Note-taking and reading skills in university

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In university, professors expect you to come to class prepared by completing assigned readings, and they will only focus on the main concepts of a course in their lectures. This can be very different from your experience in high school.

To be successful in university, consider these strategies to read efficiently without losing understanding and to create lecture and study notes that will help you get the most from your courses. Book an appointment with a Peer Success Coach for personalized help integrating these strategies into your study habits.


How to take better lecture notes

Use these tips before, during and after your lectures to take better notes.

Before your lecture

  • Come to class prepared. If there’s assigned reading, complete or skim it to better understand the material in class.
  • Label your notes with the date, abbreviation of the course name and page numbers on each sheet of paper. This only takes a couple minutes and you can do it while you wait for the lecture to begin.
  • Leave plenty of space to make your notes easier to read and edit later.
  • Listen, think and then write to ensure you’re understanding the information.
  • Use coloured pens and highlighters to underline or emphasize certain parts of your notes and diagrams.

During your lecture

  • 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.
  • Listen for keywords and take note of ideas that the lecturer emphasizes, repeats or spends a great deal of time on.
  • What’s on the board? If an instructor takes the time to write something on the board, it’s probably important.
  • Develop your own style of speed writing. If you have trouble keeping up with the lecturer, make up your own abbreviations and save time by not copying down information that you already know.
  • Make sure you’re understanding your notes by asking questions either during or after class. Don't wait to get help with ideas or concepts that you don't understand.

After the lecture

  • Summarize your notes at the end of the lecture. Listen for and write out the lecturer's conclusion or summary to confirm important points.
  • Set up buddy systems in your classes. Review your notes together to fill in gaps and to go over ideas that you’re having trouble understanding.
  • Each new concept you learn in problem solving, math-based courses serves as a foundation for future concepts. This is why it’s so important to understand each concept in your notes and textbook before moving on. You can do this by asking questions either during or after class, taking advantage of professor or TA office hours or asking your peers.
  • Students who do well in university organize their notes. They have a file system or set their notes up in a way that makes them easy to refer to. They also enrich their notes by adding lecturer comments like, "This is a key point" or "This point will become relevant next week."
  • Edit your notes soon after taking them. Set up a regular time to go over your notes as soon as possible - ideally within 24 hours of taking them. This will help you remember what was said in class, and allow you to fill in any words or ideas that you left out.
  • Set up your lecture notes so they’re easy to study. Develop a strategy to highlight key points from your lectures. You could 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.

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Improve listening in lectures

You can learn a lot through listening. In university, it will be a prime source of information. People don’t instinctively listen well, but it’s a skill that anyone can develop. Use the tips below to improve how you listen and learn during your lectures.

Listen actively

What’s the difference between listening actively and listening passively?

  • Passive listening is “hearing” what the professor says and copying it down word-for-word.
  • Active listening is carrying on a conversation with your instructor in your notes.

You cannot and should not try to write everything the professor says in their lecture. Many students fall into the trap of simply copying down everything the professor says.

This is where recognizing what’s being repeated, what’s new and asking questions comes into play. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t copy anything at all, even if you have course notes. It’s important to learn how to take cues from your professors to determine what’s important.

Why is active listening important? Questioning the information helps you to identify what’s important and what should be included in your notes. It’s important to learn how to add detail from lectures to your course notes, and it’s also important to understand how to create good quality notes from scratch.

Pay attention to your professor

Pay attention to your instructor’s verbal and non-verbal cues.

Verbal cues

  • Lecture outlines
  • Hypotheticals
  • Key points and counter arguments
  • Repetition
  • Summary, recaps, conclusions

Non-verbal cues

  • Facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, voice
  • Emphasis (repetition, slowing down, raising voice)

    Here are a few more strategies to help you stay focused and determine what should be written down:

    • Try to anticipate where your professor is going with a given topic.
    • Watch for verbal clues like "First… second…” which show a series of important points or clues like, "note that…"
    • Listen for the repetition of key phrases and terms.
    • Watch the professor’s body language, facial expressions or tone of voice, which can indicate that a topic is important (i.e. raised eyebrows, talking slowly or emphatically).  
    • The amount of time the instructor spends on a topic usually indicates importance.
    • If the instructor takes the trouble to write something on the board, then it’s important.

    Be mindful of yourself

    So far, it seems simple - attend class, listen actively, engage, participate and take notes. However it’s extremely important to be mindful of yourself. We all learn differently and there’s great value in being aware of what’s helpful and what’s not so helpful when it comes to what’s happening in your new learning environment.

    Effective listening happens when you’re mindful of the following:

    You listen better when you're not distracted or multi-tasking

    To help prevent your mind from wandering, stop yourself from reading, talking or multi-tasking while the lecture is in progress. This includes turning off notifications from your cell phone and laptop. Many students will attend lecture, but have other apps or webpages open during it. It’s not only distracting for your learning, but also distracting for those around you.

