Note Taking: University Style

This article is written by paulien. She studied mathematics and classical languages and just finished two master degrees. She lives in the Netherlands and just started working on her PhD in applied mathematics. You can visit her Wordpress blog where she occasionally writes posts (he'll update it soon!). She just love books, notebooks pens and the like. And we're happy to have her here and writing.

When you first go to university, you are suddenly expected to do much more work than in school, and with much less help and guidance than you are used to. After all, you are an adult now, and you should be capable of managing your own affairs. Sadly, no one has ever told you how to do that. How do you plan for writing papers, giving presentations and studying for exams. And how can you manage to get good grades without too much stress and still have time for a job and a social life? I want to share some things I learned, and which I would have loved to hear at my first day of lectures.

First I will name some of the tools and supplies I used a lot. Then I will take a look at different aspects of the student life. I don't mention computer and printer, as every university has those for use.

Tools and stuff

  • A planner/calendar. I think that you should use one planner for school and social stuff, to avoid planning a party the night before an important exam.
  • Wire-bound notebooks with pre-punched paper. You can take the pages out and put them in a binder. In this way you can carry one notebook around to lectures, and later at home take the pages out and put them in the appropriate section in the binder.
  • Binders and tabs. I use one binder per semester, with a tab for each course. Behind each tab you can put all the notes, and also the course outline or any other papers that get passed around. At the end of the semester I label the binder and take out a new one.
  • Pens, pencils, post-it notes and flags. You can mark up your reading and put notes in it without writing in the book itself.
  • Something to take notes in while you are out. I used my planner for this, but index cards or a small notebook will work too. You never know when you have a good idea for your next paper.
  • Good dictionaries and reference works. Speaks for itself I think. You need these for writing.

To get the most from your time spent listening to lectures, it is important to prepare yourself. Read the assigned texts and print the handouts (if any). Now you will understand much more of what the professor is saying, and you know if there are any questions or things you donít understand. Ask if your questions are not answered during the lecture.

The other important thing is to take good notes. These will help you remember important things and they will come in handy when studying for exams. Good note taking takes practice, but a few tips can help:

  • Use keywords and short sentences
  • Underline or highlight important things
  • Note things you want too look up later too
  • Make references to page numbers in the textbook or handout to save time writing

If you then go through your notes shortly after the class, you'll have a lot of the material already in your head.

Sometimes exams can be scary, especially oral exams. But if you have prepared for all lectures and taken notes, it will not be too hard to study for the exam. The first thing I recommend is to try and find some old exams or examples of questions. Knowing what to expect makes it easier to prepare and feel confident.

Also, it is important to schedule your studying at times when your energy level and concentration are at its best. Donít forget to schedule breaks too. I study best in a quiet environment, like the library, but at least put off the phone and computer. Distractions donít help.

The last thing that I found helpful is to o over old exams and hard parts of the course with a few classmates. We would always do this with three or four people a few days before the exam. I then there are still things unclear, you can still find time to visit the professor.

All this should prepare you well for the exam. Remember to eat and sleep well, and if you can take something to eat and drink to the room. This helps to relax a bit when you are stuck, and keeps your energy up.

After exams, I believe papers are the hardest part of studying. However, there are a few tricks to make writing papers a little bit easier. The first thing is to set intermediate due dates for the individual steps needed to complete a paper: identify subject or research question, search for literature, read and take notes, draft, research remaining points, and revise. Try to really keep to those due dates, and plan to finish at least a few day before the official due date. Setting due dates for smaller parts does also work for other assignments than papers.

After you have thought of some subject or question, you must start to look for literature. A good starting point is wikipedia or google scholar. (But never ever cite wikipedia in the paper!) Here you will find at lest some background info and some references. For many fields there are also databases with publications you can search by keyword (like MathSciNet for maths). Or look at the bibliography on the course website of the textbook. Once you have found a few good recent publications on your subject, the bibliographies in there will lead you further.

Now you have your literature, it is time to read it. I do this in two steps: first I read everything one time, quickly and in chronological order, without taking notes. Now I now roughly what is in what paper or book, and I read the interesting things, taking notes and underlining as I go. For the notes I use the same notebooks as for the lecture notes, so these notes can go in the binder too. I try to relate everything I read to the research question in some way, and make sure to put a reference to the paper or book on every page.

Then, when I have read everything I want to read, I make an outline and start writing. This is the first draft, so it does not have to be perfect right away. While writing, some points may come up that are not clear and need a bit more research. I note these down for now, and go back to all these points after the draft is finished. I do the remaining research, and rewrite the draft. Then print it out for proofreading. In the printout, I check all spelling, grammar and references. After that, it is ready to be handed in.

