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2023-2024 Student Guide: Note-taking


By developing effective listening and note-taking skills, you will be able to get more out of lectures and reduce time spent studying before important exams.

Preparing for lectures

Be prepared for the lecture, always complete the assigned readings and review your class notes from the previous session. It's also a good idea to take a quick look at the course outline to see what the teacher has planned. If the lecture is being given synchronously, be sure to log on a few minutes before it is scheduled to begin. Take out your note paper and pen; consider setting up your pages using the Cornell Note-Taking System described in this Guide. 

Eliminate distractions

When listening to a lecture, whether synchronous or asynchronous, eliminate distractions. Put your phone, smartwatch and any other distracting portable devices in a place that is physically far away from you, and disable all notifications on your laptop or desktop as they are extremely distracting and immediately take your focus away from what the teacher is saying. 

Listen actively

Follow the organization of the lecture. Teachers usually begin with a main topic then proceed to sub-topics before moving along to other main topics; you should organize your notes in the same way. Pay attention to examples and include those in your notes as well. Stay alert for cues as to the most important points: if your teacher puts something on the whiteboard, repeats or emphasizes information, there is a good change it’s important. Whenever possible, be an active participant in class by contributing to discussion and answering or asking questions.

Review and organize

As soon as possible after the lecture, review by going over and organizing your notes. Make corrections to any missing or illegible notes. If you did not have the chance to do so during the lecture, underline titles, highlight the main ideas, and number points to ensure clarity. Add keywords and summaries. If you missed a point or did not understand something, contact your teacher right away or attend the next office hour to obtain clarification.

Cornell note-taking system

What is the Cornell System?

There is no “right way” to take notes in class. However, one note-taking system you might find effective is called the Cornell System, which was designed by Walter Pauk, emeritus, at Cornell University. To use this system you will need a large loose-leaf binder that allows you to insert class printouts, rearrange notes easily, and remove notes to spread them out and study.

Page layout

The distinguishing feature of the Cornell System is the layout of the page on which you take your notes (see diagram). The page layout includes a note-taking area and large margins on the left and bottom of the page. This format is helpful in recording, reviewing and clarifying information from class. Each section should be clearly marked on your page.


Note-taking area

The space to the right of the vertical margin is where you actually record your notes during the lecture. Pick a note-taking format with which you are comfortable, but remember that you should: 

  • keep notes for each course in a separate binder
  • begin a new page for each lecture
  • date and number each page of notes
  • use phrases instead of sentences
  • use words instead of phrases
  • indent to distinguish major and minor points
  • use your own words (however, formulas, definitions and facts should be noted exactly)
  • use abbreviations and symbols (like texting)
  • if you miss information, leave a blank space
  • clear up missing information by consulting your teacher, your textbook or a classmate

Cue (recall) column

The space to the left of the vertical margin is the cue (or recall) column. The cue column is not created until you review your notes (which you should do as soon possible after the lecture). As you study the material, devise questions which the notes answer; these questions are the "cues" that should be written in the cue column. By writing questions, you are forced to think about the material in a way that clarifies meaning, reveals relationships, establishes continuity, strengthens memory, and attempts to predict exam items.

Summaries (reduce)

The area below the horizontal margin near the bottom of the page should be reserved for a summary of that page. A summary is, at most, only a few sentences. In your own words, provide a concise review of the important material on the page. In writing a summary, you are forced to view the material in a way that allows you to see how it all fits together, in a general sense.

To learn more, see Pauk's book, How to Study in College. 

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