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Lesson 9: How to Take Classroom Notes

Gary North, Ph.D.
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Did you lecture to the wall about the lesson on lecturing to the wall? If not, please give this a try. I am trying to help you. If I did not think this would help you, I would not ask you to do it. It's no fun for most people. But if it works for you, you will gain an enormous competitive advantage over other students who have never heard of this technique, and who would not try it out even if they did hear about it.

If you did do the assignment, do you believe your own lecture?

Lesson 9


This is the other half of The Overnight Student. The author learned how to take good notes. Then he lectured to the wall to remember them.

Before we begin, let me tell you what your teachers never admit, even though they all know the truth: listening to lectures is not a good substitute for reading when you are learning complex material. When I say "lecture," I mean a speech. I'm not talking about a teacher at a blackboard who works out a math problem. I mean blah, blah, blah.

Most people read at 250 words per minute. Most people talk at under 125 words per minute. Only professional stenographers can take notes this fast.

You can read the same amount of words twice or more in the time that it takes to listen to the same number of words. Also, the words on a page stay there. The words in your ears don't.

You can review a book. If you own it, you allowed to mark it up: notes in the margins, underlines, highlighting. You can stop and think about what you have just read. (Yes, this is allowed. In fact, I am encouraging this.)

You can't write fast enough to transcribe a lecture. The lecture isn't laid out as carefully as a book. A lecture has not been screened by a committee for errors. If you slow down to think about the truth of any part of a lecture, you won't be able to write down the next part.

There is only one significant advantage in a lecture. You can raise your hand and ask a question (if you get called on). But most lecturers don't like listeners to do this more than three times per lecture, if that many. If you keep asking questions, the other listeners will resent it. So, this advantage is minimal.

You can easily misunderstand and write down the wrong thing. You can miss the main point. All in all, lectures are not good for delivering complex information. They are all right for introducing a new idea or two. They are all right for reviewing what students read the night before. But did all of the students read the assignment the night before? Of course not.

Then there is this dirty little secret: nobody sits and listens to lectures, taking notes, except in high school and college. After that, nobody asks you to take notes. Rarely are you asked to sit through a lecture, except at church. Not many people take notes at church. You may be required to view a video or read a chapter or fill in an outline, but only in rare circumstances, such as a $500 weekend seminar, does anyone expect you to take notes.

This is because we live 550 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Teachers lectured prior to Gutenberg because books had to be copied by hand. Students could not afford them. This has not been true for 550 years.

One of the greatest advantages of taking college courses by mail and locally administered exams is that you don't become dependent on note-taking in class. But, while you were in high school, you were supposed to learn how to take notes. If you attend college on-campus, you had better be a good note-taker on the day you arrive.

It's still a good tactic to lecture to the wall. That's the one place where lectures are effective in education. You give the lecture. But the wall doesn't take notes.

Then why do colleges still require lectures? Tradition. Why do high schools require them? To prepare students for college. Also, to fill up time.

Isn't there a better way? Of course. It's also a lot cheaper. But very few colleges admit that undergraduate education can be as effective and a lot cheaper without lectures. They get paid for providing what self- disciplined students really don't need. Only three colleges have eliminated lectures 100%. They are all very low-cost schools. All are accredited. But you have never heard of any of them.

By the way, in graduate school, lectures are quite rare. Senior professors teach graduate students. They assume that their students are self-disciplined and can learn on their own. Lectures are for students who cannot be trusted intellectually.


Students take notes in their own way. Some students can somehow sense the outline the lecturer is using. Others can't.

You don't need to do a detailed outline when you write. Your teacher probably didn't use an extensive outline. Why try to impose one?

I am a professional lecturer. I have been giving speeches since the age of 14 -- a long time. I use one sheet of paper for a one-hour lecture. I fold it into a 5«-inch by 8-inch sheet, with four panels. I fill the panels with notes, usually one idea per phrase. I use this paper just to keep from skipping anything.

I write a one-hour speech in about one hour or less. I don't use a detailed outline. I use brief phrases.

Now let's talk about you. Sometimes you're not sure when a lecturer moves to a new idea, which would mean a new paragraph. Don't worry about it. Just keep writing.

Your hand will get tired. Buy a pen that you think is comfortable. Write with it. If it's still comfortable a week later, buy another one just like it. You might lose one.


