Lesson 9: How to Take Classroom Notes
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?
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,
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
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
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
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.
NOTES FOR YOU, NOTES FOR ME
Students take notes in their own way. Some students
can somehow sense the outline the lecturer is using.
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
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
REVIEW YOUR NOTES, SOON
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.
NOTEBOOKS (ONE MORE TIME)
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.
COMPARE NOTES WITH THE TEXTBOOK
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
IT GETS VERY COMPLICATED
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
I strongly suggest that you select a college or
university that doesn't emphasize lectures. That way, you
can avoid the following. . . .
BEFORE THE LECTURE BEGINS:
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
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
Have a proper attitude. Listening well is a
matter of paying close attention. [In other
words, stay awake, or at least don't snore.]
DURING THE LECTURE:
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
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
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.]
AFTER THE LECTURE:
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.]
TIPS ON TAKING NOTES:
Collect notes for each course in one place, in a
separate notebook or section of a notebook. [Do
Do not perform manual activities which will
detract from taking notes. Do not doodle or play
with your pen. These activities break eye contact
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
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
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
(HERE THEY COME!)
"First...Second... Third...." (THERE
"And most important,...." (A MAIN
"A major development...." (A MAIN IDEA
She may signal support material with:
"On the other
"On the contrary...."
"As an example...."
He may signal conclusion or summary with:
"As a result...."
"From this we see...."
She may signal very loud with:
"Now this is
"The important idea is that...."
"The basic concept here is...."
[If you click through, you may find
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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
Pay attention to any signal words. Write down
everything that follows a signal word.
Review your notes as soon as you can after the
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
Lecture to the wall on this lesson.
What are the main points on taking effective
notes? What are the main points on why lecturing
Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page,
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