Lectures can take up a significant amount of time that could otherwise be spent studying. If you are attending lectures, then, it makes sense that you should try to be getting the most out of them. Fortunately, there is plenty of research on how to write more effective lecture notes, improve recall of lecture content, and use lectures to improve performance in exams and assessments. Students who take notes during class are better able to recall the lecture than those who don’t. The research indicates that there are two main ways to ensure that you are getting the most out of lectures: active listening and revision. It is also worth thinking about how you are taking notes.
The most effective notes are organised or transformed in some way. Simply copying and pasting from the slides, or writing out the lecture verbatim, is an ineffective way to take notes. It is important to either paraphrase as you write, or to summarise and paraphrase your notes when you review them.
Research has demonstrated that two styles of note-taking are more efficient for recording information: an ‘outline’ system and the Cornell method. According to one study, the method that allows students to record the most content in their notes notes is the ‘Formal Outline Procedure’, which involves structuring notes according to a clearly organised hierarchy, using bullet points and numbered headings to fit the information together. The Cornell Method is also recommended by a significant number of law teachers. This method involves dividing the page into three parts and using right hand side for notes, the left for questions and key themes, and the bottom part for summarising the content.
An example of the Cornell method might look like this:
Although these methods are more ‘efficient’ in the sense that they enable students to take more notes, no particular method is ‘better’ for learning or remembering new information – it all comes down to personal preference. Part 3.5 of the Guide to Academic Success recommends several additional note-taking styles.
You have probably heard from other students, lecturers, or websites that handwritten notes are more effective for learning information than digital notes. While there is a correlation between poor note-taking and digital notes, this is likely due to the distractions that technology enables. It is entirely possible to take effective notes using a computer or tablet. The most important thing is to actively engage with the content as you are learning, and to review your notes (see below). The advantages of digital notes are that they enable you to take more notes, and to interact with those notes by re-structuring them as you go. This is important because one of the primary functions of notes is storing information for you to use later. They are also much easier to reorganise when you are reviewing your notes. The disadvantages are that you will be much more easily distracted, and that you will be more likely to copy what your lecturer says verbatim.
According to research, the best law students take active control of their learning process. If you want to get something out of lectures, active listening is crucial. Passive learning is a highly inefficient and ineffective way to engage with lectures. Active learning requires you to engage with the discussion. You should be:
- Thinking about the content of the discussion, and checking that you understand everything that is under discussion
- Drawing connections between the current discussion and other aspects of the course that you have already learned
- Organising the information that you are learning in a way that makes sense to you
- Thinking critically about the discussion. Do you see any flaws in the reasoning of the case? Can you think of alternative perspectives to your lecturer?
The best students also think about not just what they learn but how they learn. This is called ‘metacognition’ – or thinking about thinking. It is important to be aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are as a student. Often the only way to identify these weaknesses is through seeking feedback from lecturers – it is far better to do this during semester than to wait until the final exam to determine what you don’t understand. Ask yourself:
A great list of metacognition questions is available here.
Students are often caught in a Catch-22 when it comes to lectures. If you do the reading in advance, much of the lecture will be familiar, and it can be very tempting to disengage. Conversely, if you haven’t prepared sufficiently, it can be hard to keep up with what is going on, and once you fall behind, you are unlikely to catch up.
Active listening is crucial to engaging with lectures. A few points about active listening should be noted:
- The human mind works much faster than a person is able to talk. Therefore you need to prepare strategies to enable you to harness that speed, or it will be very easy to become distracted
- Try to paraphrase what your lecturer is saying rather than copying it down. If your lecturer doesn’t talk too quickly, it can be a good idea to write summaries of the key points from the lecture every now and then, rather than writing down every thing that they say.
- Active listening involves asking questions as you go. It is a good idea to come prepared with a few questions.
- Think about what the purpose of the lecture is. This will direct you to the key points of the lecture, and guide you to only take notes on the key points of the lecture.
Several studies have found that notes are most effective when they are revised shortly after making them, and then regularly revised throughout the semester. Notes should be reviewed within 24 hours of writing them, and then again about one week later. During your original review, you will need to re-organise your notes. Writing for The Conversation, Jim Donohue recommends that when revising notes, students should:
- Organise similar pieces of information into categories (“chunking”)
- Paraphrase key concepts
- Add questions to the notes
- Summarise the notes
- Reflect on the learning process
During subsequent revisions, it may be enough to simply go over them again and see if you can answer any questions or clear up any confusions that you had. At this point, it is a good idea to begin to compile your notes into exam notes.
- The Conversation | What’s the best, most effective way to take notes?
- Big Think | The lesson you never got taught in school: How to learn!
- The Atlantic | How to Become a Masterful Note-Taker: 8 Lessons From Research
- The Conversation | What’s the best way to take notes on your laptop or tablet?
- Barbara Glesner Fines, Law School Materials for Success (Cali eLangdell Press, 2013)
- Oxford Bibliographies | Note-Taking
- Michael Hunter Schwartz, Expert Learning for Law Students (Carolina Academic Press, 2nd ed, 2008).
- Harvard Business Review | Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Better Listener