Tips for Taking Notes in Graduate School
Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated October 2010
Note taking enables you to record your understanding of the ideas and concepts discussed in class or read in the text for future use. Effective notes are well-organized with all the information stored in one place. Taking notes on stray pieces of paper will only lead to confusion and frustration. Keeping a separate notebook for notes from each class is an important tip for taking notes in school.
Taking notes involves as much listening as it does writing. As a graduate student, you will sit through countless lectures, and taking good notes is crucial to keeping all the ideas and concepts clear. In order to take good notes in class you must realize there is a huge difference between "hearing" and "listening." As you've no doubt learned throughout middle school, higher school and college, simply regurgitating what you're hearing by jotting it down on paper is not a successful method for retaining information. Therefore, active listening is a skill you will need to learn to take effective notes and keep your grades up and your stress down in grad school.
Active listening involves thinking while the lecture is occurring. Some examples of active listening include summarizing, analyzing, anticipating what will come next and drawing parallels to your own life experiences. Active listening helps you select the most important information to include in your notes, and thinking while listening promotes better understanding and a stronger memory.
Be sure to pay attention to the beginning of each lecture, and be organized before it begins. You will also want to hear the conclusion, so don't start packing up your stuff until the speaker is finished. If the professor repeats or places stress on certain information, write it down - it's important. Active listening will help you quickly identify those verbal cues given by your professor. After all, you will not be spoon-fed information in graduate school as you may have been as an undergraduate. You will truly have to focus and pick up on the clues he or she gives you through inflection.
Notes from the text
By now you know all about the importance of bold and italicized words in your textbooks. These words should always find a prominent place in your notes. Another good practice is to look first at the table of contents for each chapter so that you know what is to come. There is a good chance each section in the table of contents will be a main heading in your notebook.
Taking good notes from the textbook is important, since in grad school, professors often expect you to read the text on your own and focus on other points in their lectures. The information in the lectures will often serve to augment the information in your textbook. Having separate notes for textbooks and lectures can aid in organization and also lead you to drawing parallels between the two sources of information.
Read enough of the text through first to get an understanding of the material. Be sure to identify the main ideas and sub-points, and write down questions as they arise during your reading. If you own your book, highlight important points as you go along. If you don't own your book, you can purchase Post-It flags to point out critical information.
Take one paragraph at a time and paraphrase what you've learned in your own words. Paraphrasing helps you interact more fully with the text, and you always remember things better after writing them down. Make sure you don't skip over any case studies or other sidebars in the text, as they put the information you are learning in proper perspective. When you are finished taking notes, compare them to the text.
Quality, not quantity
When you take notes during a lecture, there is no need to write down what the professor has said verbatim. Your main concern is picking up on the main points and getting them down on paper. Using keywords and very short sentences will help you later on, when you go to review your notes. It will enable you to get the point without having to page through voluminous notes.
While sometimes you may wish to quote the professor, for the sake of accuracy and understanding, use your own words as often as possible. Using abbreviations, phrases and symbols can aid you in maintaining clean notes that are not too lengthy. You should be selective in what you choose to include in your note taking, selecting only information that speaks to your purpose.
Writing notes in shorthand can be extremely helpful, especially when it comes to keeping up with a fast lecturer. Shorthand writing utilizes abbreviations and shortened words, and sometimes even symbols. To learn more about shorthand and how to master it, you can visit an online Shorthand Guide to walk you through it.
If you have missed one of the speaker's points, draw a blank space in your notes where you can return later and fill it in. It is helpful to leave white space in your notebook between topics so that you can go back and add additional information relevant to that particular topic. If you make a mistake, don't take the time to erase it in your notes; just draw a line through the mistake and move on.
Note-taking systems and other tips on taking notes
You will know best what type of note taking system is most useful for you. Taking good notes requires some sort of structure, and the importance of the information should be reflected in your notes. You can star important passages or even go back and highlight crucial information. While it may sound like more work, you will be grateful you took such care when it comes time to use your notes for studying.
Some people opt to map out their notes using one of several systems. Students can access printable note-taking style sheets online from Back to School with Family Education. Even if you don't decide to actually print out the different styles, you can get some great ideas on how to structure your notebooks. Having a note-taking style can help you identify themes and relationships between lectures.
Summarizing your notes at the end of each class is an invaluable tip for taking good notes. The very act of writing up the summary will help the meanings and points behind the information crystallize in your mind even more. When you go back to your notes to study, the summaries will be of great help to you. Begin by writing your summary from memory, compare it to your notes and make corrections where necessary.
Another key factor in taking good notes is personalization. When you can make connections between the information and your own life, you are much more likely to recall the information when needed. You will notice your professors adding personalization to their lectures, so it can also be helpful for you to do the same.
Taking notes with care is very important in grad school, and you should take any opportunity to share notes with classmates. They may have gotten down something you missed and vice versa. Whether you are taking notes from a textbook or a lecture, whatever you put down on that paper is what you will have as a study resource.
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