Listening, sifting through information, and taking accurate, detailed lecture notes are some of the most important skills students need for learning at university. Your notes are the payoff for the time you invest in class and they provide a critical tool for exam preparation. This handout will discuss several skills that are important for learning from lectures.
If this is your first year at university, you will probably notice that how class time is spent can differ quite dramatically from high school. First, courses are often divided into separate components: the lecture, in which the instructor may lecture on a prepared topic for the majority of class time; the seminar, in which smaller groups of students discuss course material with a TA; the lab, in which students gain hands-on experience related to the course content; and D2L discussion boards, which often serve as an online version of the seminar. Second, class sizes are much larger in university than in high school. Depending on your courses and program, you may be one of more than a hundred students in all of your courses. In such large courses, you may feel anonymous, and it can be especially difficult to communicate with the instructor.
In large classes, notetaking can be especially challenging. In courses where the instructor relays a great deal of detailed information in each lecture, it can be difficult to know what or how much to write down. And in courses with large numbers of students, it can be very intimidating to ask questions, comment on the material, or even ask the instructor to clarify his/her remarks. In this handout, we address many of the issues which you might encounter as you make the transition from high school to university learning.
Taking effective notes begins with developing an understanding of the course goals and purpose. The following four steps can help you make informed decisions about how much to write down in lectures, how to approach studying your texts, and what course material to concentrate on when preparing for exams.
Although the lectures in each course vary as to the type and amount of information they provide, if you're not in class, you won't get any of it. If you rely solely on your course's online notes, you miss the instructor's explanatory comments and supporting information. You may also find it difficult to determine the most important information for the exam since you don't know what the instructor emphasized in lecture. If you borrow a classmate's notes, you could also be missing important information, and the information you do get has been filtered by someone else's background knowledge, note taking skills, and attention span.
Give priority to completing assigned readings so that you won't be struggling to take notes in lecture on something that's already in your text. Doing the readings beforehand can also help you to listen more actively in class, predict the topics the lecture may cover, and identify questions or concepts you should clarify in class.
Here are some general "dos and don'ts" to consider when taking notes in all your courses:
Taking effective notes doesn't stop when the lecture ends. The most effective notes are edited, integrated with other notes, and/or used to help you prepare ahead of time for exams or projects. Here are a few suggestions for what to do with your notes after class. Keep in mind that few students use all of these suggestions; choose the ones that will be most effective for your courses.
If you've thought about using a laptop to take notes in your courses, consider these points when making your decision.
In this section senior students have pooled their knowledge to give you an overview of some of the unique characteristics of notetaking in different disciplines at Guelph.
The content in Arts and Social Sciences lectures often follows a specific plan, which is usually laid out in the course outline. In addition, many courses provide a list of textbook and online readings that you should do before each class. Completing these readings will often improve your note-taking ability as lectures will elaborate on or explain these readings. In the lecture, pay special attention to information and concepts that aren't covered in the readings since your lecture notes will be the sole source of information on these topics.
Many Arts and Social Sciences courses also have a seminar component which is driven by discussion between the students and TA. Come prepared by reviewing your notes from recent lectures and other required readings before the seminar. Develop some questions or points that you would like to discuss. Actively participate by listening and asking questions, as it will benefit your understanding and recall of the material discussed. If you aren't satisfied with your note-taking during the seminar, take some time afterwards to recall the discussion points and add to your notes.
In many courses in the Bachelor of Commerce program, you may come across case-based lectures. In a case, a short "story" is read and then discussed in relation to theories and other course material. It is critical that you do the assigned questions before class so you can actively participate in discussion, ask questions, and incorporate new ideas from the lecture into your answers. Since professors may not write notes on the board or provide them to you online, some students find that it is easier to add lecture notes to questions they've already answered than to write all of their lecture notes on a blank sheet of paper.
In problem-based courses, such as engineering, mathematics, or physics, notes are a combination of written notes, mathematical problems, and diagrams. Since instructors may refer to notes from previous lectures, bring your notes from the past week to class so that you can relate current information to previous notes and problems. Make sure you leave plenty of space for each mathematical problem because your notes for most problems will include a lot of calculations, additional diagrams, and references to relevant theories. Make careful notes for all problems solved in class because these notes are essential to refer to when solving other problems on your own.
Science courses rely on establishing a basic understanding of the material and then building on this as the semester progresses. If you don't focus on understanding the core concepts of the lecture, then it can become very confusing to decide what to write down.Trying to capture every word out of the professor's mouth will probably leave you with a sore hand and, more importantly, may cause you to miss the point s/he is trying to make. Focus on listening and understanding first, and then make quick notes as you follow the lecture. Sometimes course notes are given in pdf format, but in virtually all cases you must elaborate on these notes. For more information on taking effective notes from pdfs, see the Using PDFs as an Academic Tool handout, available in print in the Learning Commons on the first floor of the Library.
Learning Services, part of the Learning Commons on the 1st floor of the Library, is a great source on campus and online for advice and information on learning from lectures and other issues related to learning, studying, time management, and academic performance. Learning Peer Helpers provide information and advice on learning from lectures and many other learning-related topics for University of Guelph students. You can stop by during drop-in hours or set up an appointment for yourself or a small group from your class, cluster, or floor. You can also email your questions to . Visit the Learning Services Web site to find out about all our programs and services.
More information on learning from lectures can be found at these sites from Virginia Tech University:
York University offers a comprehensive site on note taking: