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Learning from Lectures


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. Learn about several skills that are important for learning from lectures below.

First Year students

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 CourseLink 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, note taking 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. 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.

Understanding the course context

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.

  • Consider your instructor's objectives for the course. What knowledge and skills does s/he expect you to master? The objectives are usually found in your course outline, which is an important document that you should review often. (If you don't receive a paper copy of the course outline in class, you can usually find it on your course's D2L site.)
  • Figure out how the information from the lectures, textbooks, and labs or seminars fit together. If you're not sure how to do this, consult your course outline, meet with your TA or instructor, book an appointment with us, or talk to someone who has taken the course.
  • Define your role in the lecture. Are you a recorder of information; an observer of the process of how an expert (i.e. your instructor) thinks, analyzes, and solves problems; or some combination of both? Once again, the course outline, your TA or instructor, or a senior student may be able to help you figure this out.
  • Determine if tests and exams will focus on lectures, text material, or both.

Class attendance

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.

Do your readings before the lecture

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.

Best practives for taking notes

Do . . .

  • Use loose leaf paper so you can integrate handouts, lecture notes, and text notes in your course binder.
  • Write on only one side of the page so that you can use the back of the page for questions, study notes, messages to yourself, and thoughts or insights which occur to you during class.
  • Leave plenty of space between topics so that you have room to edit your notes.
  • Make sure that you can read what you record. If your handwriting is difficult to read, you may want to print, or look into using a laptop computer. Read below for more information about the benefits and disadvantages of taking notes on a laptop.
  • During the lecture, watch for verbal clues like "First… second…" which denote a series of important points, or more explicit clues like, "Note that . . ."
  • Non-verbal information, such as the instructor's facial expression or tone of voice, can indicate that a topic is important.
  • The amount of time the instructor spends on a topic may be another indication of its importance.
  • A general rule of thumb is that if the instructor takes the trouble to write something on the board, it is important.

Don't . . .

  • Don't depend on someone else's notes.
  • Don't cause or put up with distractions. Move or tactfully ask those making noise to be quiet.
  • Don't tape lectures, unless you have a special reason for doing so (e.g. you have a learning disability). Always ask for your instructor's permission before taping.

After the lecture

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.

  • Set aside a few minutes each day to review your notes, rewrite any especially messy parts, fill in gaps, and put your notes in your binder.
  • If the instructor speaks very quickly, or if you think your notes are missing some important information, set aside time right after class to write down what you can from memory.
  • In some cases, it may be helpful to meet with a friend once a week and discuss your notes. Your friend might be able to help you fill in some gaps in your notes, and you may likewise be able to help him/her.
  • If you take notes from the textbook after the lecture, use the back of each page of lecture notes for corresponding textbook notes. You'll be less likely to spend valuable time taking textbook notes on a topic already covered in lecture, and you'll have a compact set of integrated notes ready to review for the midterm or final.
  • At the end of each week, write a summary of the week's lecture and textbook notes. This integrated summary can become the basis for your review for midterms and exams.
  • Combine your lecture and textbook notes in a concept map, a graphical way of organizing and synthesizing your notes.

Taking notes on your laptop: pros and cons

If you've thought about using a laptop to take notes in your courses, consider these points when making your decision:


  • If the building has a wireless Internet connection, you can easily connect to course materials, such as CourseLink notes.
  • Printed notes are usually easier to read than handwritten notes.
  • It's easier to integrate notes from lecture with notes from the textbook (assuming you've used your laptop for textbook notes as well).
  • You have fewer pieces of paper to maintain and organize.


  • You have to remember to keep the battery charged if you don't have access to an outlet in the classroom.
  • Laptops can be difficult to use in some classrooms, especially those with small flip-up desktops.
  • If your computer breaks down and you haven't printed out or backed up your notes elsewhere, you may have lost them for good.
  • Laptops can be heavy and difficult to carry every day, all day.
  • If you take notes from your textbooks by hand, you have to print lecture notes to integrate them with your text notes.
  • If you have problems concentrating in class, a laptop is a very tempting source of distractions. Accessing sites meant for fun when you're supposed to be focused on academics disrupts your learning and the learning of others around you.

Note-taking in the disciplines

Arts & Social Sciences

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.

Problem-based courses

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.