How to Be a Successful Adult Student – Taking Notes

One of the tasks that students tend to dislike, yet always do, is taking notes during class. After the class, the notes stay on the paper, maybe reviewed a few times, and are then thrown away, forgotten in the mists of time. The problem is that most students take notes for all the wrong reasons, in all the wrong ways, and towards all the wrong goals.

Taking notes correctly means that the student is spending most of their time listening rather than writing. The notes serve as reminders, not as teaching tools. And the notes lead us on, rather than hold us back. To do this, we need to change the way we take and treat notes.

Taking Notes in Grade School

People learn to take notes, unfortunately, in grade school. The technique of note taking in grade school is to copy the words of the instructor, since the student did not listen to the instructor properly. This lack of listening comes from both the lack of intellectual development of the student during their formative years and the lack of experience of the young. Since grade school students do not have any experience of how to use their knowledge, everything the teacher says is new and different, and the student is, to a greater or lesser degree, afraid that something will be missed if not written down. So the attempt is made to write everything down, and the student constantly feels that something was missed, leading to an improper attitude towards the notes.

The Preparation for Taking Notes

Classroom notes should be on two things, both stemming from the same source. The source for notes is material that the teacher presents which is not in the textbook. Everything in the textbook should not be recopied into the classroom notes; whatever technique is used to take notes should be based on what is in the text, or rather what is not in the text. This usually consists of examples created and explained by the instructor and in-depth explanations provided by the instructor. In order to take the notes correctly, the student should be aware of what is in the text, to minimize the class time spent on repetitive material.

To prepare for taking notes correctly, the student should do three things. First, they should familiarize themselves with material in the textbook. This does not mean that the student should know everything in the text, although the more the text is known the more effective the student will be. Instead, this means that the student should look over the text, notating the basic information in the text, such as definitions, formulas, and examples in the text. A cursory skimming of the text, rather than a detailed reading, should be done before class. The student should be looking for broad concepts; precise details come after class.

Secondly, the student should be prepared with a set of questions. A few questions should be sufficient. By putting together some questions, the student maintains a focus during the class. This provides two benefits. First, the student reduces the risk of drifting off during the lecture and missing important material, and second the student dramatically improves his participation level during the class. These questions should be on a separate piece of paper or on note cards.

Third, the student needs to prepare the paper upon which she takes notes. Probably the best format for taking notes during a lecture is a format called the Cornell method, which divides the paper into three sections: a section for taking notes, a section for immediate observations that happen during class, and a section for questions and observations that occur upon review of the notes. There are several resources online for creating and printing note sheets in this format; an Internet search on “Cornell Note Taking” should provide adequate results.

The Technique of Taking Notes

Since the student has done at least a cursory review of the material before class, he should have a basic idea of the material being covered and an introductory understanding of what is in the text. With this understanding, she no longer needs to copy everything down, but can focus her attention on the instructor, and only writing the material she needs to because it is not in the book. This allows the student to listen more attentively during the class.

The material that the student should make sure is written in the notes consists of two main types. The first type is of examples worked by the instructor. Even if the example is in the book, the instructor will probably go into more detail and show more aspects of the problem than what is in the text. The second is when the instructor goes beyond the book, either by giving more depth to the material or by relating the material to other information. In both cases, the instructor will very often write down the salient point in some fashion, either by using a presentation or by using some type of board. Only when something is written by the instructor should the student consider writing it down himself. This means that the student is spending most of her time either listening or thinking about what is being presented.

The last area where the student should probably write down material is in answer to his questions. If a student has questions during the lecture, it is very probable that the same question would occur after class when the material is being reviewed. So the student needs to write down the question and the answer provided.

After the Class

Within a day of the lecture, the student should review her notes, putting down any questions that arise from her reading of the text or of her notes. This provides a start for the next class. Again, the questions should be written out on a separate page in his notes after the class notes, so that the answers are clearly marked. Also, during the review, the student needs to create a short summary of the material in the notes, so that the material of the class can be organized more effectively.

Purpose of Notes

The purpose of note taking is not to learn the material the first time. If a student is starting the class with no concept of what is being covered, she is starting with a grave disadvantage. An adult student is prepared by having some idea of the content of the class. This awareness allows the student to take a much stronger advantage of the material being presented. Then the student can focus his attention on learning the material that can be only learned in the class.