Note taking to aid effective learning and study skills


Good note taking is vital to effective learning. Research has proved that we remember 20 to 50 % of what we hear but within 48 hours this capacity to remember is reduced to 25%. Note taking ensures that the information presented in a class is understood, and remembered well by students.  Taking notes is not all about writing down whatever is said in class, but it is the processing of information that is given to you. Note taking consists of understanding, interpreting and summing up what has been taught in a class. Active listening is very crucial to good note taking.

Taking notes as a means to improve study skills

 Note taking helps you to concentrate fully on what is being taught.

It ensures that you not only understand but make this understanding available for future use.

Notes that have been taken down during a class represents your personal understanding of the subject and thus is much easier to study later.

Good note taking focuses on main points rather than all that is said to substantiate the points.

Note taking also helps you to cue in on what is important, especially when a teacher/lecturer repeats a point or emphasises on a particular concept giving you a very clear idea what needs to be focused on.

Introductions to a class and the summaries at the end of a class are especially important because these clearly tell you where your attention should be.  

In essence, note taking provides with all the clues to get good grades.  They also help you focus on concepts and key points which are vital to a particular chapter thereby making your learning effective.

All you wanted to know about note taking -  How to take notes

Each student has his / her own method of taking notes.  Taking copious notes of all that is being said with all the repetitions is not only tedious but is also boring.  

Notes should be brief.  Using standard abbreviations, symbols, etc. that  makes your notes effective and understandable.

Using key phrases instead of sentences helps you note down all the important points that are being taught.

Using different colours to take your notes, it helps you to focus your attention and retain them in memory longer.

Use of headings and sub-headings, bullet points and numbering systems helps to simplify material and make the notes a quicker and easier read.

Though note taking is done in your own style, certain parts of note taking have to be an exact reproduction using the right phrases and terminology as in the case of definitions, technical concepts, formulae etc.

It is quite possible to miss out certain points when you are taking notes, leaving blank spaces would allow you to complete the notes later.

While taking notes, it is possible that you do not understand certain concepts or points, it is wise to mark the points with question marks in the margins so that you can clarify at the end of a class.

A great trick for effective note taking is when you find teachers emphasising on certain points or even mentioning it is important, it would do well to color or write in bold these key phrases or headings so that you can spend more time focusing on these concepts.

A common problem with note taking is that students find the notes that they have written illegible and impossible to understand.  Good note taking means writing your notes legibly leaving enough space for further additions. This gives room for corrections, clarification of doubts and still keeping  your notes legible.

Good note taking is enhanced by preparation for a class in advance. When you prepare for a class in advance you understand most of the concepts to a large extent and this makes note taking easy and meaningful.

Note taking should be accurate in the sense that though you write in your own words, they should convey the right meaning.  Sometimes teachers explain concepts with doodles or diagrams on the board, it would be smart to copy these down as it would make understanding these concepts easier.

Using tables to contrast and differentiate two concepts help clarity of concepts and understanding easier.

Leaving space between points helps you to add on to your notes later.  Very often students take notes on pieces of paper which could be lost.  It is important to have a proper note-book so that you could  keep all your notes in one place.  

From note taking to effective learning 

Taking notes is important but putting them to good use is more critical.

The most important part of note taking is to read your notes within 24 hours of having taken them down.  It is important that you do that because your memory still is fresh and you could correct or add to what you have already written.

Note making is also an important part of note taking.  Note making means when you read through your notes, you make your own interpretation of the notes, add your own examples or diagrams or highlight certain parts or even bold certain words to emphasises key material for further study.  

How taking notes helps improve study skills and memory

As we had mentioned earlier it not only helps you to concentrate on what is being taught but it helps to avoid secondary distraction like side talk, letting your thoughts wander away and being distracted by other things that happen around you.

The speed of thought is faster than the speed of speech.  Usually the speaker speaks slowly and clearly and you absorb a point much before it is completed which allows your mind to wander away.  Note taking does not allow you the luxury of allowing your mind to wander away because you have to doubly concentrate on the task at hand.

Underlining key phrases and important concepts or highlighting them with colours will make reading through the notes an easier task.  They also tend to stick to your memory when you highlight them with colours.

Note making would be made more effective if you could make a short summary of the notes that you have taken.  Often times when you do not have enough time to go through the whole notes, these short summaries could help bring to your memory all that had been taught in that particular chapter.  

Note making is actually revision of what you have already heard and written.  Since this is an interpretation of your understanding of that particular chapter, it helps you to retain what you have learnt in your long term memory.  Note making helps you to get the most out of a lecture.

Attitudes that hinders active listening, good note taking and  forming good study skills

1) Preconceived notions that topic is hard or the teacher is boring or the speaker’s voice is droning etc. hinder your ability to understand. You have already put a block to your ability by sending a message to your brain that you are attempting the impossible.  Secondly, it does not matter whether your teacher speaks well or not or has great mannerisms or not, the onus is on you to study.

2) Getting carried away by some discussion that is not really crucial to the topic could hinder your note taking.

3) Trying to write everything that is being said is another obstacle to good note taking.  

Using instruments or technology for recording may sound like a great idea but once you have a backup you are neither motivated to listen attentively nor do you get back to listening to what you have recorded to make proper notes.  In fact, if you spend time taking notes in class, you would have doubly utilized your time.

4) Tolerating distraction around you hinders note taking. It would be smart to ensure that you sit in a place that is free from distraction where you could listen actively and concentrate on taking notes.  Trying to frame questions or picking out points to criticise the speaker should not be the motive of note making.  Openness to receive everything that is being said and then using your discretion and understanding to interpret the information would be a good way to learn and take notes.

5) Another issue with note taking is that you concentrate only on what you know and tend to gloss over things that you do not understand.  It would be sensible to leave spaces so that you could clarify these issues and make proper notes at the end of a class.

Getting good marks is not the end of good education, putting what you have learned to practice is. Forming a good study habit and follow up are essential to effective learning. Active listening and taking notes are great habits to cultivate not only for class room learning but also for a successful career and relationships. Studying effectively does not mean you have no life of your own away from your studies. If you could inculcate these study habits you would have more time for other productive on campus activities.