Tag Archives: notes

CollegeQandA asks: How should I take notes in college?

Notes – how should I take notes in college?

musical score

Notes are the general term for information that record in class/lecture that represent what ideas, methods, answers, highlights, diagrams, and/or citations were presented during class time.  The goal is that your notes capture the ideas so you can review what happened during the class in order to learn.  The trick with note taking in class is what to write down?

Approach 1 – Everything

The most common technique I see is trying to write everything seen and heard.  The assumption is if you can write down everything that is written/discussed in class you have captured all the information and can later decipher it.  This approach could work, but the key step is deciphering it later, which should be done ten to fifteen minutes after the class.  The deciphering problem is reorganizing the notes into something you can understand and that captures the main points of the lecture.  That process, unfortunately, is both rarely done and hard to do.  Also, the trick in class is to hear as well as capture what is presented, and this is very difficult if you are stuck in the task of writing down what you see.

Approach 2 – Note Taking Methods

There are a number of systems that researchers and educators have created to help you organize your notes.  These include methods such as Cornell and Mapping methods.  I have a preference for mapping techniques since they can be implemented fast and have a visual component, which I prefer.

Note taking methods are useful in different situations, but they do not necessarily solve the problem of what to write down.  Instead, they provide a means to organize your notes so that it is easier to review and take them.

Define the goals and create your process

You need to understand why you are taking notes.  In a math class, your notes will have two major components which include the mathematical idea, definition, and properties and definitions for example problems.  In an English class, you will be noting arguments, interpretations, and citations related to the material.

Not only do you need to know why you are noting different things for later recall, you need to come to the lecture prepared (another student rarity).  If you have an accompanying textbook, lecture slides, or class topic, then you have access to enough information to come into the lecture with a good idea of what will be covered and how.  This means you have a good idea of how to organize your notes as related to the idea.  If none of these resources are available, then ask your professor what will be covered in the next lecture.  I can’t imagine they would keep these ideas secret.

During the lecture you need to listen.  Professors typically make statements such as “and this is really important”.  Statements like that mean that the stuff coming next is highlighted.

Finally, notes need to be reviewed and revised.  This should happen as close to the class time as possible.  As time passes, what you learned will be lost.


In my book, I make a specific recommendation for the one piece of technology I think is invaluable.  But in general, technology can also help you capture class more efficiently.  Ask if technology can be used, but keep in mind knowing the goals, being prepared, listening carefully, and reviewing material are all necessary regardless of how good the technology is at capturing the material.   That is until Johny Mnemonic technology comes along.

Credits: photo titled: Worth Noting; by Shawn Carpenter

CollegeQandA asks: Why can’t I use my phone in class?

Why can’t I use my phone in class?

This question may or may not be something you wonder depending on your professor(s).  In my classes, the syllabus states:

  • Texting, surfing, or any other out of class communication should be kept to the back rows of the classroom. Such behavior has no impact on your grade, but equally, the lack of attention in class means you should not expect me to make an effort in helping you deal with topics you miss in class due to lack of attention.
  • Cell phones should be kept silent (including vibration) during class.

In my classes, I allow devices to be used, but I require two things.  First, you do not cause interruptions for other people who want to learn and focus. This is the reason I ask that laptops and phones to be used at the back.   People like looking at screens, and if you are in the front row of the class on a YouTube page or social media site then a high number of students will be distracted and will look at your screen.  Second, if you are not paying attention, then don’t expect me to repeat materials for you.  Attention (just like attendance) is a choice that you get to make.

Why can’t I use my phone in THIS class?

There are, however, professors who strictly ban devices and screens from their classes.  Is this fair?  That’s an interesting question/debate that I’ve had with many of my colleagues where I come from the allow-in-class side.  What I have found from these discussions is there are two reasons for banning devices.  In their minds, instructors are either trying to help you focus by banning devices or view the activity of checking your devices in their lecture as rude.

