UCL Law student Thomas Rigard-Asquith shares his best tips for effective notetaking. Learn which information to prioritise, how to structure your ideas and how to consolidate your notes to maximise recall.
This article will focus on the first half of the learning process: notetaking during lectures and seminars, leaving the second half, note recall, for another time. We're assuming you are already at grips with the basics: be detailed but concise (abbreviate), make your notes explicit and interesting, include sources and gaps so that you can further your notes later, and of course, writing notes by hand tends to be better than typing , but the advice that follows will be relevant to both writers and typers.
With the wrong approach, you may produce ineffective notes, and if your notes are ineffective, you will struggle with the recall of those notes. I would know: my first year of university was marked by a list of things I did wrong, and note-taking was right up there next to buying a freshers’ wristband and thinking I would be able to use library textbooks for the whole year (yes, textbooks are expensive, but in my opinion, still worth it). Indeed, “note-taking is an alarmingly complex cognitive affair ”, argues British journalist Oliver Burkeman, a way of "summarising information while simultaneously listening for new incoming information”. It may be complex, but it pays off, with studies suggesting “note-taking makes you seven times more likely to recall what you’re learning ”.
Firstly, be aware of the three-tier hierarchy of content. Lecture and seminar notes come first among the material you’ll remember: not only because you intuitively present information in a way that makes sense to you, but also because of our ability to pick-up subtle emphasis from our teachers, whether through vocal stress or repetition, which in turn gives a very useful indication of what is particularly important. Remember, the people talking to you are often part of the exam-setting process and they may already know the relevant content. It's useful to bear in mind that underlining words, concepts or particular sentences that are accentuated and repeated gives you that edge in knowledge. Handouts and PowerPoint slides come second; they are also faculty-created content. External content, such as textbooks and further reading, comes last: this should solidify and deepen understanding, and is only useful - but very useful indeed - once you’ve acquired the core of the material from the other two types. Indeed, I know of fellow coursemates who obtained solid 2:1s without ever opening a textbook by relying on the lecturers’ reassurance that the handouts contained “everything you need to know”.
Secondly, acquaint yourself with the breadth of the content beforehand; simply getting a quick overview means you won’t waste precious time and energy on minor points. Not only does scanning and noting down the headings of the handout before the lecture enable the charting of learning progress later on (this “self-directed learning” is shown to release dopamine, which facilitates neurotransmission and increases motivation ),but situating a concept within its context permits us to evolve from a “static” view of it. The dynamic framework that results is a lot more representative of the learning process that follows: concepts are interlinked and benefit from categorisation; both aspects being highly sought after by your tutors in exams.
Thirdly and finally, once your notes are reflective of this inter-connectedness, you want to facilitate consolidation by making sure they are straightforward without being simplistic. Overly complex or long notes will put you off revisiting them, emptying them of their whole purpose. Most people will type their notes up after the act, but many forget that this is an opportunity to make sure they are as concise and easy to grasp as possible. Remember, you will be adding lots of content when doing textbook or further reading: I personally recommend adding to the same document (keeping the initial structure) but in a different colour or font, so that the basics stand out against the specifics. Once you have straightforward notes which contain a visible hierarchy of sources, combined with an awareness of the breadth of the topic and how different concepts within it interact, the second part of the learning process, note recall, will become much easier.
1 Hammond, "When the best way to take notes is by hand", BBC Future, 27 November 2019.
2 Burkeman, “This column will change your life: Note-taking”, The Guardian, 20 November 2010.
3 Howe, "Using students' notes to examine the role of the individual learner in acquiring meaningful subject matter," Journal of Educational Research, 64 (2), October 1970.
4 Herd, Mingus, O’Reilly, “Dopamine and self-directed learning”, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado.