Hijacked's guide to taking better notes

May 08, 2015
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It’s the middle of semester and exams are looming. But you’re probably getting the mid-semester blues and, instead of heading to the tail end of the lecture period, you’re spending your mornings in bed watching Game Of Thrones.

Well throw back those covers and get to your lecture, because Hijacked has some stellar ways to help kick-start your exam prep. Here are our best tips for taking lecture notes in the final sprint towards exam-time.

By hook or by hand

We hate to say it, but turn off those iPads and close those laptop screens, because pen and paper will always win for note-taking. Yeah, yeah, we know your hand is going to cramp and that pens are so old-school, but studies on memory and learning prove otherwise. A study conducted by Princeton University found that when students took notes by hand, they retained more than those who used an electronic device. This is mostly due to the fact that when you type something out into your tablet or computer, you merely transcribe the text and don’t process or remember its meaning.

Put yo’ listening ears on, boo

If you’re sitting in a lecture and mindlessly taking notes, you’re doing it all wrong. You might panic thinking you’re not able to keep up with the amount of material the lecturer is waffling on about and just take down everything. But lose that attitude and prioritise listening to the ideas rather than transcribing them. Think about what the lecturer is actually saying – do you understand the concept? If not, put the idea down (for example, “Marxism”) and annotate it with “look up”. If they give examples, take down the examples. Listen to the overall spiel (such as the history of Marxism) and then when they’ve finished waffling on, try and summarise what you’ve just heard over the past few minutes. It’s important to listen out for key events, ideas, concepts and theories – let the rest of their talk wash over you.

Colour coordinate

Now that you know doing it the old-school way is best, get some colour, creativity and flair into your notes. Studies have shown that colour coding and highlighting your notes makes you a more efficient thinker. When you colour certain headings or subjects, it activates another part of your brain, stimulating it into remembering and associating certain ideas with different colours. But don’t go overboard – simply highlighting slabs of text in your textbook or in your notes isn’t effective. Instead, colour coordinate headings, subheadings and definitions.

Try the outline format

The outline format is a little like writing a report but applies to note-taking. As you’re listening to your lecturer, use section headings and then write down phrases, ideas or definitions under those headings. For example: 

Industrial Revolution – Context

  • Period of intense production/manufacture in UK during Y …
    • Time Period: X – Y

Instead of simply taking a long series of unconnected dot points one after the other, it’s better to break down the areas you need to study and keep those under relevant headings. 

Abbreviate, abbreviate, abbreviate

Remember that the goal of any lecture is for you to learn the material, not to simply be able to regurgitate what your lecturer was telling you. If it’s a politics or history lecture, abbreviate key ideologies of events, for example CP for capitalism, or FR for French Revolution. This way you’ll be able to retain the meanings of these ideas or events and not worry about madly scrawling down everything being said in the lecture.  

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne. His writing has been published in Salon, The Advocate and Overland.

Image: Jason Rogers, Flickr Creative Commons license