Effective Listening and Note-Taking
by Johnie H. Scott, Assistant Professor
Pan African Studies Department - California State University, Northridge
Second only to effectively managing one's time, being able to follow lectures is the most important critical study skill that a student can have. When you look at the profiles of successful students, there is a common thread tying them together -- these
are students who have the ability to take comprehensive notes in virtually all classes regardless of who the instructor might be or what the subject matter is. These are students who are not sidetracked by the fact that an instructor may be softspoken, or
speak with an accent, or seem somewhat distant from the students in the classroom. They understand that far more than the written material, what the instructor chooses to emphasize -- and not emphasize -- while in the classroom has a direct bearing on the
objectives and requirements of the course along with teacher expectations. The reality is that no two teachers, and no two lecturers, are ever the same even though the course readings and requirements may be identical. With that in mind, it is the purpose
of this particular presentation to present a format for taking effective lecture notes or, better still, being effective in following and understanding what the lecturer is trying to get across, knowing how to determine what is important as opposed to what
is not important or is of lesser importance.
In a word, this presentation focuses upon listening skills -- skills that determine who is going to make it in an academic environment fairly easily and who is going to have a difficult time. One must begin with an understanding of just what a lecture
represents -- "a dialogue between you and the speaker." (Sotiriou, pg. 161). As with any dialogue, or flow of communication, there are several exchanges that have to take place if the communication is to be effective. First, you must be present to hear
what is being said. For students, this basically translates as being present for your classes. You can be the world's greatest listener and you may be the fastest note-taker on the planet, but none of this will do you any good if your attendance is spotty
and you are not present in class to know what is being said or what is going on. Right along with that, you want to be close to the speaker. In the classroom, this means getting a seat near the front of the classroom. Not only will you be able to hear
better what is being said, but you will be able to see what is going on -- and seeing, here, means more than following what is put on the blackboard. It also means being able to follow what is being said, as much as possible, with your eyes. You must
understand that the oral communication dynamic is far different from sitting at home or in a library to read a book or article.
The average reading speed is 250 words per minute, and you have time to stop and reread passages that are difficult at your own leisure. The average lecturer speaks at 125 words per minute, and this presents an entirely new world for the listener. There
are lecturers who speak faster, and there are those who speak slower. There are those who are loud and emphatic in contrast to those who are so softspoken that people sitting the back of the classroom have difficulty hearing what is being said. You have
lecturers whose voices rise and fall, adding tone and color to what is being said. By the same token, there are lecturers who speak in a monotone, so that if you are not careful it is entirely likely that your mind will drift away from what is being said,
you will find yourself daydreaming, the next thing you know the lecture is concluded and you have not taken a single note of what may have been the most important lecture of the entire semester for that particular course! There are 13 specific points that
I want to make in regards to taking effective classroom notes:
- Maintain a written record.
Set down a written record for each of your classes. This is very important for studies have shown that forgetting begins almost immediately. Within two weeks you will forget 80 percent or more of what you have heard. In four weeks, you will be fortunate if
5 percent remains! (Langan, pg. 41). What these facts say is so important that it must be repeated: to guard against the inevitability of forgetting, you have to write down much of the information being presented in class. Then, review your notes later so
that you understand and remember the ideas that were discussed. The more complete your notes are when you review, the more likely you are to master the information. Students often wonder how many notes should they take and whether or not certain terms,
facts or information are significant enough to write down. The rule of thumb to follow is this: When in doubt, write it down. You have to remember that writing too much, instead of too little, may mean the difference between passing and failing a course or
between a high grade and a lower one.
- Sit Where You'll Be Seen.
There is a saying common among teachers and it goes something like this: the farther in back of the class that a student sits, the lower that student's grade. Now whether or not you agree with that statement is of little importance. What is important and
has to be considered is the thinking that prompted the observation. What it says is that students who sit in the back of the classroom, starting on that first day of classes, those students who sit near the door, typically represent the students who will
have a difficult time following lectures, whose minds are not so much on the class as it is getting through the day, who will present the most problems in terms of attendance. Unfortunately, with ten years of experience in the classroom, I have seen that
statement proven true more often than not. Sitting in the back of the class brings its own set of problems, not the least being the fact that the teacher can very easily go an entire semester and not know your face or name when it comes time for grading --
and believe me, you do not want to have a teacher guessing who you might be when it comes time to assign a grade for your work that semester!
