Taking Notes from Readings and Lectures

I have consulted with colleagues at institutions across the country--Ivy League schools, state universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges--to find that all are befuddled when they observe students during lectures not taking notes.  Their reaction is predictable: "How can they possibly remember what I am saying, especially because it is not in the readings."  Some add that "everyone learns differently, I suppose, but I have to take notes."  They actually use the present tense because they take notes when reading, when attending a meeting, or when listening to another colleague lecturing.  Most academics today assume that students do not take notes at the university level because the grade schools and high schools are not insisting that students take notes, which is lamentable.  Note taking is an important skill that is necessary not only in academic environments but in every profession.  It is as indispensable in the board room as it is in the court room.  Some of the suggestions here will help students become more effective note takers.  They may be essential in instances when students need to take notes on their readings or on a special lecture and submit the notes to their professor.


Note taking, like any skill, requires practice.  It is painful at first, but it becomes natural over time.  Most accomplished note takers can get an amazing amount of detail on paper without lagging behind a speaker, although note taking tends to slow down one's reading speed.

The ancient Greeks invented cursive because it is more efficient than printing.  Many students have complained that they can print faster than they can write, but when pressed, they will admit that they do not write much.  Now, grade schools are not even teaching writing, which is regrettable, if only because efforts to improve one's cursive writing skills will pay off when taking notes, especially during lectures.

Use complete sentences when taking notes, except when forming a list.  Incomplete sentences that lack a noun or verb, short phrases, and words are meaningless just days after one jots them on a page.  In many instances, students use arrows in place of a verb or simply skip the verb when they should be using action verbs.  Those sorts of notes are indecipherable later.

Write down concepts as well as facts.  Keep in mind that during a discussion, the student who answers a question is providing details that are either factual or analytical, and this information should find its way onto the page.

Note takers should indicate their own opinions and questions to distinguish them from the thoughts of the author or speaker.  Such ideas may form the basis of independent analysis that is useful for exams or papers.

Develop a system of symbols that make note-taking faster, like w/ for with; w/o for without, b/w for between, ECE for East-Central Europe, or 2/2 17c for second half of the seventeenth century.  Mathematical symbols are a rich source of time savers: for the same as or identical, for almost the same as or approximately, for therefore; for change, and  for because.  Even chemical abbreviations are useful, such as Au for gold and AuH2O for the US Republican politician Barry Goldwater (1909-1998).  The first time an unusual abbreviation appears, place it at the top of the page as a reference.


When reading a book, chapter, or article, always take notes, and always do so on paper.  Scribbling a few phrases in a book is ineffective.  Underlining or highlighting is too easy, thus encouraging the reader to underline more than necessary.  Paging through a book to look for words and phrases and rereading underlined or highlighted passages make the task of studying difficult.  Furthermore, underlining, highlighting, and jotting down notes on the printed page do not help the reader process the information as effectively as taking notes.


Always use a full sheet of paper for taking notes from readings.  Odd-size sheets tend to be problems when stapled or filed, and a large number of note cards becomes bulky.  The availability of standard sheets of paper also encourage the note taker to include more detail and to write in a size that one can read easily.

Write the full citation of the book, chapter, or article at the top of the first page.  A library call number or web address also may be useful.  Including the date when one took the notes may be a helpful point of reference when returning to them in the future.

Indicate chapter names and numbers as well as subheadings.

Place page numbers in the notes either in the margins or after sentences for quick reference.
Use quotation marks where appropriate to avoid plagiarism later.  Otherwise, write original summaries without using the words of the author.  That helps the reader digest the information the author has presented.  When mixing the author’s words and phrases with one's own, use quotation marks to indicate what is from the author.  The note taker should indicate opinions and observations that are his or hers.
Be as complete as possible.  Assume that the book, chapter, or article may not be available in the future.  In this way, the notes will be reliable for writing a paper, studying for an exam, and when returning to them some time in the future.

