Taking effective notes; lectures, textbooks, meetings

Taking notes that are understandable for your future self can be very difficult. Taking notes is a very common, daily task during lectures and classes, from textbooks and in meetings. How do you write these notes in the most effective way possible? I will tell you how to take the best, most effective notes during lectures, from textbooks and in meetings!

Taking notes during lectures / class

Laptop or handwriting?

This obviously depends on the lecture/class, but in most cases it is the best to take your notes on your laptop. Lectures often go fast and when you are skilled in typing, you are much more able to keep up with the lecture. Furthermore, you can easy adapt your notes without making a mess from them. However, research has shown that when you write your notes on paper makes you remembering the material better. So, the ultimate solution to this dilemma would be to write your notes on your laptop during lecturers, and after write the most important things of the lecture on paper as a summary. Of course, this takes some time and dedication, but it will make you really remember the study material.

During the lecture

Follow the structure of the objectives at the beginning
Most of the time, the lecturer will at the beginning of the lecture outline the objectives and topics of that lecture. Write these objectives quickly down, make them bold and use this as a structure of your notes.

Underline definitions
Underline the definitions and other important things told in the lecture, so that when you are overlooking your notes later, you can easily find them back.

Focus more on lecturer than the powerpoint to avoid copying from the powerpoint
The most common problem during lectures is to just copy all the text from the powerpoint. Lecturers seem to really like to put a lot of text on the powerpoint and just read these out loud. This can make it difficult to pay attention and therefore just copy the whole powerpoint without really knowing what the lecture is actually about. To avoid this, shift your focus from the powerpoint to the voice of the lecturer as much as possible. He or she will tell what you need to know about the study material and after the lecture you can go through the powerpoint to see if you missed something important. In this way, you are forced to keep paying attention and remember the lecture better.

Use abbreviations
Lectures can go really fast and to keep up with them, use as much abbreviations as possible. This saves a lot of time and avoid missing out some crucial things told by the lecturer. You can always rewrite sentences with lots of abbreviations after the lecture.

Is anything mentioned about the exam? Write it down!
Eventually, you are in most cases following the lecture because you want to pass the exam. So whatever the lecturer mentions about the exam, immediately write it down. In this way, when studying for the exam, you have can study for it in a more efficient way, as you better know what to do.

If the lecture goes too fast; make a short note and look at it after the lecture
If you are lucky, the lecture is recorded and you can look at it later if it goes too fast. Otherwise, you can use the powerpoint and internet to complete your notes. In either case, make a short note during the lecture so that your future self knows what to do later.

If your lectures are all online because of the coronavirus, this article on watching online lectures might help you. 

After the lecture

Read your notes again, make them complete and go highlighting
Re-read your notes from the lecture with the powerpoint next to it. See if you miss something and complete them where necessary. Furthermore, highlight the most important pieces of the study material and anything mentioned about the exam. In this way it is easy when studying from the exam to see what is most important from that specific lecture.

Taking notes from textbooks

Laptop or handwriting?
Of course, this also depends on the subject. But as mentioned above, research has shown that taking notes by writing them on paper, makes you memorizing the study material better. Therefore, I would recommend to handwrite your notes. Writing them on your laptop however, also provides advantages, as it goes faster and is more neat. Try them both and see what works best for you.

Follow the structure of the content table
A textbook always contains a content table on the beginning. Use the titles of the chapters and subchapters to structure your notes. Write all of them down at the beginning so that you know what topics you are up to and give your notes a clear structure.

Do not focus (too much) on making your notes pretty
Of course, it is nice if your notes look pretty. We all know the studytubers whose notes look so pretty, that you actually get excited to study these notes. However, at the end, the time you spend on making your notes so good-looking versus the time you spend on studying the content of the notes will (by far!) not be leading to the same increase in your grade. In fact, focusing on making your notes look pretty could even distract you from the actual content. So keep your notes clean and neat, but I recommend you to forget about the prettiness of them.

Make lists and tables
Lists and tables make the notes less boring and gives a better overview of the study material than just (long) sentences. This also forces you to make the notes more to the point and less extensive.

Use arrows and circles
Also arrows and circles take away the boredom of (taking) notes, give a better overview and show in a glance what is important.

At the end, read your notes again, go highlighting and make a little summary
When you are finished with taking the notes from the textbook, read all of it again. Make the notes complete and highlight what is important, so that when you start studying for your exam, you can directly see what is the most important. Furthermore, you can make a little summary at the end of the most important study material. By doing this, you force yourself to really think about it, which helps you in understanding and memorizing the stuff.

Methods on taking notes 

Several note-taking systems, techniques and styles have been created over the years. Much can be found on the internet on these methods. These are a few of the most common and best note taking methods:
1. Cornell method
This consists of a notes sections, cues sections with main points and questions, and a summary of the material.
2. Outlining method 
In this method, you choose a few key points and more sub-points about each topic. This creates a list with many bulletpoints concerning all topics.
3. Mind map method 
In the mind map method, you write the main topic in the middle and you write the smaller concepts around this using arrows and circles.
4. The charting method 
This consists of making tables with the main points, questions and relevant details.

Taking notes in meetings

Write notes preferably on your laptop
People talk fast and being writing the notes on your laptop, you are able to keep up with the speed of the people talking. Also, by writing your notes in an online document, you can share the document with the others.

Begin with writing down the date, names of attendees and topic of the meeting
In this way, when you are reading the notes later, you are directly able to see what the meeting was about, when it was and who was present. This is also useful for the others attending the meeting.

Then, write down the agenda of the meeting
This gives a good overview and structure of the meeting and what was discussed, without having to read all of the notes again.

Focus on tasks, actions and decisions. Write tasks and decisions down immediately and highlight them
When decisions are taken and tasks are established for after the meeting, write these down immediately and highlight it with a specific colour. This is very helpful for both yourself and the others, as they can directly see the most important things decided in the meeting and what is expected from them after.

Write down most useful insights of brainstorm and discussion, much is probably not relevant
Often brainstorms take up a large part of the meeting, but much of it will probably not that relevant to read back later. So, try to only write down the most useful and necessary for the future insights to keep the notes to the point.

If you want to read more tips on (online) meetings, you might like to read these articles on (online) meetings with students and (online) meetings with teachers. 

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