I can write more clearly with a fountain pen. (Blank stare.) A fountain pen has a metal tip and a rubber bladder that you fill with ink. Ink. You know: dark liquid in a bottle. (Blank stare.)

OK, so maybe most brands of fountain pens went out of production back in 1968. So what? I like mine. I buy cheap ones: about $20. You can pay as much as (this, even I find astounding) $5,000. (Some people have their priorities messed up.)

Here's why I like a fountain pen. Its point offers resistance as I write. I have much better control over the shape of my letters. A ball point pen rolls too much. I lose control of my penmanship. It looks sloppy. A fiber- tipped pen can't maintain the width of the ink over time. Its tip keeps getting fatter and softer. Then I have to buy a new one. Ink in a bottle lasts a long time.

I buy my pens on-line from Swisher Pens.


If you can't read your own handwriting, this will mess up your pre-test reviewing. So, do whatever you can to write more clearly yet not slow down your transcription.


In a student guide on note-taking, Utah State University reports that 95% of what you heard but failed to write down gets forgotten. That's why you had better take very good notes. Even when you do, the study says, two-thirds of what you wrote down is forgotten. The report is posted here:


That's why note-reviewing before the day is over is crucial. You can organize your notes while you still recall more clearly what the teacher said. You can add clarifying notes in the margin. Then, if there is enough time, lecture to the wall.

I recommend last-period study hall for reviewing daily class notes. If you find something that you don't understand, maybe you can ask the teacher before the day ends. Or write down your question on a 3x5 note card and hand it in the next day.


I recommend using a 3-hole, spiral-bound notebook that law students use: really wide margins on the left. This way, you can add new material in the margin, either after class or during the lecture period (questions & answers). The standard notebook's left margin is too narrow.

Don't use a separate notebook at school for each class. You will be tempted to keep these notebooks with you. What if you lose one? You're a dead duck. Carry the same notebook to all of your classes.

At the end of each school day, tear out all of your pages of notes. Take them home. Carry them in a separate cheap notebook that will keep the rain off the pages.

At home, insert each page into a 3-ring binder, one binder for each class, or a large binder with plastic dividers/tabs for each class. Don't let these notes out of your home office.


As you know, I'm a fanatic about the necessity of reading tomorrow's textbook assignment the night before you go to class. The lecture will make more sense to you if you have read your assignment. But, more important, you may spot some correlations between the textbook's material and the lecture material. If the lecture repeats what is in the textbook, you can be sure this is high-priority material. Review it carefully before any exam.

If you hear in the lecture anything that you read the night before in the textbook, write ST in the margin of your notes. (ST = "See textbook.") This will alert you at home when you are reviewing your notes for the day to open the textbook and see if you can find the same material. You want to make sure your teacher's version is the textbook's version. If it isn't, then either you took faulty notes or else your teacher has a unique view, which he may use on a test. Get this discrepancy clarified before the next exam, either in a Q&A session or by means of a 3x5 card. Your teacher will be amazed that you paid sufficient attention to note the discrepancy. Or else he will think you are a poor note-taker. So, always ask a question. Don't say, "You don't agree with the textbook." Maybe he does. He just doesn't agree with your sloppy notes.


There is a summary of how to take notes on the Web site of Duke University. It is a Web page for athletes.

These note-taking rules are fairly standard. I reproduce some of them here. I don't want you to memorize all this stuff. I do want you to get an idea of the inefficiency of note-taking compared to speed reading, re- reading, highlighting, reviewing, and lecturing to the wall.

I strongly suggest that you select a college or university that doesn't emphasize lectures. That way, you can avoid the following. . . .


Make some preparation for the lecture so that you will be more likely to predict the organization of the lecture. [Try to guess right.]

CHECK THE COURSE OUTLINE to see if the lecturer has listed the topic or key ideas in the upcoming lecture. If so, convert this information into questions to be answered in the lecture. [You may not have a course outline. It would be nice if you did.]

BEFORE THE LECTURE, complete outside reading or reference assignments. [Also, mow the lawn, take your baby brother out for a stroll, wash the car, and visit the old folks' home.]

REVIEW THE TEXT ASSIGNMENT and any reading notes taken.

REVIEW NOTES from the previous lecture.

Will you do all this? Of course not. Should you? Of course. If you want an A, you must do this. If you want a B, it would be wise to do this. If you are getting a D, you had better do all this. Do this, too. . . .