The point here is that you want to sit where the teacher will always see you, and where you can see the blackboard easily and clearly (this is especially true if you happen to wear glasses or contact lenses!). If the class is media-intensive, where
the instructor uses films and videotapes, then it is all the more important to get a seat near the front and establish it for the semester. Sitting in front also means that you are much more likely to stay focused in that classroom (you are not nearly as
likely to fall asleep in the front row, or to daydream!). When you sit in back of the class, you may be signalling your attitude about the class or school itself -- worried that you might be called upon (which is common to all students) or that you don't
really want to be in the class (which is an issue in and of itself).
- Try to Do Advance Reading.
Doing well in school, getting good grades on your exams, papers and in your classes, going to on to graduate and do well in your professional career, are all part of having a clearly defined and well-managed lifestyle. This refers back to the 9-Step TMP
and integrating that type of effective time management into your life choices and decision making. For this third step in effective listening and note-taking, we are dealing with what on the surface appears to be the obvious -- that good note-takers are
people who read the material in advance; that is, the students who take the best notes have done the assigned reading and, accordingly, have little trouble following the lecture or understanding any new ideas discussed in class that spring from the
reading. Their notes are more organized and easier to follow because they have a general grasp of the topic being discussed in class.
I always like to say that you have two types of students: students who come to view and students who come to review. That first type of student, the one who comes to view, is the one most likely to get into trouble. This is the student for whom everything
happening or being discussed in the classroom is brand-new. This student is there, essentially, to "view" what is going on, often for the first time. That second type of student, the one who comes to"review," has done some reading in advance of the
lecture, has had a chance to go over notes from previous class meetings, and finds the lecture an opportunity to review some of the material that was read earlier, perhaps some material that was difficult to understand but now, with the lecture, the light
bulb has come on and there is illumination where before there may have been just a hazy understanding of what was meant or implied. Needless to say, it is the student who comes into the classroom to "review" that most often gets the most out of the class,
including the best grades. Doing reading in advance allows you to prepare questions for the instructor based upon the reading and the lecture itself, questions that the instructor can appreciate and elaborate on. To be able to do this, and do it on a
consistent basis, means setting aside the time to read in advance and prepare effective reading notes.
- Make Systematic Notes.
When taking notes, you want to do so in an organized, systematic fashion. There is no "magic" to the student who takes good notes, the student who, at the end of the semester, is in a position to review effectively and efficiently for examinations and
papers based upon the strength of their notes. They have developed a note-taking system, and have learned to stay with it. Here are eight steps towards effective, efficient note-taking that you can use:
- Use full-sized 8 1/2"x11" paper. Do not use a small note tablet. You will be using the margin space provided by the full-sized paper. In addition, on a single page of full-sized paper you will often see ideas or groups of related ideas that might
not be so easily seen when spread over several small pages;
- Use a ballpoint pen. This is in order to write quickly -- something that can't be done as well with a pencil or a felt-tip pen. Don't worry about mistakes with a pen that makes marks you can't erase. Just cross out the mistakes!;
- Keep all the notes from each course together in a separate section of a notebook. Use either a looseleaf binder with separate sections, or a large spiral notebook that has several sections. The looseleaf binder, however, allows you to insert course
handouts and related materials;
- Date each day's notes and try to title the notes for each lecture;
- Take notes on one side of the page only, leaving space at the top and on the left-hand margin. Using only one side eliminates the bother, when you are studying, of having to flip pages over and then flip then back to follow the development of an idea
or discussion. Leaving wide margins gives you space to add to your notes later, should you so desire;
- Write legibly. When you prepare for a test you want to spend the time studying -- not trying to decipher your own handwriting;
- To save time when note-taking, abbreviate recurring terms. Place a key for these abbreviate terms in the top margin of your notes. For example, in a biology class ch could stand for chromosome ; in a sociology class o c could stand for operant
conditioning . When the lecture is over, you may want to go back and fill in the words you have abbreviated (again, for easier reading when preparing for examinations).
