, "this is a key point" or "this point will become relevant next week".

  • Edit your notes. Setting up a regular time to go over your notes as soon as possible - ideally within 24 hours of taking them, can help improve your memory of what you learned in class.

  • Develop a strategy to highlight key points. Make cue cards for main points, note key ideas in the margins of your notes or use any other creative ideas. Review the key points regularly throughout the term.