Copy everything that is on the blackboard or transparencies, especially the outline.

Have a proper attitude. Listening well is a matter of paying close attention. [In other words, stay awake, or at least don't snore.]


Have your lecture paper and pencil or pen ready. [Obvious, isn't it? But students forget.] Write down the title of the lecture, the name of the course and the date.

Listen carefully to the introduction (if there is one).

Hear the lecture. By knowing his outline, you will be better prepared to anticipate what notes you will need to take. [Try to guess what's next. When you can do this a lot of the time, you know the course well.]

Try to recognize main ideas by "signal words" that indicate something important is to follow. Examples: "First, Second, Next, Then, Thus, Another important...," etc.

Jot down details or examples that support the main ideas. Give special attention to details not covered in the textbook. [This is good advice.]

If there is a summary at the end of the lecture, pay close attention to it. You can use it to check the organization of your notes. If your notes seem disorganized, copy down the main points covered in the summary. It will help in revising your notes later.

At the end of the lecture, ask questions about points you did not understand. [Do this. Don't be shy. Get things clear and on paper before you leave. Problem: some teachers lecture right up to the bell.]

Don't be in a rush. Be attentive, listen and take notes right up to the point at which the instructor dismisses you. If you are gathering together your personal belongings when you should be listening, you're bound to miss an important point--perhaps an announcement about the next exam! [This is good advice.]


Revise your notes as quickly as possible, preferably immediately after the lecture since at that time you will still remember a good deal of the lecture. [Revise; don't re-write. Add notes in the margin. Add question marks where you don't understand. Be prepared to ask questions the next day: verbally or by a 3x5 card.]

Review your lecture notes AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK. Also, review the lecture notes before the next lecture. [Do it. Do it. Do it.]


Collect notes for each course in one place, in a separate notebook or section of a notebook. [Do this.]

Do not perform manual activities which will detract from taking notes. Do not doodle or play with your pen. These activities break eye contact and concentration.

Pay close attention to transitional words, phrases, and sentence which signal the end of one idea and the beginning of another. Listen for words such as "therefore", "finally", and "furthermore." They usually signal an important idea.

Take down examples and sketches which the lecturer presents. Indicate examples with "EX."

Review your notes as soon as possible. Read through the notes and improve the organization if necessary.

Your instructor is not going to send up a rocket when she states an important new idea or gives an example, but she will use signals to telegraph what she is doing. Every good speaker does it, and you should expect to receive these signals. For example, she may introduce an example with "for example" as done here.

Other common signals are:

"There are three reasons why...." (HERE THEY COME!)

"First...Second... Third...." (THERE THEY ARE!)

"And most important,...." (A MAIN IDEA!)

"A major development...." (A MAIN IDEA AGAIN!)

She may signal support material with:

"On the other hand...."
"On the contrary...."
"For example...."
"In contrast...."
"As an example...."
"For instance...."

He may signal conclusion or summary with:

"In conclusion...."
"As a result...."
"In summary...."
"From this we see...."

She may signal very loud with:

"Now this is important...."
"Remember that...."
"The important idea is that...."
"The basic concept here is...."


[If you click through, you may find the page unreadable. The person who designed the page forgot the rule: black print on a white screen. Use File>Print Preview to get a readable screen.]

Doing this is not easy. You won't remember all of it. But your time in high school was supposed to help prepare you for college.

Of course, I recommend that you earn all or most of your college credits by examination. I have presented my views in my manual on alternative degree programs: www.LowestCostColleges.com. The fact is, note-taking is a skill that you won't use much beyond college. It is not an efficient way to convey information in a world of inexpensive books and free websites.


Pay attention. Don't let your mind wander. Keep your eyes on the front of the room. This is not easy. Taking notes helps you to do this. Keep writing.

Write down as much as you can, as fast as you can, as clearly as you can, but never without paying attention. If you miss something, raise your hand and ask for clarification. It's your grade. If you have to do it twice a lecture, do it.

Pay attention to any signal words. Write down everything that follows a signal word.

Review your notes as soon as you can after the lecture.

At the end of the school day, tear out the pages, take them home, and file them in notebooks. Leave your now-empty note-taking book at school.

Re-read your notes before you go to bed. Insert question marks or marginal notes.

Ask for clarifications the next day.


Lecture to the wall on this lesson. What are the main points on taking effective notes? What are the main points on why lecturing is inefficient?

Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page, one book.

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