Always find the thesis of the piece, which usually appears in the preface, introduction, or first chapter, and copy it completely.  In certain older works, especially with some foreign authors, the thesis may come only at the end of the book.  Be aware that subtheses may appear in subsequent chapters or portions of the work, and the note taker should not neglect them.  Look for inconsistencies, errors, and omissions in the thesis throughout the process of reading.  Such mistakes may serve as excellent opportunities for future research.  Occasionally, older monographs and some newer ones state no thesis, and in such cases, the student should devise one, based on the analysis and evidence the author presents.  Note that text books usually do not have theses.

Attempt to determine the logical flow of the author’s argument and to understand the organization of the piece.

Note the most important evidence the author uses to support his or her claims.

It is desirable to add comments, observations, and questions to the notes, but always indicate what originates with the reader.  Include in the notes any errors the author made or gaps in the logic that appear in the piece.  Add any questions, and return to include any answers to those questions that appear later in the work (remember to include page numbers for future reference).  Look for potential points of analysis the author may have missed throughout the work and in the conclusion.  Pay attention to ideas that emerge from an author's brief comments or so-called throwaway remarks.  All of these items may help a reader generate new ideas for research.


There is no rule for how long notes should be.  Notes on a monograph might be at least two sides of one page for every 20 pages, depending on the complexity of the material.  For a monograph of about 250 pages, expect to have between 12 and 15 handwritten pages.

Students need not be concerned about typing notes, although some students believe this is more effective.  Taking handwritten notes allows an individual to read at any time--waiting in a car, in the woods, at a coffee shop, in an airport, on the beach, or in a doctor’s office.  After all, with the amount of reading required in academia, one has to take advantage of any amount of time that is available.


For lecture notes, take down every word of the professor, even though it may mean writing furiously for the entire class period.  If a student is unsure of what the instructor said, check with another student or the professor after class.

Copy notes soon after the lecture.  Writing them again and eliminating some of the shorthand and abbreviations enables the student to discover any inaccuracies or gaps.  The sooner one rewrites the notes after the lecture the better because most of us have limited short-term memories.  Finally, copying the notes helps students to digest a lecture and makes studying for exams a little easier.

Either before or after rewriting notes, compare them with those of another student for completeness and accuracy.

Arrange a team of two or three good note takers ahead of time.  That way, one has a reliable source to check for omissions and errors, and such a team helps guarantee quality notes for an individual who is absent.

After copying notes from a classroom lecture, do not discard the original draft until the semester has ended in the event that an oddity appears when reviewing the second draft of notes for an exam or paper.

Avoid relying on voice recorders, even if a professor permits them.  A typical lecture course includes 43.5 hours of lectures.  If a student had no notes and attempted to listen to all the lectures to study for a cumulative final, he or she would have devoted about four days to the process.  Furthermore, that student still would have had to write down the salient points in the lecture in order to study the material.  Voice recorders may be useful if a student wishes to return to a lecture in order to clarify something, but relying on them instead of taking notes is shortsighted.  Of course, what is even more unfathomable is a student who has no voice recorder and takes no notes yet expects to retain 43.5 hours of details and analysis.


Quite frequently students can benefit from returning to notes they took during lectures and while reading for one class when they are taking another class.  This is reason enough to take good notes and to make them accessible in the future.  Those who expect to get a doctoral degree in the humanities or social sciences should be aware that they will be responsible for all of the reading and course material they had in specific fields as undergraduates and graduate students.  When preparing for doctoral comprehensive exams, detailed notes taken in the past will be a great time saver.  To organize notes from readings for easy access in the future, consider filing them alphabetically by the author's last name.

In addition to learning about events in the past, students majoring in history learn to read critically, write intelligently, gather information effectively, and analyze information thoroughly.  Should they leave the historical profession for a career in business or any other field or should they decide to complete a graduate or professional degree in another discipline, they carry these skills with them, making them not only marketable but successful.  Ideally, history majors gain a number of ancillary skills during their undergraduate training.  Some acquire a foreign language while others become adept at computing.  Among the less recognized skills each historian should acquire when completing a bachelor's degree is the ability to take notes that are complete and accurate.  No matter what career path awaits a history major, note-taking sills will be useful.

Rev. 22.X.2012