Many students have a difficult time taking notes in class. The instructor is going through something important, turns to the class, says “Any questions?”, and all he sees are the tops of the heads of students busy writing down what they hope will be good notes. This scenario occurs again and again, to the point where the instructor simply gets frustrated and stops looking for questions.
As a student, particularly an adult student, you need to decide what to write down and what not to write down. The goal is to be an active member of the class, which means that not only do you want to listen and look, but you should also want to ask questions, poise different scenarios, and interact with the instructor to clarify the ideas. How can you do that if you are too busy writing down notes?
Deciding What To Write
One of the factors which make taking notes difficult is deciding what to write down and what not. Making this decision on the fly, as the instructor is talking, is, in the opinion of the student, too difficult; so the student tries to write everything down, find she cannot keep up with the instructor, and gives up on the notion of taking good notes.
To avoid this, you need a better method of deciding what to write down. This involves looking at two factors: the textbook and the handouts (if there are any). The first thing to do in taking good notes should be done before class. Take a look at the portions of the text the instructor is going to cover. Do not try to learn the material in the book ahead of class (although that will help), but instead note the defined terms, the key concepts which are explained in the book. Get familiar with the ideas but not bogged down in the details. Second, when the instructor provides a handout, briefly note the contents. Many times the instructor has summarized the ideas in the text so that you do not have to. When the instructor says or writes something on the board, compare it to the handout. Is this idea in the handout? If so, writing it down again will probably not help you. Instead, that is time that should be spent carefully listening to the words of the instructor. Maybe you make a few notations in the margin of the handout, but mostly you are just listening.
What you should make sure to write down are any examples provided by the instructor. Write down the steps the instructor takes to complete the example. If he is using a computer program, what menu choices were made and where? If there is a calculation involved, make sure you write down the steps used. If a wording is chosen, why were those words used? Make sure you are clear on the example problems, so that you can recreate them if needed.
Immediately after class, review your notes. It can be helpful to do so before you and/or the instructor leave the classroom. Make sure you are clear on everything that you wrote down, and if you have any questions, ask the instructor before she leaves. Do not just rush out, promising yourself you will review your notes later. Do a quick review right then and there.
Later, review your notes one last time. This is where you are looking for questions and confusing notations. Make a separate sheet of these questions, and bring them to the instructor before the next class. Maybe you can communicate with the instructor over the phone, or in office hours, or through email. However you do it, have those questions written out so that when the instructor answers them, you can put the provided answers with the questions into your notebooks.
Purpose of Taking Notes
The primary purpose of notes is not to have something to read later, although that can be helpful. The primary purpose of notes is to clarify your thinking about the material of the class, so that you can apply the ideas, concepts, and methods of the class to the problems you encounter. In other words, the purpose of notes is to allow you to solve problems, not relearn the material on your own. Focus on the problems, not the words, and you will get better results both in the class and in the outside world.