Two last things: make sure to backup your work regularly, for example by sending it to yourself by email every night. And try to use a nice layout; this is an easy way to make a good first impression.

Now you know all the things you need to do, but not how to plan for them. That is the next subject. I plan in my calendar. I write all the deadlines, exams and such in another ink colour than the other things so that they stand out. The same goes for the deadlines for individual steps in papers I set myself. I donít write down regular things to do like laundry and grocery shopping; I just do those as they come up.

In my calendar, I first put in all time-specific things like lectures, appointments and work. Then, in the remaining space, I plan the time with studying. I plan this mostly in the morning and afternoon, because I am not that good at working in the evening. Make sure you don't plan your days too full with studying. Plan some fun things to do and some downtime too.

If you do all this, you will probably have an easier time managing all your classes and assignments. I know I did. But the reason to manage your time and stuff in a good way is not only to get good grades, but also to free up time for a social life and all the college activities there are. Your years at university should be fun, so make time for that.

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Isn't "University Style"... ?

asking to copy your classmate's lecture notes ?

"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

British Situation and PowerPointless

How do you plan for writing papers, giving presentations and studying for exams.

A decade ago this was an issue at British universities. Some government report had identified that children leaving school and going to university possessed no study skills in any way shape or form. So all universities were required to include a module in the first year of every degree study programme to train students. Recently some, maybe all, British universities have removed these modules because most students enrolling are now taught those basic academic skills by their schools.

I recently completed a degree course (as a mature student) and had to suffer the tediousness and pointlessness of one of these modules; I already had a Masters degree.

The sad thing is that "giving a presentation" is interpreted as creating a few PowerPoint slides. No thought is given to the content of those slides or even to the appropriateness of using PowerPoint (or Keynote for us Mac users). No consideration of the message the presentation was to convey. No regard for the work of people like Peter Norvig (CTO of Google) or Edward Tufte who have lambasted the whole faux thinking that is symptomatic of using a presentation package. Tufte's analysis of one slide from the Columbia Shuttle mission should be enough to put anyone off using PowerPoint (or Keynote) ever again; it was effectively the death warrant of the astronauts who perished in the failure of the vehicle.

It's not the tool, it's the misuse thereof

I agree with Tufte about the misuse of PowerPoint.

But I further believe that the tool can be used effectively. It is more work, but worth it in the long run.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Running, stepping, ...

But I further believe that the tool can be used effectively. It is more work, but worth it in the long run.

Nah, PowerPoint, Keynote and their ilk are no more tools than the stepmill, treadmaster, cross-traininer, rowing machine and all the other equipment I've just used for two hours at my local gym are means of transport.

Or, a more apposite metaphor, calling those items of software tools would be like describing free pocket diaries sent out by marketeers as planners. Sadly, like PowerPoint et al, many people use them but doesn't make them planners. There are a few dairy keepers who could use them effectively but for the most part planners they ain't.

Since I'm at a conference

where almost presentation is given with Powerpoint I have to disagree. This is an academic archaeology conference where many people are presenting their research. Before Powerpoint we used 35 mm slides. This is just a different (and easier and cheaper) way to present information to the attendees. Enough information and data that we can question each other, come up with alternative interpretations of the data, have meaningful discussions about the research being done. We couldn't do it without some way of letting people see photos of the site, the artifacts, the data analyses, and so on. Powerpoint is just a tool, a tool that can facilitate communication and the exchange of ideas. Or a tool that can be used to give a boring meaningless presentation that really shouldn't have been in the program to begin with. I saw plenty of those with 35mm slides and a projector. If you find Powerpoint presentations tedious, meaningless, and a waste of time don't blame the tool, blame the user. I don't know of a single manufacturer or user who claims that the stepmill, treadmill, etc. are means of transport. They are also tools, but not tools for transport and if you used them thinking that they would take you from place a to place b then you should have examined the function of the tool before thinking it would do something it wasn't designed to do.

You need to know how to use it

PowerPoint and the like has two problems.

1) The user: how does the user craft one's slides? Are they crammed with text and bullit points or do they only indicate the (one) point one is making on each slide? In my experience, the best slides are plain, make only one single point, have fewer than 30 words (the fewer the better) and are there to give the indication of what the speaker is saying, or is providing an illustration (in the form of a graph, pic, drawing, etc) that the speaker will analyse before the audience.

2) The viewer: does the viewer try to write down every single word on the screen or use those words to pick up on the important points the speaker is actually saying? Students are especially guilty of not listening to the speaker and of writing the words on the screen instead. One must never be distracted by the screen when the speaker is talking. The speaker should always take precedence over the slides. In our age of visual media, however, we collectively forget that more often than not.

In short, one needs to know how to use PowerPoint and the like, but one ALSO need to know how to read them.

