Taking Notes: 5 College Success Tips

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  1. Go to class prepared
  2. Improve your listening skills
  3. Develop a note-taking method that works for you
  4. Pay close attention to content
  5. Review and edit your notes

(My technical writing student, Vivinette K. Dietsche, submitted these tips for a project in 2000. –DGJ)

As an adult student, and mother of three college-aged children, experience has taught me the importance of good study skills and habits. Not only can a student “survive” college with these skills, they can actually do quite well. I took the opportunity to write this paper with my children in mind. Learning how to take lecture notes effectively is the first step college students need to make the transition from high school to college easier.

Few people realize how fast memory fades. Studies on memory have shown that, without review, 47% of what a person has just learned is forgotten in the first twenty minutes and 62% is forgotten after the first day. (University of Texas at Austin). Therefore, having good lecture notes to review can determine how well you are able to perform on exams.


1. Go to class prepared.

Always have a plan and believe in it. Nothing good happens by accident.” — Chuck Knox, NFL football coach

  • Use a three-ring binder instead of a spiral or bound book. Pages can be easily removed for reviewing. Handouts can be inserted into your notes for cross-referencing. You can insert your own out-of-class notes in the correct order (Ellis).
  • Bring highlighters to class. Instructors will frequently make comments like, “This is an important concept.” Or, “Make sure you understand this.” These are direct clues that this will more than likely be on an exam. Highlighting these notes will help remind you later that this is definitely something you need to know.
  • Read assigned material and previous class notes before class. Make notations about material or concepts you don’t understand. Look up vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to you. You will have a better understanding about what the instructor is lecturing about and that will allow you to better decipher the more important points of the lecture.

2. Improve your listening skills.

Learn how to listen and you will prosper even from those who talk badly.” — Plutarch (A.D. 46 – 120). Greek biographer and philosopher

  • Start by entering the classroom with a positive attitude. Going to class thinking, “This is the last place I want to be today” only sets the stage for inattentive listening. Approaching lectures with a positive attitude allows one to be open-minded and enables you to get the most out of the information presented.
  • Make a conscious effort to pay attention. Concentrate on concentrating. “Without concentration there is no focus, and without focus there is no learning” (Pauk 190).
  • Adapt to whatever direction a lecture takes. When a lecture takes an unexpected detour, say a student asks a question you aren’t particularly interested in, students have a tendency to “zone out.” Before you know it, the lecture got back on track five minutes ago, and you missed crucial information that should have been noted.

3. Develop a notetaking method that works for you.

Learn, compare, collect the facts.” – Ivan Petrovic Pavlov (1849 – 1936), Russian physiologist.

Fine-tune the structure and organization of your notes to increase your note-taking speed and comprehension later.

  • Start each new lecture on a new page, and date and number each page. The sequence of material is important.
  • Write on one side of the paper only. You can set them out side-by-side for easier reviewing when studying for an exam.
  • Leave blank spaces. This allows you to add comments or note questions later.
  • Make your notes as brief as possible. “Never use a sentence when you can use a phrase, or a phrase when you can use a word” (Berkeley).
  • Develop a system of abbreviations and symbols you can use wherever possible.
  • Note all unfamiliar vocabulary or concepts you don’t understand. This reminds you to look them up later.

4. Pay close attention to content.

There is a great difference between knowing a thing and understanding it.” – Charles Kettering (1876 – 1958), American electrical engineer and inventor

Knowing what and how much to write down is sometimes difficult. Rely on some of the following tips for what to include in your notes.

  • Details, facts, or explanations that expand or explain the main points that are mentioned. Don’t forget examples.
  • Definitions, word for word.
  • Enumerations or lists of things that are discussed.
  • Material written on the chalkboard or on a transparency, including drawings or charts.
  • Information that is repeated or spelled out. (University of Texas at Austin)

5. Review and edit your notes.

Ideas won’t keep; something must be done about them.” – Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947), English mathematician and philosopher

Academic skills centers and other authorities on effective study skills consider reviewing and editing class notes to be the most important part of note-taking and essential to increasing learning capacity.

