How do I best use my time during lectures, and how do I end up with some useful study notes at the end?

On this page

1. Introduction
2. Making notes in lectures
3. Note taking methods - the basic principle
      3.1. Do not write what the exactly what the professor says
      3.2. Make a list
      3.3. Write it down, sort it later
      3.4. Using PowerPoint slides


If you look around a lecture hall, you'll see just about everyone doing a different thing (discounting those on Facebook, of course). Sometimes students record the lectures, then listen and engage with the content, to be able to take notes later. Other students are busy writing/typing everything that the professor says, in the hope that they don't miss some crucial piece of information. And others still are asleep, bored, talking, reading, or just not paying attention.
So what's the best way to spend your time in the lecture?

I believe taking notes and engaging with the content as it is being delivered to you is the best use of your time.

Taking notes is a crucial skill which often isn’t taught in high school, because the teacher will tell you exactly what to write down in your notes, and what is interesting but not so important. Sometimes it is overwhelming in the first few weeks because the lecturers are going through a lot of material in a short space of time! After a while you will naturally learn what you need to know and what is surplus examples or interesting information which isn’t necessarily important to know. If you’re unsure – check the syllabus!

Making notes in lectures

It’s a challenge to keep up with someone who talks very fast about things that you’re not sure about, and even more of a challenge to take notes at the same time, whilst you’re listening. If you can’t write fast then you might think you’re at a disadvantage, but don’t worry! There’s so many different ways to take notes, and as long as you have the key points that you can then elaborate on after the lecture, then you’re most of the way there.

Note taking methods

The basic principle

To be an effective note taker, you need to know what’s important and what’s not, so that you can take down the information that’s relevant and going to help you pass your exams, and cut out the interesting things that you can do without during the lecture. It will also mean that you’re beginning the learning process at the time of the lecture, and not later on down the track when you decide to study for exams. This requires you to firstly pay attention to everything, and secondly synthesise the information as the professor speaks!

This skill requires a certain amount of practice, so don’t be discouraged if you haven’t got it perfect after the first week! There’s plenty of time to get better, and that’s what university is for – to develop your skills! If you record your lectures (or at least for the first couple of weeks whilst you’re learning) then you’re less likely to be stuck at the end with some sub-standard notes from which you can’t remember the important things.

The PowerPoints of professors can be really useful for filling in your lecture notes as well. They (generally!) won’t have all the explanation on them, so it’s still important to take notes, but if you’re still lost after the lecture then you should go back to the PowerPoint and see if you can make some more sense of the lecture from that.

Below are some basic ways to get started with note-taking, starting off with one that you absolutely shouldn’t do!

1. Do not write exactly what the professor says

This can get tiring very quickly, but it’s an easy trap to fall into if you’re typing on a computer. It also means that you’re not synthesising the information as the professor speaks, and this is a crucial part of note-taking. If you can avoid this method of note-taking, do so!

2. Make a list

Note-taking using a list can be helpful as you bullet point the important information under specific headings that the professor mentions in your lecture. For example, if you’re learning about chemical reactions and this part of the lecture is about nucleophilic substitution reactions, then you’d use that as your heading and write the important information below that. Definitions, an explanation, and a couple of examples are a good place to start.

3. Just write it down and sort it out later

This is quite a common method, whereby you just follow the lecturer’s talking, and write down the important parts as they are said, and then organise the information at a later date. You don’t need to worry about organising it or making it neat, just write all over the page and make sure you’ve got down what you need. A potential advantage is that coming back to your notes a week later will help you to revise them for the exams, and, as you will learn about in the studying section, forms part of the spaced repetition method of studying.

4. Making use of the PowerPoint slides

Sometimes you’ll find that lecturers are using slides to put all their notes on, and you feel like you don’t need to take notes at all. I would strongly recommend that you do – even if you end up with notes similar to the slides, the process of writing and listening is already helping you to think about what you are learning, and actually learn it, rather than trying to cram at the end of the semester.