EL3222: Notes on Note-Taking

Some lecturers advice students not to write notes during their lectures. But this is not something that we can or should legislate, can we? In fact, I have a rather different view on this topic. I notice, for example, that the students who scored the lowest and second lowest marks for this module  in 2007–08 did not take notes at all during class. Some research has in fact shown that note-taking, if effectively done, does enhance learning.

But how should note-taking be done? Here are some of my notes on note-taking, written with EL3222 in mind, although some of my observations or recommendations could be applied to other modules as well. Many of you, of course, know some of the points below very well, but it is always useful to rehearse the points about note-taking in relation to a particular module, to introduce new ones, or to flesh out those that you may not be familiar with, as they may help you in your learning of this module. Many of the points below should be viewed as recommendations, and are not obligatory, although it may be useful to follow the majority of them.

  1. Make sure you pay attention to the lecture, and not write notes mechanically.
  2. Do not write notes furiously, noting down everything the lecturer says. Write sparingly and selectively, noting down only what you think is important.
  3. Do not pack the entire page with your notes. Leave some space on the page, so that you may be able to write further notes, annotations, observations, explanations etc. after the lecture, or during your revision.
  4. There is no need to write in complete sentences. You can use some kind of shorthand. Many of you are familiar with what is sometimes called SMSese: you may use this for your notes, as they are only meant for your personal perusal. (You must not use it of course, for your essays and your discursive exam answers!, However you may use it – or what is more appropriately called chatese or IM-lingo in this context – when you use the IVLE chatroom for this module).
  5. You must be able to look for appropriate moments (usually lasting no more than several seconds) to write your notes, without distracting your attention from the lecture. You are not going to be given time to write your notes down, so this is a skill that you need to develop, if are not already able to do so. Do not overestimate your ability to multi-task – writing notes on what has been previously said, while concentrating on what is presently said – the quality of what you write and your understanding of what is being said may be negatively affected.
  6. Wherever possible, look back at your notes during class, during the break, or shortly after the class. Clarify or correct anything that has not been clearly written: eg. spelling mistakes (for words that need to be spelt out in full), unclear or misleading shorthand etc.
  7. Capitalise key words or highlight them. Capitalising may be done during the lecture, especially if you immediately know what the key words are. Highlighting may be done later, although I have seen students who are able to do it during class.
  8. If you missed something due to an attention lapse (it may happen, sometimes, even to the most attentive student in class!) try to ask your friends about what you have missed later, during the rest periods or after the class is over, and include what you have missed in your notes, or amend them accordingly.
  9. You may want to formalise the arrangement whereby you check each other's notes by doing it on a regular basis, even if you think you have not missed anything. Discussions with your module colleagues about what the lecture was about is usually beneficial, and if regularly done, it will enhance your learning of the module.
  10. The lecture notes or outlines for this module are provided. You may, if you want to, use them as the base for your lecture notes, writing your own notes next to or around particular paragraphs or points, etc. If you use them, you may find that you spend less time writing notes – perhaps much less time – and you may be able to pay more attention in class. As these notes are freely available online, you may want to take the liberty, if you feel they are useful for this purpose, to convert them to word processing documents and make the amendments to them in order to make them more amenable for your note-taking in class before printing them: for example, leaving as much margin as you think you would need, or leaving a space between lines, etc.
  11. There is some leeway when a discussion question is flashed on the screen, as not all students will be responding to it. But make sure you understand the question and why you think it is asked. If you want to respond to it, make sure, of course, that your note-taking does not stand in the way. After the discussion is over, you may, if you want, write down the important point or points discussed.
  12. When a video clip is shown, you should pay attention to it. The video clips have a central function in a module like this, and do not serve a decorative purpose. However, the room is usually darkened when the clips are shown, so you may not be able to see clearly even if you want to write notes. You can of course write notes after a clip is shown and the room is lightened up again.
  13. As you very well know, your tasks do not end after taking notes. This factor is also reiterated in several of the points above, such as going back to your notes to see if you have understood them, highlighting important points, etc. (see points 3, 6, 7, 8, and 9 above). In addition to the tasks or possible tasks mentioned above, an obvious one is to safe keep your notes in a way for easy retrieval later, and to ensure you do not lose them: losing notes or not knowing where you kept them before the exam is a perennial problem encountered amongst students! If you have the time, scanning your notes as image files or printing them after you have done so for filing elsewhere may be a precautionary measure that you may want to consider.

Last revised: 03 February 2012