the ultimate guide to taking notes in class

Taking good notes in college is essential to your success. Whether you’re sitting in a lecture hall with 300 other students or in a discussion class of 15, you need to know how to take notes effectively. I’ve written a guide for taking notes in class, so hopefully a few of these tips can help you! Remember that everyone’s brain works differently, so you will need to figure out what works best for your learning style.

Before Class

If you know what material your professor will cover in class, read over it beforehand. Scan the sections in the textbook, read through the PowerPoints, and make a list of any questions you have. When you get to class, you will have already seen the material and it will be easier to follow along. You will also have a list of questions ready so you can ask your professor or other students.

Note: This doesn’t apply to every class. You will figure out pretty quickly which classes you should prepare for ahead of time. Last semester I always did a lot of reading before chemistry and biology, but you might need to prepare more for an english class. Find out what works best for you and your class schedule!

During Class

Get a spiral notebook for each class and take notes by hand (you will retain more of the lecture). Bring it to class everyday; your notes won’t help you if you lose them! I usually leave all my spiral notebooks in my backpack when I’m not using them, just in case. Finding pens that you like makes taking notes for an hour straight a little easier. I like the Pilot EasyTouch and the Twist-Erase if I’m using a pencil. Oh and leave your phone in your bag. You already know why!

How to Take Notes

I prefer to take notes in an outline form because it makes me feel the most organized, but you could also use a different method if it works better for you.

When you take notes, you don’t need to write everything. You should only be writing the most important things to guide your studying later. Your most important concepts generally include the topics your professor:

  • writes on the board
  • repeats multiple times
  • emphasizes with tone of voice or amount of time spent on a topic
  • talks about using word clues (“first reason”, “third point of view”, “in contrast”, etc.)
  • says will be on the exam (duh!)

These are the things you should be taking notes on! You should also be sure to write down definitions, dates, names, and visuals/diagrams. If you write everything your professor says, you will have so much extra information that you won’t know what is important for the exam.

Your strategies for taking notes will probably be slightly different for each class. For example, my history professor didn’t test us on the dates of events, so I rarely included dates in my notes. This will get easier once you start to get to know your professors and the way they run their classes.


  • Do always title and date your notes. When you’re studying later, you’ll want to know which sections correspond with which chapters and exams.
  • Don’t copy word for word if you can avoid it. You will remember the information better if you write it in your own words.
  • Do underline vocabulary and main ideas. I prefer to write in black ink and use colors later when I’m studying so I’m not shuffling through my bag during lecture.
  • Don’t write everything on the PowerPoint or everything the professor says. Actively listen to the lecture, and write down the main ideas in bullet points. This will help your understanding later.
  • Do listen to other people’s questions and take notes on the answers if you think they will help you when you’re studying.
  • Don’t try to squeeze too much information on one page. Give yourself some room to add things later.


Sometimes you’ll have a professor that talks so fast that you can barely keep up. This is the only time when I would suggest using your laptop to take notes. Just stay focused on the lecture and hand write your notes after class. It really will help you remember. I’ve also been successful taking notes by hand in a class that moved quickly, so there’s no excuse if you get too distracted on your laptop! You just have to use bullet points and more abbreviations. I’m not a fast writer, but I found that writing smaller helped increase my speed.

After Class

Review your notes within 24 hours of taking them so you still remember the lecture. After you review, you’ll want to be able to summarize the material, recognize the key points and how they relate to the rest of the lecture, and think of possible test questions. You don’t need to write all this down unless you think it would be more helpful to you, but think about it. The main purpose for this is so you get an overall understanding of the material. While facts and definitions are important, you won’t know how to use them unless you have a greater understanding of the lecture.

This also allows you to recognize any gaps in your understanding. You don’t want to get behind and try to catch up the day before the exam. Go see your professor or talk to other students whenever you have questions. It will make studying for the exam much easier!

So that is how I like taking notes during class and what works for me. Let me know how you like to take notes in the comments!


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