Lectures and Note-Taking

In order to succeed in a course, you need to know the course material well and store it in long-term memory. The best way to do this is to study throughout the entire length of the course so you can learn the information gradually, rehearse regularly, and test yourself throughout the term. In high school, teachers made sure you learned the material gradually by testing you frequently and giving you many small assignments. In university, you must set up your own study system so you can test yourself and know how well you are doing in each course even before you even write an exam.

Take good notes before and during the lecture

Before the lecture, check your course outline to see where today's lecture fits into the overall content of the course.Review last day's notes, looking for the major headings and subtopics.Practise active listening during the lecture. Listen for the structure of the material - cues that tell you which information is important. Various strategies exist for taking notes, including draw diagrams, making concept maps and explicitely generating questions about the material.

Try to remain curious and excited about learning. If you find your attention wandering during a lecture, gently bring your attention back to the lecture.  Experiment with using a different note-taking strategy such as the Cornell System, which is a systematic and widely applicable approach of taking lecture notes (blank template). During the lecture, take detailed notes on the right side of the page: 

  • Use phrases rather than complete sentences, except for definitions or important concepts, which you should record exactly as the professor has indicated.
  • Use abbreviations and short forms as much as possible.
  • As you identify major headings and subtopics, transfer "keywords" - words that represent those major headings and subtopics -to the left side of the page. Words to be defined can also be transferred to the left side of the page or, if you prefer, to the bottom of the page. If you don't have time to do this during class, do it as soon as possible after class.

Review your notes right after the lecture

Spend a valuable 10 to 30 minutes reviewing your notes within 24 hours after a lecture. Complete any missing information (including new abbreviations) and flag problems within the margin of your looseleaf or by using a sticky note. Sticky notes provide a visual and tactile style of learning and are effective when trying to keep your notes tidy. For example, if you use the larger sizes of sticky notes, you can write the problem on the note, so it will jog your memory later when you're reading your text or if you decide to ask the professor.

Look for the structure in the notes and choose headings and keywords that reflect the content of the information. Put these headings and keywords into the margin on the left side. With definitions or concepts, put the word to be defined in either the left margin or at the bottom of the page. (Just the word itself, not the definition.) If you think of a good exam question or something you want to think about after the lecture, note that at the bottom of the page as well.

Expand and review your notes each week

Within the week, set aside some time to review your notes again. You may decide that some of the notes require more explanation. If so, consult your text or professor to fill in gaps. Your ultimate goal is to generate a set of comprehensive notes, neatly filed in your binder, with the benefit of repetition in revisiting the material.

Aim for 80% recall, but if you can't recall 80% at the moment, promise yourself you'll review this material tomorrow after a good night's sleep. Your brain needs time to make this new knowledge permanent. (If your goal is 100% recall, make sure you can recall 80% of your notes in all your classes before raising the standard to 100%.)

Review, reflect and self-test regularly throughout the term

Reflection (e.g., how do the new concepts you are learning relate to material in your other courses, how does the new information apply to your life beyond your studies, to society and to the world?) and repetition are key to learning new and challenging material. Review often, starting with the material covered during the start of the term, to see how much you can recall, apply, evaluate and interpret this information.

Review your notes by covering up definitions or explanations of concepts, and by resolving example problems. Some textbooks have review questions at the end of the chapters and some even have study guides. You might find creating a chart or concept major challenging yourself to reproduce a diagram or illustration useful learning aids. Find ways to apply this information to your own life. For example, you might see an example of the psychological concept of rationalization in your own life - i.e., Is your decision to socialize with friends rather than studying a psychological defense or a legitimate need? Consider how the information you are learning now will relate to your future career.

Create your own exam questions or ask the professor to provide review questions and obtain old exams from USSU Help Centre, or from other students, or your college/department student society.

Aim for 80% recall. Some folks like to use this review of notes as an excuse to have a cup of coffee. You can have coffee with a friend and study if you quiz each other on your lecture notes!

Once you reach 80% recall, you are doing really great! Now it is time to maintain your new knowledge base through review, and to continue working toward 100% recall. Keep up your good work!



  • Adetumbi, M. (1992). You're a Better Student Than You Think. Huntsvillle, AB: Adex Book Company.
  • Ellis, D. B. (1985). Becoming a Master Student. (5th ed.) Rapid City, SD: College Survival, Inc.
  • Pauk, W. (1993). How to Study in College. (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.