    You listen better when you're actively involved in the lecture

    If you’re paying attention to what’s being said, you’re actively processing what’s being said. If you’re listening actively in a lecture, you’ll have better recall later when studying and reviewing.

    You'll only hear what you want to hear

    Your attitude will add to or detract from the words of the lecturer. Keeping a positive attitude toward the course content, the lectures and the instructor will help you stay engaged and focused. If you have a negative attitude, this will hold you back by hindering your ability to focus, to listen actively and to understand what’s being taught.

    Choose your seat wisely

    Choosing where you’re going to sit in your lecture can have a large influence on your ability to focus and listen actively. Whether you prefer sitting at the front of the room or at the back of the room, determine where the best place is for you and where you’ll have the least amount of distractions.

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    Create useful study notes

    Making great study notes can help you solidify lecture material in your memory, connect important concepts from readings to lecture content and prepare for midterms and finals.

    • Write in your own words. Don’t just copy down word-for-word textbook definitions or what the professor says. Train your brain by trying to reword main ideas in ways that will help you remember and understand them in the future.
    • Organize course information in a way that’s meaningful to you. Strong study notes don’t fit one shape or style. Consider how you personally learn best, then create study notes that work for you. You could handwrite, type, chart, concept map, diagram, create cue cards, etc.
    • Highlight what’s most important or summarize from readings or lectures. Some hints to what’s “most important” are:
      • What does your professor spend the most time on, repeat, emphasize or even hint at being on the final?
      • Does your textbook include chapter summaries or bold key ideas throughout the reading? These are key pieces of information to include in your study notes.

    Strong study notes, step-by-step

    Humanities and social science courses

    1. Start with your topic.
    2. List the main ideas related to the topic.
    3. List the supporting details associated with the topic.
    4. Identify key terms associated with the topic.
    5. List any examples that will help you understand the topic.
    6. List any connections you can identify within the topic. These connections can be to other topics or units from the course or between main ideas from one topic.

    STEM courses

    1. Start with your topic.
    2. Identify key formulas from that topic.
    3. List the definitions, units and symbols for each key formula you've identified.
    4. Note any other important information, like application rules, assumed values, sign conventions, etc.
    5. Summarize the concept in your own words, including examples.

    Use this concept summary template (PDF) to help you get started.


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    How to read critically in university

    Reading critically provides deeper and more complex engagement with a text; it’s a process of analyzing and interpreting. It can also include evaluating the broad themes of a text and understanding how the text creates those themes. You’ll use your critical thinking skills to question both the text and your own reading of it.

    Reading versus “critical reading”

      Reading Critical reading
    Purpose To get a basic grasp of the text To form judgments about how a text functions
    Activity Absorbing and understanding Analyzing, interpreting and evaluating
    Focus What the text says What a text does and means
    • What is the text saying?
    • What information can I get from it?
    • How does the text work? How are the arguments structured?
    • What choices are made in the text? What patterns are created as a result of those choices?
    • What types of reasoning and evidence are used in the text?
    • What are the underlying assumptions or perspectives of the text?
    • What does the text mean? Does it communicate the meaning effectively?
    • How can I use this text to develop my own arguments?
    Direction “With” the text – taking for granted that the text is correct “Against” the text – questioning the text’s assumptions and arguments and interpreting the meaning of it in context
    Response Restatement and summary Description, interpretation and evaluation

    How to read critically


    1. Self-reflect:
      1. What are your feelings about the topic?
      2. What experiences, assumptions, knowledge and perspectives do you bring to the text?
      3. What biases might you have about the text? Are you able to keep an open mind and consider other points of view?
    2. Read to understand:
      1. Examine the text and context: Who is the author? Who is the publisher? Where and when was it written? What kind of text is it? What kinds of sources are referenced?
      2. Skim the text: What is the topic? What is the main idea? What are the most important points?
      3. Resolve confusion: Look up unfamiliar words or terms in dictionaries or glossaries. Reread difficult passages to clarify your understanding.

    Three steps of critical reading in humanities and social sciences

    STEM students can use the SQ3R method to read critically. Our textbook tips are useful for all subjects.

    To read critically, you must think critically. Critical thinking involves several related mental processes: analysis, interpretation and evaluation.

      Textbook tips 

      • Use coloured pens or highlighters. Only underline 15-25 percent of your text. If you’re highlighting less, you aren’t getting all the critical information. If you’re highlighting more, you’ll have to reread the majority of the chapter again, which defeats the purpose of highlighting.
      • Separate understanding from memorization. If your goal is reading to memorize information, you'll forget most of what you read after a day or two. If you read to learn and understand, the information will become part of the knowledge bank you draw from as needed.
      • Build your vocabulary knowledge. This will make reading faster in the long run. You'll expand your knowledge as you read. Don’t assume you know what a word means. If you’re unsure, look the word up in the textbook glossary or a dictionary.
      • Be patient with yourself. Improving your reading takes time. As with any skill, you'll see results if you practice.

