How to take better notes

June 27, 2022

Cast your mind forward to exam time.

You have made coffee, dug out your folders of notes and textbooks and are sitting down to study in The Fields dedicated study area. You open your file and staring back at you are reams and reams of untidy scrawl that were hurriedly thrown together while the lecturer spoke too fast. Where do you begin? How could you possibly prepare for an exam like this?

Taking good notes during classes and making sure they are easily accessible is an important step if you hope to achieve good marks. But as mentioned, most lecturers don’t stop to allow slow note takers to catch up and getting the important information down can be hard, let alone getting it down in such a way that you can perfectly remember it. Here then are four tips for taking better notes to help you crush your end of year exams.

Prepare in advance

Taking good notes and getting the most out of your lectures starts before the lecture has even begun. Before you go to class make sure to actually do the assigned reading and check over your notes from the day before. A study found that students who read material before class have a far greater chance of not only understanding a lecture, but of remembering it than those who didn’t.

Preparing for your class also includes making sure you have all the correct books and stationery with you, and perhaps eating a meal and packing water as well to ensure you have the energy you need to get through the class. Make sure the meal you eat is not high in sugar as this will only lead to an energy spike that crashes later in the class. Being well rested and getting enough sleep is also critical.

Leave your laptop at home

In the modern era it is incredibly tempting to bring a laptop and type all your notes. You may in fact type quicker than you can write and this can feel like the easier option. Don’t do that.

A study published revealed that students who bring laptops to classes end up only working on that class’s subject matter for 58% of the lecture. The rest is taken up with doing other assignments, answering emails or checking social media. It’s not necessarily that the students intended on working on other things, it just happened and much of the benefit of their lecture was lost.

To make matters worse another study in 2014 found that students who took notes on laptops were much  more likely to simply copy down what the professor was saying as they said it. The problem with this is that there was very little engagement with the subject matter and far less understanding of the points at the end of the day.

At the end of the day, the simple act of writing your own notes and summarise what is being said forces you to engage with the lecture and try hard to understand it. By writing your own notes you are taking large concepts and summarising them down. This means that those students who used laptops to take notes perform less well in conceptual tests than those who write down notes.

Get the information down

The real trick to note taking is ensuring you are getting all the information in the lecture down. Given how quickly a lecturer may speak it can be wise to develop a kind of shorthand for yourself. Don’t be afraid to substitute in acronyms or shortened versions of words for phrases that come up often. You also don’t need to worry about spelling and grammar. If you make a mistake, forget it, as long as you have the fact written down in a way that you can understand later.

Outside of note taking it would be surprising if you did very much writing at all and it’s possible your hand grows tired and the quality of your writing and note taking also gets weaker as a result. Stick with it. You will find the more you write the easier it becomes. Focus on making sure your writing stays neat and measured all through the lecture as there is little worse when it comes time to read the notes than trying to decipher a scrawl.

Review your notes

Note taking is actually not a one step process. The aim in class is to summarise what is being said as easily as possible and get the important facts down in a way that you understand them. If there is something you don’t understand, simply make a note at that point and move on. Don’t try to colour code your notes or lay them out in a pretty fashion at this stage as the key here is primary understanding and making sure you have the facts you need.

The second step happens when you are at home after your class. Now is the time to take the notes you made in class and flesh them out. Go over the notes and use different colours to help define different concepts or ideas. Using different colours helps activate your visual memory, which in turn helps you to remember the information. Take a look at our blog on how to study effectively for more memory tips.Studies show that those who don’t review will forget 40% of information learned after the first 24 hours, and 60% after 48 hours.

This is also the time to answer those questions you have left yourself when you initially took the notes. Do some research and find the answers then fill in the blanks in such a way that you can fully understand the concept. Teaching yourself these things is a great way to remember them.

As an additional tip, if you notice a fact that the lecturer has mentioned before, or one that they are stating again or repeating a lot be sure to underline it and give it, its own colour in your notes. This fact is most probably going to come up during the exams.

Just like how it’s important to personalise your notes, it’s also important to make your life fit your ambitions and your style. This is why staying at The Fields is ideal. At The Fields, you can balance your privacy with the opportunity of being part of a community and personalise your space the way you want it. And with a generator in a communal area and free WiFi included in the monthly rate you know you will never be reviewing your notes in the dark.JOIN THE FIELDS TODAY and WIN! Both existing and new residents can win a R500 electricity voucher.

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