Photo of a student taking notes inside a classroom building on her laptop.

Note-taking is a valuable skill that can come in handy throughout college and beyond. Whether you’re trying to learn new material, prepare for an exam or get through a fast-paced lecture, these tips can help you strengthen your note-taking skills.

1. Come prepared

Coming to class prepared in advance can help you take better notes during a lecture or lab. Try these strategies before heading to class.

  • Take notes on assigned readings. Many classes have assigned readings. As you read through chapters or handouts, identify topics you find confusing, and write down questions you can ask during class or office hours. It can also be helpful to use sticky notes to write summaries of each section or chapter.

  • Use slides. If your professor makes their presentation slides available, be sure to print them out in advance or have a copy pulled up on your laptop before class starts, so you can take notes directly on the presentation slides. This can help you keep track of important information, key points and visuals all in one place.

2. Take notes during class

Whether you prefer to take handwritten notes or type them out, these tips can help you take more effective and efficient notes during class.

  • Use shorthand. If you struggle to keep up with lectures or presentations, try using shorthand when taking notes. One way to shorten your notes is to use abbreviations or symbols. For instance, “function” can be written as “fxn” and “change” can be written as “Δ” (delta). It’s also helpful to avoid using complete sentences. Instead, try to use bullets and phrases when taking notes during class. Leave blank spaces as you write, so you can revisit your notes to add any additional information you missed or expand on important points.
  • Try color coding. Using different colored highlighters can help you to differentiate between terms, definitions, examples and other important information. For instance, you may highlight important definitions in pink and helpful examples in orange. Using a system to color code your notes like this can help you quickly identify important information when you revisit them for review.
  • Listen for cues. If your professor repeats a phrase, key fact or information more than once, it’s probably something you need to know. Keep track of important points by listening for repetition and other verbal cues. For instance, your professor may say things like “the following five steps” or “a major reason why.” These types of cues can help clue you in to things you should be taking notes on during class.

3. Check back

While it may be tempting to abandon your notes after you’ve finished a given lecture or chapter, it’s important to check back and review what you have before moving on to the next topic. Here are a few things you can do within 24 hours of your last class to refresh your memory and notes.

  • Clarify information. Take a look back at your notes and make sure you understand what they say. If there are concepts that are tricky for you to remember, consider using examples or illustrations to make the information stick. This is also a great time to fill in any information or terms you may have missed.
  • Organize. When we write notes in class, it can get hectic. Take a few moments to organize your notes by summarizing topics and making note of key concepts to include in your study guides. It can be helpful to add sticky notes or use your color coding technique. 
  • Visit office hours. If you’re still unsure about a certain topic area, reach out to your professor or teaching assistant for help. All professors offer office hours, which are times when you can meet with them to discuss or ask questions about lecture materials, assignments, exams, presentations or projects. Be sure to check your syllabus to confirm when office hours are available and the best way to contact your professor. Keep in mind that if the listed office hours don’t work with your schedule, you can ask your professor if a different meeting time can be arranged.

4. Create personal study guides for exams

Effective notes can be a useful tool when studying and preparing for exams. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of studying.

  • Test yourself. Use your notes, textbooks and slides to create practice questions and quizzes. Quizlet is a great free app that you can use to create digital flashcards and practice quizzes. If apps aren’t your style, paper quizzes are just as good. You can also use your textbook as a framework. Many textbooks include practice questions at the end of each chapter, which can be a good place to start when creating a study guide.
  • Make a study group. Studying with classmates can help you learn material in new ways. For instance, you can set up a Google Doc to compile notes and share examples that may be helpful. You can also meet up with your study group or classmates to take turns teaching each other the materials from class. This will help you learn and remember important content, while also helping your classmates review the content. If you plan to use study groups, check your syllabus or ask your professor to avoid any potential honor code violations.
  • Be consistent. Research shows that all-nighters are not a very effective study technique. Instead, commit some time to study each day. Consistent repetition over time builds better understanding than cramming everything in the night before an exam.

5. Reach out for support

If you are struggling, it’s okay to ask for help. Here are some services available at CU Boulder to help you succeed.