How to write effective notes in lectures

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If you’re preparing for an upcoming exam, you’ll be reflecting on the notes you made in all those lectures, and maybe questioning your note-taking skills. “What did that bit say?” “What did I mean by that?” “I can’t read that writing!” – these are all things you may have heard yourself saying. So, it is quite important for you to know how to take effective notes in lectures.

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Tip #1 – don’t be a passive note taker

It’s very easy to use the handout that you have been given in your lecture and passively note take on it. This might include, for example, underlining words, highlighting chunks of paragraphs, accepting what you see and not questioning anything, and not putting ideas into your own words. However, by changing your approach so that you are an active note taker, you would be more inclined to write your own ideas all over the handout, look for connections in the topic and scribble your own ideas, and write notes mostly in your own words, only direct quoting when you need to or when it is important to do so.

Tip #2 – make your notes memorable

Your notes are no good if they’re not memorable. If you’re studying for an exam, you need them to be exactly that. So, make them brief. Space them out well, add diagrams if you need to and make sure you read them through afterwards, to ensure they make sense. There is nothing worse than going back over your notes and realising you don’t understand something you had written!

Tip #3 – make spider diagrams

Spider diagrams can really help you to form ideas on a page without worrying about how it all looks. You can find out more about spider diagrams here.

Spider diagrams are good for showing structure and organising your ideas. They also show all the main points at a glance, and you can keep points grouped together – which is great for essay structure.

Tip #4 – don’t sacrifice listening for note taking

Many students think they need to write down everything they hear in their lecture. However, the truth is, you’re much more likely to remember the lecture if you take it in yourself, and write notes later, rather than trying to copy everything word for word.


  • Identify key words in the lecture and jot things down –for example, notice when words or phrases are being repeated. Jot these down as you hear them.
  • Go home and rewrite everything – it is important that you reflect on what you’ve written and make sense of any bits you had to quickly write down at the time.
  • File notes properly – you’ll want them again for your exam or dissertation. File things clearly and label them so that you can draw on them again when needed.

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