Taking notes can be arduous work, but it’s an important skill at university. It’s a way to ensure you have a hard copy of key information for easy reference. Note-taking can be useful in a number of situations, like lectures, or while reading, or at group meetings.

Why take notes?

The purpose of your notes can influence both what you take down and how you do it, so it is critical that you can define why you need to do it.

Are you taking them to:

  • review a reading?
  • remember important topics in a lecture?
  • prepare for an exam?
  • prepare for an assignment?

Like anything, your note-taking will improve with practice.

At university, there are two main scenarios for note-taking – to summarise useful information as you read; and to make notes from spoken information.

Notes from written text

The first question to ask is “Why am I reading this?” Knowing the answer will sharpen your focus on the information you need. To be a good note-taker, you also need to be a good reader. Effective note-taking means being able to:

  • Know what information is relevant
  • Identify main ideas
  • Use a note-taking system that’s effective for you
  • Condense information into point form or a diagram
  • Express ideas in your own words
  • Record the publication information for referencing later on

Notes from lectures

Sometimes you can wonder whether it’s better just to listen during a lecture rather than take notes. Well, the answer is: do both.

Note-taking is helpful as it can:

  • Help you to recall the lecture content
  • Provide the basis for further research when you leave the lecture
  • Jog your memory when you revise
  • Help you stay awake

If you are writing notes in a lecture and the lecture slides are available to you on Moodle, then there is no point writing down what it says on the slides, as you can download the presentation afterwards. Instead, focus on any supplementary information that the lecturer adds to those notes that could be of use.

So, just like the notes you take when reading, try to:

  • Identify the main points of the lecturer’s presentation
  • Write down key words and phrases the lecturer uses
  • Focus on any examples the lecturer provides that can help you understand the concepts

Be prepared before the lecture as well. At least have some idea of what the topic is going to be and read up beforehand from any recommended texts. You should be able to get this information from the course description.

Have a system

Considering that you will need to re-read whatever you’ve noted, aim to organise the information. Your future self will thank you.

What kind of system will vary depending on how you think. For example:

  • Use different coloured pens for different ideas
  • Create a mind map
  • Write dot points
  • Draw a picture that captures the main points

When taking notes in lectures, whether it’s by hand or on a laptop:

  • Don’t worry about spelling or sentence structure – correct that later
  • Try different ways of presenting the information, e.g. diagrams, symbols.

Whatever your system, the information will be easier to record and use later because of it. Experiment. Only you can say what works best for you.

Common questions

Can I use a laptop in lectures to take notes? 

Yes. Just keep in mind that you should consider other students around you and type softly.

What if lecture notes aren’t given out in lectures? 

It is most likely that your lecturer is posting the lecture notes into your Moodle course, and not actually giving them out. Before class, go to Moodle and look in the ‘shell’ or course you are enrolled in.

This is the place where lecture notes, PowerPoint slides and assessment task outlines will be found. It is also where updates on your class and work are posted.

Do I have to take notes in lectures? 

It’s up to you. Keep in mind that lectures are a source of vital information for the course. Find some way to retain the information, whether it is by taking notes during the lecture, or writing a summary afterwards.

Can I record the lecture? 

Some lecturers will record their own lecture and make it available through their Moodle site. Other lecturers will not permit you to record their lecture. Ask your individual lecturer for permission beforehand.

Download our handy helpsheet, Note-taking.