Taking notes? In times when lecture slides, scripts, screencasts are conveniently available for download? What may seem needless at first glance turns out to be helpful for exam preparation. Taking notes is a basic working technique for students. They help to remain active during a course and they promote concentration as well as following along. By taking your own notes, you summarize central statements in your own words and bring structure to a subject area.
It is not easy to write up good summaries. When it comes to exam preparation, you may notice typical problems: too long, too short, incomprehensible, not structured. That’s not a surprise. In order to take notes, you have to be able to listen, abstract and phrase simultaneously. We have some advice for you on how to take notes efficiently in online or face-to-face courses.
What’s the point of that?
Before you start thinking about what and how to document a course, you should clarify which function the transcript should fulfil. Examples:
- I take notes in order to prepare for the exam –> e. g. important terms and definitions, theories as well as models and their originators, literature references for further studies, key message statements of the lecturer
- I write down aspects that help me to follow a lecture and discuss it afterwards. For example, jot down the structure, important points, questions and remarks
The eye studies along with you: What could your notes look like?
- Chronological: The chronological recording is certainly the most common. You write down central points in a chronological order. Pay attention to headings and leave margins for keywords, literature references or comments.
- Graphical: With the help of a mind map you can create a pictorially structured collection of terms. You formulate the topic in the middle. Lines that represent main subdivisions emerge from the topic in the middle and branch out further and further. When learning, mind mapping promotes understanding by showing complex interrelationships. Through this form of sorted brainstorming, topics can be grasped in their entire range and quickly be surveyed.
- Tabular: If you want to compare areas of knowledge – for example, different theories, definitions or similar – a table can provide an overview.
- It is generally helpful to work with colors and abbreviations, for example to mark definitions or literature references (e.g. note = “N”, example = “E”, definition = “D”).
- Many students wonder: Should I write digitally or by hand? In general, it is better to take notes by hand. You can write, annotate, visualize, correct, highlight etc. much faster than on the computer. According to various scientific studies, the learning success of students is supposedly higher when using pen and paper. However, in case your handwriting is very scratchy and you later have trouble deciphering what you have written or it is easier for you to write on a computer, you should of course choose the medium that you are most comfortable with.
How to take notes
Here are some more recommendations:
- Preparation is important: A look at the script or the documents of the last week before the course gives you some orientation and indication. By activating previous knowledge, you will find it much easier to learn new things and to set a framework.
- Try to write up summaries in your own words – this way they will be easier to understand later on.
- Short sentences and keywords make it easier to take notes. Listening and writing at the same time is difficult. Write things down in a concise way and listen more attentively.
- Use keywords and abbreviations for terms that come up frequently (e.g. “Mc” for marginal costs etc.)
- Write down relevant numbers, names and terms.
- Write down your main thoughts, comments and remarks about what you heard. Use abbreviations and color codes on the edge of the sheet (e.g. note = “N”, example = “E”, definition = “D”).
- Teachers often give important advice, e.g. regarding organizational matters, exam preparation etc. Write these down clearly.
- Write down ambiguities that you do not understand immediately. Mark these notes so that they are apparent instantly during the follow-up.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions during the course if things are unclear.
- Add short summaries from time to time when a structure has become clear to you.
- Work with visualizations such as charts, diagrams or flowcharts when it is useful for the summary.
The follow-up of transcripts is very helpful before exams:
- Clarify issues that were unclear in a timely manner. For example, research an unclear term on the same day.
- Exchange notes with fellow students. It can be very enlightening to compare and discuss notes.
- Also making a mind map afterwards can clarify connections and give structure to the contents.
- If you take notes on loose sheets, you should file them chronologically. This way you keep an overview and you don’t have to sort stacks of paper at the end of the semester.