In addition, abbreviate the following common words by using the symbols shown :
+ = and def = definition w/ = with eg = for example ex = example info = information 1,2,3 = one, two, three, etc. MI = Main Idea
You should also make note that you can often omit words like a , and , and the when taking notes.
- I always tell my students when handing them the course syllabus that one of the very first actions they should take is to highlight all of the examination dates listed in the document. Not only that, but they should transfer those exam dates to a
pocket calendar, appointment book or diary that they refer to. They should do the same with due dates for major assignments, especially presentations and papers. Nothing can be more distressing for a student than to walk into class and see everyone ready
for an examination but themselves, or to see people turning in papers and they left theirs at home or forgot this was the due date for the project!
- Use an Outline for Your Notes.
Try to write down your notes in the following outline form. Start main points at the margin. Indent secondary ideas and supporting details. Further indent material that is subordinate to those secondary points.
Main points are listed at the margin.
Secondary points and supporting details are indented.
Material that is subordinate to secondary points is indented further.
Still another organizational aid: when the speaker shifts from one idea to another, show this shift in concern by skipping a line or two, leaving a clearly visible space.
- Be Alert for Signals of Importance.
As you can see, good listening and note-taking are special skills. When following lectures, for example, you want to be alert to the "signals" that lecturers give to indicate that certain material is important, that help you in further organizing your
notes for later study and review. There are five such signals:
Write down whatever your teacher puts on the blackboard. Ideally, print this material in large letters. If you don't have time to print, write as you usually do and put the letters OB in the margin to indicate that the material was written
on the board. When you review your notes later, you will know what ideas the teacher emphasized.
Always write down definitions and enumerations. Most people instinctively will write down definitions - explanations of key terms in the subject being studied. But people often forget or ignore enumerations, which are often just as important. An
enumeration is simply a list of items (marked 1,2,3 or with other symbols) that fit under a particular heading. Teachers often use enumerations, or lists, to show the relationship among a group of ideas. They are signaled in such ways as: "The four steps
in the process are....."; "There were three main ideas expressed in the novel...."; "The two primary effects were..."
Your instructor might say, "This is an important concept..."; or "One point that will repeat itself in the material..."; or "The primary cause was...."; or "Pay special attention to..."; or "The basic idea here is..."; or "The thesis being
advanced is..."; and so forth. You want to make sure to write down important statements announced by these and other emphasis words, and mark imp or some other mark of your own choosing (one that you can quickly and easily make out) to show their
If the lecturer repeats a point, you can usually assume that it is important or relevant. You might even write R in the margin to indicate that it was repeated in order to know that the instructor stressed the idea in class; and finally,
A lecturer's voice may slowdown, become louder, or otherwise signal that you are to write down exactly what is being said, word for word. When this happens, do it!
- Write Down Examples.
This is so obvious that people sometimes forget to do it, or take it for granted and then forget to do so. Write down any examples the teacher might provide during the course of a lecture, and then mark them with ex. These examples help you understand
complex, abstract forms and concepts. If you don't mark them with ex , then you are likely to forget their purpose when you later review them for study. You do not have to write down every single example, but you should do at least one to help clarify the
point(s) being made.
- Write Down Details That Connect or Explain.
Always write down the details that connect or explain main points. Too many students copy only the major points the teachers puts on the blackboard. These students don't understand that as time passes during the semester, they may (and will)forget the
specifics that serve as connecting bridges between ideas. Make certain, then, to record the connecting details that the instructor provides. When you do, you are much more likely to remember and recall those relationships among the major points in your
- Leave Some Blank Spaces.
