Study Skill: Note-taking

What does effective classroom note-taking look like?

The wealth of information easily accessible through the Internet, combined with the widespread use of PowerPoint and other tools for presenting information, has created the illusion that note-taking in class is less important than it once was. In fact, the opposite is true. The torrent of information that washes passively over students today creates a more urgent need to capture and make sense of it all.

Think about it: Here at Champlain College, you’re not being asked merely to gather or to be bathed in information. The task — or tasks, rather — are to gather information, understand it, and then apply it to some meaningful pursuit. You need to internalize what you’re hearing, seeing, and experiencing in class and in every course exercise and reading assignment. You need to make useful sense of it.

Really, that’s what note-taking is all about: making sense of information. Sure, part of note-taking entails recording ideas presented in lectures, discussions, films, and so on. The more important function of note-taking, however, is to encourage a student to think about — indeed, question — the material as it is being presented. The notes on a page or computer screen show a student working actively with the material in real time. Learning is an action, not a series of passive half-observations.

The methods for taking notes are varied and numerous, depending on the way information is being delivered — say, in lecture form, discussion, or multimedia presentation. Some methods require more work than others, such as the popular Cornell method, but any method that encourages you to engage your mind actively with information flying at you, even a method that you invent to suit your own style, will be better than sitting there in class, merely staring at the professor, her PowerPoint slide, or a video projection and making no effort to capture or question any points being presented. The following is a general approach to note-taking that offers you a starting point in navigating the currents of information in your courses.

What does effective classroom note-taking look like?

* You’re in your seat, on time for class, having skimmed the preview of the day’s class session as it appears in the course syllabus or in any materials that have been distributed to you and your peers.

* You’re capturing the main points of the information being presented, whether that is in a lecture, a discussion, or a video.

* You’re seeing patterns in how the information that allow you to organize points with category headings or key words.

* You’re raising questions in your notes, indicating information that is unclear to you or about which you would like to know more. (Why not raise one of these questions in class?)

* You’re listening closely to the presentation, using the presenter’s shifts in tone or use of transitional phrases (e.g., “The second reason why the plan failed was…”) to guide your note-taking. (You will improve at this with practice.)

* You’re using a personalized notation system that allows you to record information efficiently, not spelling out words that can be rendered in abbreviations or symbols.

* You’re anticipating how all of this information might fit into the course’s larger conversation, themes, and — of course — examinations.

What does effective classroom note-taking not look like?

* You’re attempting to record the lecture or presentation word-for-word.

* You’re simply transcribing the words of the presenter in her or his phrasings as they are spoken or presented on PowerPoint slides. (Journalists whose work entails interviewing people become skilled at recording subjects’ phrases in their entirety only when the importance of the phrase, or its emotional impact, justify capturing it verbatim.)

* You’re searching the Internet, checking in on Facebook, or sending text messages to friends while the class is under way. That’s not note-taking; it’s rude and a waste of your tuition.

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