5 Steps to Effective Note Taking & Acing Your Next Exam

by | Dec 16, 2014

5 Steps to Effective Note Taking and Acing Your Next ExamNote taking is one of the most important skills to master if you wish to be successful in high school and college. When you are sitting all day in class, it is easy for your mind to start to wander, but if you are taking notes, you are forced to concentrate on the teacher’s words and think through the concepts he or she is discussing. Even better, the notes you jot down provide a written record of the most important information covered in class, making life much easier when it is time to study for the final exam.

In today’s post, I share five important steps that have helped me supercharge my note taking and use those notes most effectively when studying for exams.

1. Be Prepared

The most important part of note taking happens outside the classroom, before you ever put pen to paper. This is key: make sure you familiarize yourself beforehand with the topic that your professor will be discussing.

Often professors will assign reading before class. Make sure you read it, underline passages you think are important, write your thoughts in the margins, and jot down any questions you might want to ask your professor during the lecture. On the day of class, you will have an easier time taking notes and following the lecture because you are already familiar with the topic. Additionally, you will be reinforcing information you have already studied.

2. Pay Attention and Listen Well

You will take the best notes when you are wide awake and eager to learn. Try not to come to class tired or hungry or in a bad mood. Limit distractions: put your phone away, sit with other classmates who are also serious about paying attention, and choose a desk nearer to the front of the classroom and away from the door.

Studies have actually shown that students who sit as close to the front and center (middle) of the classroom as possible do the best on tests. This article from Penn State University notes the learning advantages of such a seat: “better vision of the blackboard, better hearing of what is being said by the instructor, better attention to what is being said because there are fewer (or no) people between them and the instructor to distract them, and greater eye contact with the instructor—which may increase their sense of personal responsibility to listen to, and take notes on, what their instructor is saying.”

Ultimately, where you sit in the classroom is just as important as bringing a notebook, pens, and pencils. And don’t forget those either. Make sure you have a different notebook for each class you are taking. Start a new page for each new lecture and always write down the date so that your notes can be organized in chronological order. Write neatly and clearly so you won’t have to struggle to decipher your writing later on.

3. Outline and Abbreviate 

Since many of the classes that I took in college were discussion based, the professors often did not allow computers to be open during class. This meant that notes had to be taken by hand, and that meant that it was impossible to write down word for word everything that the professor said.

I prefer taking notes down on a computer as I can type faster than I can print and that gives me more time to pause and think about the lecture. However, even when using a computer, I make sure to always take brief notes, writing an outline of the lecture rather than a transcript. This means that I usually never use full sentences, I often use abbreviations and symbols to stand for words, and I always try to just take down the essential information.

4. Stick to the Essentials

So how do you know what is essential information and what isn’t? This can be tricky. Ultimately, whenever you aren’t sure about whether you should include something or not in your notes, it’s probably best to write it down. Here are some more rules of thumb you can follow:

  • If the professor mentions something that also appeared in the textbook, it’s probably important.

  • If the professor gives you a definition, you should write it down exactly as worded.

  • If the professor brings up examples to support his main points, you should make note of each one.

  • Anything that is written on a blackboard or included in a powerpoint should be copied into your notes: lists, graphs, historical dates, etc.

  • And, above all, if your professor repeats a point several times, it is most likely very, very important and will show up on the test.

However, if you’re still not sure, don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if it’s just to ask the professor whether a point needs to be recorded in your notes or to clarify what are the most important things to take away from the lecture.

5. Review Your Notes

Now that you have taken excellent notes of each of your lectures, it’s time for the most important step: reviewing them and revising them. First, cross-reference your notes with your textbook and any assignments you have completed for your professor. Often material that shows up on assignments is important and should be reviewed for future exams. Make sure all of the information in your notes is correct and accurately recorded. You may want to look over a friend’s notes as well to see if there is anything that you might have missed.

Review the material in the notes as soon as you can (best within 24 hours) so that it remains fresh in your memory. The most effective way to do this is with the PQRST study method. Read all about that in my article here or watch the video below. The most important step is the lecturing to the wall technique. Basically, you summarize in your own words what you just covered in class.

Look over your notes carefully; then put them away and pretend you are teaching someone else what you have just learned. Why does this technique work? Because if you can’t retell something in your own words, you really don’t understand it. This technique forces your brain to wrestle with the facts and identify the areas you are weakest in. Have your teacher explain those areas to you, and then try again to put them in your own words.

These five simple steps should have you well on your way to note taking success. Note taking is an invaluable skill that you can continue to use throughout your entire life: when attending business meetings or conferences, when listening to sermons or speeches or debates, and even when reading a book. By learning how to take careful notes and then review them, you teach yourself to focus, listen attentively, and quickly learn new material.

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