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Note-taking from lectures

In this article, read about the different methods you can use to take notes when you're in a lecture to help you stay focused and to keep a record.
© British Council

There are a number of very good reasons for taking notes while you listen to a lecture, even if you’re given a handout which includes the main ideas (for example, PowerPoint slides). You might take notes in your notebook, laptop or notebook computer, or you may annotate (add notes to) any handout you’ve received. A handout may be uploaded to the VLE (virtual learning environment) by your lecturer in advance of the lecture or seminar.

Firstly, taking notes will help you to concentrate. Most people find it difficult to listen to someone speaking continuously for long periods and to stay focused. This may be even more difficult when English is not your first language. Taking notes as you listen will help you to stay focused. It will also ensure that you’re listening actively, mentally processing what you hear, and making decisions about what to note down.

Secondly, your notes will provide you with a record of the lecture, which you can refer to later. Even if you have a handout, there may be things that the lecturer says that are not on the handout, and which you think are worth noting. Some points on the handout may need to be expanded so that their meaning or relevance is clearer to you. You may note down questions that you want ask at the end of the lecture, or find answers for yourself later on. Many students go back to their notes later on the day of the lecture, and either re-write them or tidy them up. It’s also a good idea to go back to the notes a week or so later, to read them through and re-construct the meaning.

How should I take notes?

Note-taking is very personal. Some people take long, detailed notes, and other take much shorter notes. Some students take linear notes, which means that they start at the top of a page and work down.

Linear hand written notes on lined paper:Lecture: Corpus linguistics and language teaching Wed. 16 May Example: Academic Word List (AWL) - devd. by Coxhead (2000) for her MA dissertation. (check article in TESOL Quarterly) - Includes 570 word families ( e.g. economy, economics, economic etc.) - 10 sublists, all words are academic (e.g. analyse, concept, data) - Corpus of 3.5 m. words in ac. texts was analysed, then 570 word families were selected for inclusion in AWL.

Others use mind maps, which means that they start in the middle of a page and then work outwards, grouping ideas.

Hand written mind map with one circle in the centre and 4 other surrounding it. At the centre is 'Academic Word List' that has been circled. Pointing towards this circle is '10 sublists, all words are academic (e.g. analyse, concept, data)' in one circle and 'devd. by Coxhead (2000) for her MA dissertation' in another circle. A side note is written 'check article in TESOL Quarterly' towards this circle. An arrow pointing from 'Academic Word List' circle to another circle that says '570 word families ( e.g. economy, economics, economic etc.)' which also has another circle pointing towards that has written inside 'Corpus of 3.5 m. words in ac. texts was analysed'

One advantage of a mind map is that you can show the relationships between ideas visually; one disadvantage is that when you have filled a page, you need to start a new page and it’s difficult to show relationships between ideas on different pages.

If you’ve a handout for the lecture, you can write your notes directly onto the handout.

A screen shot of the notes from a power point slide that has arrows and hand written notes surrounding it

Increasingly students are using their own electronic device, either typing notes or handwriting them, possibly using an app which converts handwriting to text.

What should I note down?

You should ensure that you have a record of the key points from the lecture. These may already be on a handout, but even if they are you may need to add to or clarify those points. If you don’t have a handout and are taking notes onto a blank page you need to identify and note down the main points.

Lecturers may use a variety of techniques to draw students’ attention to key points. They may do this by;

  • using words or phrases to draw attention to a main point (eg “One advantage of … is …”,“it is important to note that”, “the key thing to remember here is that …”) or to move from one point to another (eg “Firstly…”, “Secondly…”, “Next …”, Finally…”)

  • giving more emphasis when they pronounce key words or phrases (eg “we’ve looked at some of the reasons for homelessness, so now let’s look at its effects…”)

  • pausing after key words or phrases (eg “we’ve looked at some of the reasons for homelessness, so now let’s look at its effects…The most obvious problem is that it makes it very difficult for someone to have a regular job…. That is because …”)

In the next Step you’ll watch a short extract from a lecture and compare this to the notes that a student has made.

© British Council
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