I agree,

and you need to know how to do that no matter what the presentation medium. Overheads, 35mm, Powerpoint, handouts, etc. all have the same drawbacks if they are misused.

Expense wonderfully focuses the mind

There is a difference with overheads, 35mm and handouts to PowerPoint/Keynote ... cost. That is cost of final production. 35mm slides used to be the most expensive. Now producing a set of slides with a presentation package is free. Sadly free also of effort by those who produce them with KeyPoint.

The PowerNote slide has become the electronic version of the soundbyte. Content- and context-less. If he were still alive Neil Postman would now be writing "Presenting Ourselves to Death".

early days of DTP

It actually reminds me of the earliest days of desktop publishing. Suddenly everybody had the "ability" to produce professional-quality documents, and quickly proved that most people don't. ;-)

What's the PP equivalent of the "ransom note effect"? You know, every transition or build is something different, and clashing backgrounds/text colors/fonts? I've seen some hideous things!

(BTW, for the record, Apple helps people in a big way with Keynote. Their default themes are very tasteful and understated--one has to work hard to uglify an Apple-provided theme--not that it's not possible--just gotta work harder at it)


I agree.

I agree.

One needs to know how to use AND read PowerPoint

One of the better uses I have seen is to hand out paper copies of the slides printed in a way to allow for additional notes. Then, if the presenter is doing more than just reading the content off of the slides, you can embellish.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

What I do is put a

What I do is put a simplified pdf version of my slides on my class's website after class. Never before. I want my students to take notes and they won't if I put the notes up first. But after, they can review and restructure their notes.

The opposite effect

put a simplified pdf version of my slides on my class's website after class. Never before.

I really dislike that approach for two reasons.

Firstly, I work as an educational sign language interpreter and have to fight to get lecturer's notes before a class. If I have the notes I can prepare and then my interpretation is better and what the students get of your lecture will be greater. So many of my teaching colleagues just don't get it. They insist on giving out notes at the end of the lecture or, as you do, only making them available afterward. Doesn't help me and doesn't help the student.

I want my students to take notes and they won't if I put the notes up first. But after, they can review and restructure their notes.

Secondly, as a PWD (person with dyslexia) when I was as student I wanted notes beforehand. And here in the UK I'd go to the disabiity support office and kick up a formal stink that notes aren't available to me prior to the class; there'd be a major issue here as the lecturer (you in this case) would not be making what the UK Disability Discrimination Act calls necessary adjustments.

When I was a student recently (I was a mature student until the summer) if there were no notes available then I did not take any! Would often leave the lecture room with clean sheets of paper. So if I were in your class your purpose fails miserably. I would be concentrating too hard on what was being blabbed from the front to ever consider making notes. However, if the tutor distributed notes at the start of the lecture then I would make copious annotations on the sheets. The pre-existence of the notes helped me to digest the information more easily. By the way, I graduated magnum cum laude despite having no taken no notes.

Having had to study learning styles in the previously mentioned waste-of-time study skills modules I can now quote things such as Fleming and Mills' VARK – A Guide to Your Learning Preferences. as the justification for my own preference. I'm a Visual learner not an auditory one (despite my job). I learn better by looking -- at pre-printed notes. To force me to accommodate to the tutors preferences would result in a law suit here from this PWD and would be poor teaching practice too.

I also digest information better if I can read it before hand.

I don't have a diagnosed learning disability, but I also digest information much more effectively when I can read it before-hand.

It's true I don't take as many notes, but I digest and understand it much more fully. Which is more important: the notes or the understanding?

When I was in school, I found it incredibly irritating if profs went out of their way to prevent me from learning in a manner that's most effective for me. We're all adults: if a student chooses not to act like it, and doesn't to anything to retain the content of the lecture, that's their problem. I don't see the point in punishing the other students, and second-guessing the ones who have taken the time to figure out how they learn best.

Powerpoint defended

I disagree with Tufte and the crowd on Powerpoint.

Before Powerpoint, we made tedious and boring talks with foils and overhead projectors, using bullet points. Good presentations can be made with foils, Powerpoint, even using bullet points. There are ways to make a good talk, but directing ridicule toward the tool Powerpoint has seemed absurd to me (as much as I admire other things Tufte has said & done). See a defense of Powerpoint at

But, more to the point, what makes a good presentation? I endorse Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule of Powerpoint - I believe if you follow them - yes, even with Powerpoint - you're well on your way to a good talk.

LINK [by ygor]

Kawasaki is talking to people presenting for venture capitalists, but I think his advice is very germane to academic and other talks.

Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint

I like it and felt it needed to be stated in the thread:

It’s quite simple: a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.

