Note-taking begins with a big question: ”Why?”

Why take notes in lectures?

It may seem an easy question with an obvious answer but once you ask it, you’ll realize that there are a few possible answers and that your answer will determine how you take notes. Lets ask three students why they take notes:

Student 1: Because the teacher is teaching it.

Some vainly try to write down everything a teacher says. While erring on writing too much is better than writing too little, try to acquire the valuable skill of knowing what to write down and what to simply listen to. That will give you time to think about what’s being taught rather than just being a typist. It will also save you from RSI.

Student 2: To pass an exam

If exam success is why you are taking notes, then you’ll only want to take notes on lectures and parts of lectures that are examinable. You will try to find out from the syllabus or the teacher what will be in the exam and then take notes only when exam content is being taught. At other times you will probably switch off.

Student 3: To expand my knowledge

If this is your motive then you will take far more notes than student #2 but less than student #1. You realize that you are paying for an education, not just exam results, and therefore you will gather as much valuable information as you can in as efficient a way as possible. This student also recognizes that taking notes rather than just reading handouts and course books is one of the best ways to cement knowledge in the memory.

Obviously I hope you will be student #3, but let me add a few more motives to make this choice than just getting value for money or preparing for your career.

Motive 1: Respect for the teacher

It is unquestionably one of the most demoralizing aspects of teaching for a lecturer to pour 10-20 hours into preparing a lecture only to see a couple of students writing or typing while the rest either slouch in their chairs or text and chat online. He or she may not be the best teacher in the world but they are usually trying their very best and it’s basic human decency to show you value them and their work by actually typing at least some of what they say.

Motive 2: Acknowledge your inexperience 

Most teachers don’t teach just to bore you or to occupy their time. They actually believe what they are teaching is important and useful, even vital. It may not seem relevant or helpful to you, but then teachers have been around quite a bit longer than most students and have learned through experience what’s going to help you down the road. I’ve lost count of the number of tiimes I’ve been emailed by students a few years later to ask for help with something that they did not pay attention to when in class.

Motive 3: Learn how to teach

So, the content is not exactly scintillating, but what about the teacher’s teaching style? Is it something you can learn from – to copy or avoid? No matter what career we choose, we will all eventually teach someone something; most likely in a group setting too. Learn from the teacher’s good example and also his or her mistakes.

Motive 4: Strengthen self-discipline

Although teachers are increasingly banning laptops or wireless internet service from their classes, the temptation to check the Internet is still there for most students, even if only on their cell phones. But this is where good and bad habits are learned. If you get into the bad habit of continually checking social media or doing email when someone else is talking, you’ll carry that into other relationships too, and into your later career, which will damage your relationships and eventually your career prospects. Lectures, especially boring ones, are good training grounds for developing valuable listening skills especially for the innumerable boring meetings you’ll have to attend throughout your life.

That’s the Why? Next the How?

Other Resources

New Student Tip #1: Dropbox

New Student Tip #2: Wunderlist

New Student Tip #3: Evernote

New Student Tip #4: Diigo

New Student Tip #5: Lastpass

New Student Tip #6: Calendar

New Student Tip #7: Feedly

New Student Tip #8: Covenant Eyes

Thriving at College by Alex Chediak (for students).

Preparing Your Teens For College by Alex Chediak (for parents of students)

Top 10 Books for Students

  • AlanDueck

    Those are good reasons I’d never considered before. I have never been a note taker; I learn and retain well by listening alone. What’s so intriguing about your list of 4 is that they aren’t directly tied to the task of learning the material, but rather to developing character and life skills. I would have never considered note-taking for that, but can see how it does translate.

    I encourage note-taking for my own children and for the classes I teach, but only because I believe that for most people it helps them to pay attention and retain the information, even if they never review the notes again. Surprised that wasn’t on your list!