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The Purpose of Notes & General Strategies: Home

Tips of why a student should take notes and general note-taking strategies.

The Purpose of Notes

Notes capture the ideas of your instructors' lectures, allowing you to study them after class. They do more: they help you to learn the material as you transcribe it.  Although lectures may seem archaic, they remain in use because they have three powerful characteristics.

First, lectures transmit information more expediently than any other form of information exchange, including the Internet. Secondly, lectures are performances; unlike televised or taped presentations, they are urgent and immediate, demanding attention and concentration. Finally, lectures require mental and physical participation. Your notes are not simply records of an instructor’s words; they are part of a process of active listening, mental processing, and manual recording – all of which stimulate the mind and reinforce memory.

The Value of Notes

  • Your notes provide written material that helps you study information and prepare for tests.
  • When you take notes, you become an active, involved listener and learner. 
  • Notes help you think critically and organize ideas.
  • The information you learn in class may not appear in any text; you will have no way to study it without writing it down.
  • It is difficult for you to process information while in class; having notes to read and make sense later can help you learn.
  • Note taking allows you to compile information from different research sources and use the information in your writing.
  • Note taking is a skill that you will use on the job and in your personal life.

General Strategies

Although students are expected to take notes well, they are rarely taught how. This is unfortunate, as note taking is an excellent general skill and good technique is not acquired automatically. Admittedly, a single technique will not work ideally for all students, but there are several general rules worth knowing.

Filter the information.

Do not copy every word; filter the lecture, noting only the expressions you will need to prompt your memory. Do not try to preserve whole sentences; concentrate on key ideas. You may go so far as to use a personal shorthand or learn a formal system. Whatever you do, be sure your system can record the essentials of a lecture, and be sure you can understand it later.

Classify the information.

You will probably be working with at least three types of information: substantive content, references, and illustrations. The substantive content of the lecture consists of concepts and factual material; this may be accompanied by references to various works, which the student should consult. Usually, the concepts are illustrated with anecdotes and examples. You will record each differently; the key to grasping the main ideas of a lecture lies in listening, while references must be recorded briefly but precisely, and illustrations may be quickly sketched in.

Organize the information.

You should consider adopting a formal plan for your notes. Even if your own note taking system is adequate, you may be able to improve the clarity or consistency of your notes, so you may be able to save some time.

Review the information.

To aid in retention, review your notes the same day.  Immediately reviewing your notes will result in better retention than reviewing after a longer period of time. If you do not review your notes within 24 hours after your class or at least before the next class, your retention will drop; and, you will be relearning rather than reviewing.


Before Class

  • Read or skim text.
  • Do a general overview.
  • Review new terms and concepts.
  • Review unclear material.

During Class

  • Structure and organize notes.
  • Include main ideas.
  • Focus on instructor’s visual and verbal clues.

After Class

  • Immediately review notes.
  • Fill-in all missing information.
  • Write down any questions that you have for your instructor.