Faculty of Arts

Taking Notes in Lectures

In every course there are students who attend lectures without taking notes. Those of us who lecture might like to believe that these individuals have total recall of whatever they hear and are so confident about this that they will not waste paper. Unfortunately, it is never so.

Invariably these students have the same problems as other normal human beings in recalling what they have heard. Most of the content of a lecture is lost to them within a few hours of leaving the classroom. Taking notes will keep you awake, even alert, to what is being said. Writing makes you concentrate. Try using a separate notebook for each course. Give yourself space for your notes; leave a margin on both sides of the page so that you can later annotate with your own comments and clarifications or with further information from your text or other books.

Some students take temporary lecture notes, scribbling as much of the lecture as they can, using abbreviations and other forms of shorthand. Later the same day (when their memories are clear), they transcribe them into another notebook, fleshing out the material. This can be tedious but rewarding at exam time. It is important that your notes be clear. Most students structure their notes in outline form to accentuate the main subjects (perhaps five or six in a fifty minute lecture). The material then has a recognisable shape, even if the instructor does not provide an outline. Another way to emphasise the levels of importance of the topics is to use co loured pencils or pens. You should abstract the main themes from lectures, organising them in patterns conducive to recollection of the material. Each main theme will suggest some of the sub themes even if you do not know them all

When instructors mention source materials, monographs, and articles on a given subject note them and see what you can learn about them in the textbook. Better yet, find them in the Library. If readings are handed out in class, they are distributed for a reason: the instructor thinks their content is important. Read them and keep them with your notes.

Students sometimes resent lecturers' use of words that they do not know, and they not infrequently complain about this. Instead of complaining they should note the words, find them in a dictionary and learn their meaning. The problem is less the lecturer than the vocabulary of the student, who will be better prepared for life with a bigger one.

In addition to lectures, history classes involve required reading. The textbooks for introductory or survey courses often organise a wealth of material in some outline form, however, so that taking notes is often impractical. Many students highlight important points in the text. Be careful not to overdo this, though. In some students' texts, every other sentence is highlighted. In upper-level courses there may be textbooks, but more often the instructor will assign a selection of primary sources, monographs, and/or journal articles. You should take notes as you read this material. Note the author's argument, how it is developed, the evidence used, and so forth.

In recent years the rising cost of scholarly books has greatly reduced the amount of reading assigned in history classes. Yet instructors still hear students complain about "excessive" reading lists. Such dissatisfaction warrants no response, except that a student unwilling to read, extensively and intensively, is unwilling to be a student and presumably would be happier doing something else.