Leave some blank spaces for those ideas or items you miss. Immediately after class, ask another student to help you fill in the blank spaces. A good idea during the first week of class is to identify someone in the class you can work with. Exchange
telephone numbers, making certain to indicate the best time to call. This way you are covered for the semester, especially for those times -- and they do happen -- when something comes up and you can't make it to class that day. One thing, though, is not
to make it a habit of missing classes. Your study friend can easily become annoyed, and feel that they are being misused, when they become the person receiving all the telephone calls for missed lectures. It is also a good idea to ask the instructor at the
beginning of the semester if it is permissible to tape lectures. This is another way to cover yourself for missed information.
- Ask Questions.
In a word, get involved with the subject matter and the instructor. Don't hesitate to ask questions is certain points are confusing to you. Draw the line, however, at asking too many questions, or asking questions simply to be heard. Most instructors frown
on this type of behavior from students. But keep in mind when asking serious, relevant questions that other students in the class probably have the same questions in mind but are reluctant to ask them. Teachers do look favorably upon students who show
interest and curiosity in the subject.
- Take Notes during Discussions.
Most students miss out on this most valuable of opportunities. They somehow perceive it in their minds as a sort of "time out" from class. The point is that you do not want to stop taking notes during discussion periods. There are lots of invaluable ideas
that can and do come up during informal sessions, ideas that your instructor may not present later on. If your instructor puts notes on the board during a discussion period, you can take that as a good sign that the material is important. If the instructor
pursues a point brought up during the discussion or takes the class in a certain direction based upon a point brought up during the discussion, then that is a strong bit of evidence that you should be taking notes. And always keep in mind the note from the
first step: when in doubt, write it down.
- Take Notes Right Up to the End of Class.
Nothing is more irritating to an instructor than to see students start putting away their notebooks and pens when there are 3-4 minutes left in the class. It is as though the student is saying that nothing important will be said at the end. Keep in mind
that very often, because of time spent on discussions, teachers may have critical points they want to cover in those closing minutes of class and they will use that time to cram in that last bit of information which might just be the summary for the entire
period. Be ready to write as rapidly as you can to get down this final rush of ideas.
- Review Your Notes Soon.
Go over your notes soon after class. While the material is still fresh in your mind, make your notes as clear as possible. A day later may be too late because forgetting sets in almost at once. The best time to start studying your notes is within a day
after taking them. Because of the mind's tendency to forget material rapidly, a few minutes et aside for study soon after class will give you more learning for less time and effort than almost any other technique you can practice.
Now that you have developed your notes, you need to go over how to study class notes. The following is one effective way to do so:
- Use the margin at the side or top of each page. Jot down in the margin a series of key words or phrases from your notes. These key words or phrases, known as recall words , will help you in pulling together and remembering the important ideas on
- To test yourself on the material, turn those recall words in the margin into questions. For instance, you might ask yourself, "What are recall words?" If you follow this approach on a regular basis, it will certainly help you remember the material
covered in your classes. By using this method, you will not be left with a great deal of material to organize and learn right before an exam. Instead, you will be able to devote quality time before that examination to a final intensive review of the
The author refers to listening skills as representing "a dialogue
between you and the speaker." Exactly what does that mean, and how
does the author describe this? Do you agree with the assessment? Why?
The author writes of a "rule of thumb" when note-taking. What is
that rule of thumb and how can it make the difference between someone
merely sitting down writing and someone taking effective notes?
The author provides 13 specific points with regards to good
note-taking. Use those 13 points as a Self-Evaluation Scale for your
own personal note-taking, charting areas you are strong in and those
you need to put work on.
This article provides you with five (5) "signals of importance."
What are those signals and relate these to the lectures you have had
up until now from either the author or Dr. Obinna in your PAS 100
Imagine that you were giving a lecture on note-taking at your former high school. Write a short essay of no more than 2-3 paragraphs that summarizes the important points you would want to make in the language you think would be most
Key Words and Concepts
Define the following words and/or concepts, then use the term
correctly in a complete sentence that uses a subject and a verb.
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