Check out the article for details. I believe he hit the nail on the head.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Presentation Zen

At the bottom of Guy Kawasaki's article is a link to another site: Presentation Zen

At the top (a the time I looked) is an article called Learning from Bill Gates & Steve Jobs

This is a great article that shows the difference in presentations.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Cornell Two-Column Note Taking

The two column method of note taking is effective. I used a Steno pad for a long time as it has the divider down the center. There was a law student note book that was set up Cornell style but I have not seen it in years and can not find it in a cursiory search. Good site with some information on this style of note taking.

LINK to Active Notetaking [by ygor]


a few other suggestions

Good article - just a few things I'd like to add as a grad student in architecture:

• I've found that, depending on the lecture format, the Cornell Method of notetaking can be very effective. I haven't bothered getting specific notebooks with the Cornell Method formatting - I just use graph paper notebooks and quickly draw the sections whenever I go to the next page.

• Also, when taking notes, depending on the subject it can be very effective to draw a thumbnail of the slide, recreating a photograph or diagram as necessary. It doesn't need to be picture-perfect, but can often help to flesh out your notes with very little effort.

• Some lecturers post the actual Powerpoint lectures for download, as well as digital copies of any handouts - sometimes in advance of the lecture. Recently I've been recompiling each lecture (images, handout terms, and my notes) in DevonThink Pro as an experiment. I'm not sure what may come of having everything in a linked format with notes and pictures, but re-processing everything in this fashion has been a very helpful exercise for review purposes. I'm still trying to figure out how I'll be using that application, but it looks ridiculously powerful.

• A recommendation by a recent teacher, for whom we wrote a single research paper as a final project: when you assemble your final paper, make an additional copy just in case. Aside from the security of just having an extra, depending on how involved your paper is (images, binding, perhaps it consists of multiple documents rather than just a single file to print) - it can be far easier to double up your initial print run rather than go back and do it all over again from scratch. Especially because if you do have to print out another one, it'll be of great urgency and the last thing in the world you would choose to be doing at that point, if you could have avoided it.


I occasionally have to take notes for other people (aka students with a disability). An overview of one training course is available from University of Westminster's Computer Centre for People with Disability. Those used to the Cornell format may be intrigued by the lack of any mention of it in the training materials. That is because Cornell format is hardly known of here in the UK. Certainly never discussed in the idiotic study skills module I mention in another reply thread here.

Blackwell Guides

The British publisher/bookseller Blackwells published a series of short study guides back in the 1990s. Sadly they seem to be out of print. These included one on "taking notes from lectures". Interestingly much of the book(let) is about preparing for taking notes --- including pre-lecture reading and key phrases that the lecturer may use. The authors recommend asking the lecturer before hand for any course syllabus or course notes as a way to prepare for the lecture. The only example given is a spidergram claimed to be a Tony Buzan MindMap. Because these are British guides there is no mention of Cornell format.

How about...

This ?

"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Similar but no cigar ...

Right publisher but not the same book. The ones I've seen (my son was given them at college) are small separate boklets, which would probably be equivalent to a chapter in the book you found.

There is a whole industry here producing study skills books and they all cover much the same stuff. However, the Blackwell ones from the 1990s are more useful because the student only has to acquire that on a specific topic rather than a huge great tome.

Any chance of a scan ?

A PDF copy would be nice to look at.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

I appreciate the good

I appreciate the good intentions behind this article, but as a 7th form student about to go into Uni, I was less than impressed with these tips and found them extremely condescending. We're high school students. We've studied before, successfully, or we wouldn't be advancing into university in the first place. We're well aware of how to take notes and we're more than familiar with pens, highlighters, binders, all the basic stuff we use on a day-to-day business.

In particular, I had issues with this section:
"Sometimes exams can be scary, especially oral exams. But if you have prepared for all lectures and taken notes, it will not be too hard to study for the exam. The first thing I recommend is to try and find some old exams or examples of questions. Knowing what to expect makes it easier to prepare and feel confident."
While I agree that past papers are an excellent resource, this isn't news to us. We use past papers for revision every year. The beginning of the passage is a strong example of why I found this article to be more of a pep talk than actual tips.

It's a worthy effort, but please know your target audience.

Please don't be offended

Unfortunately, you are likely in the minority. There are MANY students out there who need exactly this amount of detail in how to take notes and study since they didn't learn how to do so properly. University level is NOT the same easy ride that high school was and alot of kids find that out the hard way.

Congratulations to you if are indeed at the high end of the curve - it's a testament to you, your parents and teachers. Feel free to share your ideas here - but be aware that many others need the help.

This will seem condescending but

I'm a university professor and in my experience, it is precicely those students who get to university with the certainty they know how to take notes and write papers and organize research that fall the hardest when they realize that what they knew to do in high school simply does not cut it anymore. Getting to uni means you'll be playing with the big boys and high school techniques just won't do.