  • It is extremely important to review your notes within 24 hours.
  • Edit for words and phrases that are illegible or don’t make sense. Write out abbreviated words that might be unclear later.
  • Edit with a different colored pen to distinguish between what you wrote in class and what you filled in later.
  • Fill in key words and questions in the left-hand column.
  • Note anything you don’t understand by underlining or highlighting to remind you to ask the instructor.
  • Compare your notes with the textbook reading and fill in important details in the blank spaces you left.
  • Consider rewriting or typing up your notes. (Ellis).

Note: For additional techniques for study and exam preparation, go to Tips for Effective Study (archived by the WayBack Machine) http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/fancher/STUDY.HTM


To research this topic I reviewed several texts and on-line web sites that gave suggestions as to how students could become more effective learners and methods of study that could accomplish this. The importance of class note-taking was emphasized over and over. By looking at many different suggestions and note-taking guidelines, I compiled a list of top 5 tips for effective note-taking that will enhance students’ learning abilities and improve their college success.


Students sometimes have a hard time making the transition from high school to college. Students who did extremely well in high school may find themselves struggling in college. Part of this can be due to increased freedom and now having to structure their own time, rather than having it done for them. Also, many students don’t do as well because the style of teaching is so different. High school instructors rely more on textbook learning, whereas college professors rely more on lecture. Students find themselves inadequately prepared for this new style of teaching and have to rethink their study habits and skills in order to succeed.

A relatively easy way for students to improve their retention and comprehension is by learning how to effectively take notes. Several studies have been done on the importance of taking lecture notes in college and how doing so improves a student’s grades. First, it is important to understand why taking notes is so crucial. A person’s ability to remember material presented to them fades very quickly.

According to Walter Pauk (84), people lose their retention at the following rates:


20 minutes
47% forgotten
1 day
62% forgotten
2 days
69% forgotten
75 days
75% forgotten
78 days
78% forgotten



Hence, having notes to fall back on for review is essential for attaining good grades.

Note-taking, in addition to helping retention, allows students to become effective learners. George Dudycha, a professor of psychology at Wittenberg College states, “The taking of notes facilitates learning. When one takes notes he attends to what is said and done; he analyzes and thinks rapidly about what he sees and hears; and finally he records his observations. Attending to, analyzing, and doing something about a class lecture means the student is actively engaged in those activities that are essential to effective learning.” He goes on to say that notes are “the cues that stimulate recall.” (179-180).

College academic and learning skill centers actively promote the use of note-taking in lectures to improve a student’s learning capabilities:

  • NOTE-TAKING is one way to enhance listening, and using a systematic approach to the taking and reviewing of your notes can add immeasurably to your understanding and remembering the content of lectures. (Berkeley).
  • It’s a simple fact of academic survival – the best students take the best notes! Notes not only aid comprehension, but they also make learning active and, most importantly, make study time more efficient, especially during end-of- the semester review sessions for final exams. (Colgate University).
  • Effective note-taking is an essential part of any successful academic study program. It is a high level skill, involving such complex cognitive processes as analyzing, synthesizing, writing, evaluating, and reviewing. But more than anything else, it requires active listening. (University of Texas at Austin).

Taking notes consistently in a predetermined format allows a student to get the most out of class lectures. Something as simple as having the right materials and keeping up with the class reading assignments is the first step to effective note-taking.

The University of Texas at Austin Learning Skills Center encourages its students to have a positive attitude. “A positive attitude toward your course means assuming that the material is worth learning and not prejudging the material or the instructor. Rather than tuning out, encourage yourself with positive messages.”

Not everyone processes information the same way, so it is important for students to develop methods and strategies that work the best for them. Using a trial and error approach can help a student fine tune what type of structure and organization works best for them.

Students sometimes have a difficult time knowing what to write down during a lecture. Knowing some specific content items they should look for will help them. As they get more proficient at their note-taking, which will happen over time, it will be easier for them to weed out what is important and what is not.

Probably the most emphasized suggestion for effective note-taking is reviewing and editing one’s notes. Few students do this and it is considered by all academic skills centers and other authorities on effective study skills to be the most important part of effective note-taking and essential to increasing one’s learning capacity. Taking the time to review and edit one’s notes as soon as possible after a class will reap tremendous rewards later when it comes time to study for an exam.


