Taking notes in class (or in meetings, or while watching an educational video) is a standard part of learning, and studies have suggested writing by hand helps you retain information better than using a computer, which is why we’ve previously recommend bringing a notebook and pen with you to class in addition to (or instead of) your laptop.
But there’s more to effective note-taking than jotting down a bunch off bullet points. To be useful, your notes should be organized into topics and subtopics, with a sensible flow that your’ll be able to follow even after the lecture is fresh in your mind. That’s why you should revise your notes immediately after class—even before you leave your seat, if you can. Here’s why.
What to do with notes after class
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When you’re taking notes—whether typed or hand-written—you have to be picky about what you do and don’t write down, given how much time it takes to do so before the lecturer moves on to another point you don’t want to miss. This is great for helping you stay engaged with the class and think critically about what is and isn’t important, but leaves the potential for gaps in your notes that you won’t realize are there until later, once you’re reading them over. So it’s best to read them over right away, and revise them as necessary.
Marty Lobdell, a former professor emeritus at Pierce College who spent 40 years teaching psychology and study skills, recommends immediate note revision and expansion in his “Study Less, Study Smart” video. While the lecture is fresh in your mind, he advises, you should use your memory of it, plus your texts and other course materials, to expand on the notes you took down.
Rewrite them completely, adding key details to what you already deemed was important in class, including anything relevant in the supplemental materials. Doing so will not only make your notes easier to study later, but will help you retain the information, since rewriting them will be your first chance to review what you’ve learned.
How to maximize your post-class notes
While taking notes in class, it’s best to be brief and concise, especially since you know you’ll be expanding them later. You can use abbreviations and codes to write faster, as long as you’re sure you’ll be able to decode and expand upon them later. After class, review and edit your notes, compare them to your textbook or course materials, and, if possible, another student’s notes, so you’re sure you’re not missing anything.
While revising, choose the most effective note-taking method for your personal study style. The outlining method works best for recopying and involves putting general information on the left side of your paper and indenting more specific groups of facts underneath. For your in-class note-taking, consider the Cornell method, which requires you to write down quick bits of information on the left side of your paper, then fill in more specifics on the right when you have time later.
Whichever method you choose, don’t leave class until your note expansion is complete (or, if that’s not realistic, take care of it as soon as possible after class). Review your notes between and 10 minutes before the next class so everything is fresh in your mind before you move on.