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Write it Down Right: Tips for Effective College Note-Taking

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College students are famous for doing everything during class except paying close attention. Take a look around during the next meeting of your 8:00 a.m. section of the Economic History of Underwater Basket-Weaving – you’re likely to observe your classmates filing their nails, fiddling with their iPods, playing Solitaire on their laptops, clicking around on Facebook, or just staring into space.

When your brain is foggy and you’re still reeling from a late night out, it can be very tempting to just let yourself zone out in class. But the present-body, absent-mind approach won’t do much to help you pass your next exam. Bottom line? To make the most of your college experience, you have to learn how to take effective notes.

Find a Method that Works for You

Here’s the catch – not all note-taking systems are created equal. There are a million different methods out there, but only you can tell which one is right for you. If you try to use a note-taking system that doesn’t match your learning style or the content of the courses you’re taking, you might be doing more harm than good.

Look back over the notebooks from your past classes (if you’re a new college student, see if you can get your hands on some of your materials from high school). How do you take notes when you’re most interested in a subject? Which note-taking methods did you use in classes that you made top grades in? How about in the classes you never really understood that well?

Once you’ve learned a bit about your natural note-taking habits, it’s time to refine your technique with some input from the pros. Use these tips to help develop an effective note-taking style of your own.

* Gear up before class. To get the most out of your notes, it’s best to be prepared. In fact, most experts agree that effective note-taking begins long before you make your way into the lecture hall. Things you can do beforehand to make your notes more effective include completing all of the assigned readings and stocking up on plenty of paper, pens or pencils, and highlighters. Also, after each class, take a few minutes to organize your notes and weed out unnecessary sheets of paper.

* Listen smarter. The best note-taking system in the world is bound to fail if you’re not properly focused during class. If zoning out is a consistent challenge for you, make up some little mental tricks to help keep your attention from wandering. Try to anticipate what the instructor’s next words will be, or formulate possible test questions in your head. If you’re diligent, you should notice your ability to focus begin to improve within a few weeks.

* Be selective. Don’t try to transcribe every word your professor says verbatim. Instead, tune in to the tone of the lecture, and write down only the main ideas and big concepts, plus a few carefully chosen details that seem like they could be important. If your instructor prefaces a statement by pointing out its importance, be sure to write it down and mark it as significant.

* Make your notes interactive. Don’t be timid – feel free to mark up your notes extensively after you leave class. In fact, most note-taking experts agree that students should leave extra space in their notes for later review, clarification, and expansion. Class notes don’t have to be hermetically sealed and carefully filed away after each class meeting. Instead, try to incorporate them actively into the studying process.

* Don’t be afraid to improvise. Once you start to get the hang of smarter note-taking, you can begin to adjust your methods even further. Focus on the techniques that seem to be the most helpful, or to make the most intuitive sense to you. Remember, when it comes to effective note-taking, there are no hard-and-fast rules. All that matters is whether the method works well for you.

During your classes, are you a note-taking superstar or a major-league slacker? What’s your favorite note-taking technique? Leave us a note in the comments.


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