Relatively few students know the importance of taking effective notes and how much it can improve their retention and comprehension of lecture material. By following a few simple guidelines on how to take notes effectively, a student can improve their college GPA, and relieve a lot of stress when it comes time to study for and take an exam.

Editor’s note: In the years since this page was first created, all the following links seem to have broken. You might try pasting the URL into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to find cached copies of these now-gone websites. –DGJ


12 Dec 2000 — submitted by Vivinette K. Dietsche
23 Feb 2001 — posted by Dennis G. Jerz
15 Aug 2019 — added note about broken links in references

About this Page
Vivinette Dietsche, a technical writing student, compiled this excellent set of tips. I do wish that she had cited the page number for each specific citation of the printed sources, but nevertheless, this page is still very useful. –DGJ
See Also
Vivinette Dietsche
Effective Notetaking- Improve Your GPAThe Onion
Area Man Has No Idea Why He Wrote  “Gazebo Convo–resolve/Tues (!?)” in Planner 6 Weeks Ago

“I had absolutely no clue what it meant. I scanned the next several Tuesdays to see if there were any notes regarding the resolution of a gazebo convo–whatever that is–but there was nothing. I haven’t been able to think about anything else since.”

13 Archived Comments

Jason said:

Great list! I can’t wait to share these with my students.

Laura said:

Hey this is great tips you’re giving. Thank you very much, as i’m still a student i’ll use it in the future ;)

sheila said:

Thank you. I really needed good tips on note taking. I’m a new student, but this was very helpful. Once again Thank You…

Keisha Marie Deeds said:

This article is great. It tells about how to focus on the subject and taking notes in class. U can always pay attention to what the teacher is saying while taking notes.

Henry said:

These tips are very prparing. Im in the 5th grade and am learning how to take good notes in school. I’m showing these to my techer.

sakhosh said:

Thank you for sharing these useful tips.

Cameron O’Quinn said:

thanks, im using these notes for career management these might help me remember the lesson better.

I said:

It really helped me! thanks

bilal said:

i say ausome

xenki said:

great thanks you are the one.

Clarke said:

Hey this is good lesson to be learn. I’ve take in this instruction to guild me in my note taking both in the Master Program and at work. I hope to have more lesson on note taking material to guild me well. Thanks again to the organizer of this lesson.

Professional regards

Nathan Smith said:

This stuff is like ok?

85 thoughts on “Taking Notes: 5 College Success Tips

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  7. Vivinette,
    Thank you!!!!!!!
    I am writing my Master’s thesis on note taking as I read your “better than anything else” resource.
    I dare not attempt to expand upon this subject, for you have developed note taking to a whole new level, better than previous academic experts!
    Taking note of excellence,

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  10. When I first started college I was just prepared. After several years in the work force and no school; provisions about concepts were iminent. I have looked at the whole picture for the puzzle! Pick up on what the proffesor is getting at. that is when you know if this class or classes is right for you, the student.

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  15. There’s a typo in point 4. While your advice is good, that doesn’t make you seem very credible. it’s afantastic site. These tips are very useful. it is a really long post. I am going to send this to my son and get him to read especially number 10.

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  19. Thks a lot for tipping me and reminding me how to prepare myself for my further college study which I do it now after a long gap from my first degree program.
    Yonas k.

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  23. This is some really good stuff i intend to use all these information through out my classes here at robeson tec. Thank you.

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  26. This is germane to effective learning and comprehension to a student of higher institution.Thanks so much.

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  29. everyone should pay attention to what they doing cause you can always make a mistake on something.

  30. this is some good advice… i will take it all in for my usefulness! because i am not a good note taker at all. Thanks

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  33. I think this is some very useful information. It can help with the note taking process in college.

  34. I’ve graduated last year, and I only practices 2, 3, and 5 of the list. Well, I really agree that the secret in not dying in college would be listening well. Don’t take note during classes, but listen. Then write down what you’ve remembered after class.

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  37. I find this web site very useful and I am sure it will help improve my over all grade average in the long run
    very helpful and most likely I will use this website for further usage.

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