I find the second argument, rudeness, fascinating based on my experiences at academic meetings and conferences.  In a room at one of these gatherings of 20 people, I’m happy and surprised to make a presentation where 5 of those people are paying attention without looking at a screen at some point in my fifteen minute presentation (maybe I’m just a bad presenter).  Therefore, since my colleagues can’t separate from their screens, how can I force my students to.  In modern day society, the rudeness of focusing on your screen even in mid-conversation is not considered bad manners in some circles (not all).

cyborg portraitHelping you to focus and control your screen addictions is a noble goal, but I believe that this is a personal challenge for all first generation cyborgs (my designation for anyone with a smartphone).  We all need to learn and practice our ability to focus (to recommended books of interest: Focus and Willpower).

But I need [device X] for …

The counter arguments that I’ve heard from students is the need for the device in class to learn.   Sure, there are certain situations where this makes sense.  For example, I’ve been known to ask my classes if they could look up something online for all of us.

If you think these devices are good for taking note, then you appear to be wrong.  An article (The pen is mightier than the keyboard) written by Mueller and Oppenheimer reports results from their study that finds that a laptop is worse for retaining the lecture compared to traditional pen and paper.

Also, your smartphone is not a good scientific calculator (at present) since it is very unlikely that you will be allowed to use it in exams.  Instead, your base calculator and scientific calculator (my beloved TI-85) need to be used regularly so that you can learn how to use that device.  There’s nothing worse than having to learn how to use a function on your calculator during an exam or quiz.

Some classes have come up with ways to integrate modern technology.  Twitter or other social collaborative methods  (such as wikis) have been effectively used to allow real-time questions and collaboration from students.  There will be other innovations too, but we still seem to be in an era of technology is lauded as the great learning device, but soon becomes sometimes beneficial to learning on rare occasions.

Credit: Photo from Michelle Zell-Wiesmann; title: Cyborg


CollegeQandA asks: Why do my professors write on a board? Are we in the 90s?

Technological Luddites can’t teach me

Why do my professors write on a board?  Haven’t we crossed the 2000s and embraced the electronic slide presentation, the multimedia formats, and technology to teach?  Note, none of these are bad, but there’s a reason the board and pen’s and paper are powerful tools.

Early on in graduate school, I was fortunate to be taught by Zvonko Vranesic.  Not only did he encourage me to understand the world better, he was an inspiration as someone who thought about many things – among his accomplishments included being an International Master of Chess, no less.

He gave me two teaching tips that I have kept in my arsenal as I work towards becoming a good teacher.  Related to the question, he told me why you should teach using the board when you can.

white board writing
Ramblings on a white board

Much of the lecture is about pace

Continue reading CollegeQandA asks: Why do my professors write on a board? Are we in the 90s?

CollegeQandA asks: What is a lecture?

It’s French for shut up and listen

Pardonne-moi.  Lectures are oral presentations with the intention of teaching you materials in a particular topic.  In modern day universities, though, the lecture is more appropriately called class-time in which a number of activities directed toward learning can happen including a traditional lecture.  What is a lecture, therefore, can mean both a traditional presentation or it can mean the time for a university or college class.

Class-time with a student-centered approach

One thing we have learned about learning, or at least, think we have learned about learning is that a fundamental part of learning is the based on the learner doing stuff – called student-centered learning.  Therefore, under this theoretical model, many schools are moving away from the idea of lecture towards using class time active engagement.

Active engagement can include classes that use various approaches including:

If my class is a traditional lecture is that bad?

 a person talking near a podium
Sage on the stage

A lecture is as much an opportunity to learn as any other, but it comes with challenges.  In your future, you will be asked to sit and listen to someone for greater than 30 minutes, and then be expected to retain important aspects of that discussion.  It might happen in meetings, online presentations, or other forms, but it will happen.  The lecture is a great way to practice learning from listening and seeing alone.

photo credit: Michael Wesch – Pop!Tech 2009 – Camden, ME via photopin (license)