There are many methods of notetaking–or as I prefer to call it, “notemaking”—that can be effective for students. The way you write down your notes is less important than your intellectual preparation for making notes, being mentally active (e.g. the kinds of questions you have in mind) during lecture, and the way you use your notes to study and learn. Consequently, The Blueprinting Approach to notemaking accounts for all three phases (before, during, and after) of the process with an eye toward how students will demonstrate or show their knowledge. I use the term “notemaking” because the best notes are not merely a copy of what your professor wrote on the board or said, but include your own thoughts, questions, insights, emphases, etc. Thus, in class (and afterwards) you should not merely be TAKING down what your professor said, but also recording or MAKING note of your own thinking and understanding.

What is covered in lectures (and precepts) is often the most important content of a course. Lectures are “texts” that are composed by your professor. They reflect most closely the way that your professor conceptualizes the field and the subject matter of that class, so you can get a sense of how they think by carefully analyzing the form and content of lectures. You can think of lectures as answers to questions—posed explicitly or not—so, map the answer (lecture) onto the key question(s). Lectures are also, in many cases, demonstrations of the thinking, analysis or problem-solving methods your professor expects you to master. So, by closely observing and studying what your instructor DOES (not just what they say) in class, you can learn how they set up and solve a problem, do an analysis, etc. If they do these things in class, they are likely to ask you to do them on the exams, so pay attention to technique as much or more than the specific example or problem.

BEFORE

Preparation for lecture is key. Princeton lectures move at a fast pace, and for the most part, once your instructor says something it is gone. You can’t get it back (unless of course it’s videotaped or webcast) or you tape it. Thus, preparation is vital because you have to “get” what your instructor is saying while they say it, the first time, unlike a book where you can re-read and refer back to it in its original form. So, how do you prepare well? First, you need to know the main concepts, themes, topics of the course, and the relations among them. Get the big picture by carefully reviewing the syllabus; this will help you know what to focus on and make notes on during class. Equally importantly, prior to each class, find out the topic for that day or week to orient your selection and prioritization of material in class. If you haven’t read the assigned readings, at least skim them. Take a few minutes to predict (i.e. guess) what your professor is likely to say about the topic, and what is most important for you to pay attention to. Set a purpose or objective for yourself in terms of what you want to get out of the lecture. This includes both what kind of product or “study tool” you want to create (i.e. what you want to include in your notes) and what kind of knowledge you want to take away. It’s often not possible (especially in science or technical courses) to really think about and understand all of the information presented AND take really comprehensive notes for later study. So, identify your main purpose for lecture and focus on getting the most out of it.

DURING

Staying attentive and keeping your purpose in mind can be hard to do during some lectures—that goes for “boring” ones and “entertaining” ones alike. A lecture that is entertaining, filled with great stories, humor etc. may distract you from creating notes that are most useful later on when you study. A fun lecture can leave you with poor notes as easily as a dry one where you zone out.

How you MAKE notes should be determined to a significant extent by how you will USE them. If you are going to review your notes an hour after class and fill them in with details etc. you don’t need to worry so much about getting “everything” down in your notes, you only need to get enough down to remind you an hour later when you return to your lecture notes of what you want to elaborate upon. On the other hand, if you are not going to look at your notes until weeks in the future, like the night before the midterm, you need to write down enough information that will allow you to make sense of your notes up to two months later—that may actually be MORE than the instructor says in class. Obviously, that’s very hard to do and keep up. But you should always be asking yourself this question when trying to decide what to get down on paper as a study tool: Will this be enough detail to do what I need to do X hours, days, weeks, or whatever, from now when I look at it again? If you simply can’t get that level of detail and context down during class, you will need to return to your notes and augment them with what you remember soon after class.

Make notes, using the two-column (Cornell) method or something similar, that helps you remain active and tuned-in as well as makes your studying and learning in the future more efficient. In one (larger) column make your notes; in the other column keep a kind of commentary or dialogue about your notes and the class. Pose questions to yourself, note down instructor’s clues about exams, when you think of connections to readings, note them in this column; label the content of the lecture with terms like “Example” “theory” “Proof”, etc. and list key terms. Develop your own code or abbreviations (e.g. R=Race; RX=Therapy; Ph=Photosynthesis), make connections across pieces of the lecture by drawing arrows, indent, underline, box, circle, and use symbols to give you clues so later you can determine what is important and how information is linked together.

Pay attention not just to WHAT your instructors say, but HOW they say it and what they DO. What concepts, terms, etc. do they use repeatedly? How do they set up, analyze and solve the problems/questions they are posing? Note patterns in the ways they lecture, what they talk about, etc. For instance, does your professor start by offering an abbreviated proof of a theorem, provide some motivation for types of problems, solve a basic or template version of the problem, discuss variations and then link to a new concept over the course of the hour, or does she follow some similar sequence with each new topic? If so, you can use that knowledge not only to organize your notes on the page, but to direct and focus your attention and anticipate what will be important to attend to in each section of the lecture. Knowing this also helps you focus on what’s most important within each section or segment of the lecture.

Ask yourself WHY the instructor is addressing a particular topic and why they are doing so at that juncture (e.g. in relation to what comes before and after). Look for ways of thinking, types of questions, methods and techniques of analysis and problem solving that seem unique to the subject (discipline) and to the instructor. If this is too much to do during class, some of these things can be done after lecture when you re-visit your notes.

Lastly, just writing down what your instructor puts on the board is not likely to be enough. You need to supplement that with what the instructor says, and YOUR OWN THOUGHTS. As you take notes, think ahead to the next steps in the process, how you will add to them and use them to study.

AFTER

Start from the premise that you can learn from lecture after the lecture takes place and you can also enhance your study tool (notes) after the lecture is completed. If you return to your notes on the same day you take them, you can often fill in things you missed, make them more clear, see connections that weren’t obvious, identify deeper patterns and connections, etc. Comparing notes with a classmate can be a great way to do this. Additionally, you can learn from your notes by reviewing them periodically. This will ensure you master what is usually the most important content of Princeton courses (professor-created content) and increase the likelihood you will be able to follow the next lecture even if you don’t complete (all) the assigned readings.

Use your lecture notes in conjunction with your reading and vice versa. That is, refer to relevant lecture notes before you begin reading assigned texts, and after reading systematically bring questions and ideas you took from texts to subsequent lectures. Seek to integrate reading notes with lecture notes–perhaps in the same document or study tool to streamline future study/exam prep. Look for and make note of thematic connections, disagreements, etc. between texts and lectures. Don’t simply count on the fact you will remember these insights later when studying or writing a paper. Keep track of the connections you make.

Look at the previous day’s notes in preparation for the current lecture. As you get closer to exams, papers, etc., use the two-column notemaking system to test yourself: try to answer the questions you posed for yourself, cover up the big column and test yourself on the key terms you listed in the smaller column. Turn your notes into study tools by reducing them down into study sheets, diagrams, grids, etc.. Use your notes to review readings, or to prepare yourself to read a text for the first time to give you ideas of what to focus on, determine why the professor has assigned it, and establish a clear purpose for reading.

Taking Class Notes and Learning From Them