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      How to read faster without losing understanding

      Speed reading involves selecting the appropriate pace to support your learning and skimming for important information. The goal is to decrease the time it takes you to read while increasing your retention. However, increasing speed isn't an effective strategy for all students.

      Factors that reduce reading rate

      These conditions reduce comprehension. Eliminating them will likely increase your comprehension as well as your reading rate. This is an entirely different matter than simply speeding up the rate of reading without reference to the conditions responsible for the slow rate.

      • Limited perceptual span: Word-by-word reading.
      • Slow perceptual reaction time: Being slow to recognize the material.
      • Vocalization: This includes the need to vocalize, or read aloud, to achieve comprehension.
      • Faulty eye movements: This includes inaccuracy in placement on the page, return sweep, rhythm or regularity of movement.
      • Repeatedly rereading material.
      • Poor evaluation of which aspects of a text are important and unimportant.
      • Trying to remember everything, rather than trying to remember selectively.

      Strategies to increase reading rate

      • Get your eyes checked. Before embarking on a speed reading program, make sure to take care of any correctable vision problems by checking with your eye doctor. Very slow reading is often related to uncorrected vision problems.
      • Eliminate the habit of pronouncing words as you read. If you sound out words in your throat or whisper them, you can only read as fast as you can read aloud. You should be able to read most materials at least two or three times faster by reading silently. If you're aware of sounding out or "hearing" words as you read, try to concentrate on key words and meaningful ideas. Instead of verbalizing words, try to visualize the words you're reading.
      • Vary your reading speed. Not all material requires the same reading speed. Slow down your reading speed when you see information for the first time or have difficulty understanding material. Comprehension is the goal - not reading speed.
      • Use the pacer technique. Some people use their finger to help skim information. In this instance, the finger is a pacer. You can also use a pen or highlighter as your pacer if it feels more comfortable. Using a pacer forces your eyes to focus when and where you want them to focus. It’s nearly impossible to lose your place on a page using a pacer, and it’s a lot easier to move to the next line. All of this helps increase reading speed. Since pacers involve using other parts of the body, it’s also easier to stay alert while reading. To increase your reading speed, move your pacer at a faster, but comfortable, pace. Once you feel comfortable at a new pace, you can slightly increase your speed again.
      • Practice. As with every new skill, reading must be practiced to enhance speed. Be patient with yourself as you learn new strategies.

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      Use SQ3R to remember more of what you read

      Use SQ3R to actively read your textbook and lecture notes and get the maximum retention from your reading time.


       Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review"Gather the information.

      1. Read the title to prepare your mind to receive the subject at hand.
      2. Read the introduction and summary to orient yourself to how the chapter fits the author’s purposes, and focus on the author’s statement of important points.
      3. Notice each boldface heading and subheading to organize your mind before you begin to read. This will build a structure for the thoughts and details to come.
      4. Notice any graphics. Charts, maps, diagrams, etc. are there to make a point – don’t miss them.
      5. Notice reading aids. Italics, boldface, chapter objectives and end of chapter questions are all included to help you sort, comprehend and remember what you’re reading.


      Help your mind engage and concentrate.

      1. One section at a time, turn the heading into as many questions as you think can be answered in the section.
      2. The better the questions, the better your comprehension will likely be.
      3. You may add further questions as you proceed in the reading.
      4. Whenever your mind is actively searching for answers to questions, it’s engaged in learning.


      Familiarize yourself with the material.

      1. Read one section at a time with your questions in mind.
      2. Look for the answers to your questions and notice if you need to make up new questions.
      3. Read with a highlighter and pencil handy. Highlight the answers to the questions you created.
      4. Summarize important information in the columns as you read.


      Train your mind to absorb information as you read.

      1. Stop after each section to recall your questions and try to answer them from memory.
      2. If you can’t answer them, look back again. Don’t go on to the next section until you can recite your answers.
      3. If you’re unable to recall the information, think about it for a few seconds before looking back at the reading. If you don’t allow your brain to wrestle with the information for a couple of seconds, you'll cheat yourself from the reciting exercise. Trying to retrieve the information from your memory is an important step in retention.


      Refine your mental organization and begin building memory.

      1. Once you’ve finished the entire chapter using the steps above, go back over all of your questions from all the sections. See if you can still answer them – if not, look back and refresh your memory.
      2. Star the information in your textbook or lecture notes that was difficult to recall. This will help you know what to spend more time on when you come back to study this material for a test or exam.

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