educated people find occasion, at some time or other, to take notes. Although
this is especially true of college students, they have little success, as any
college instructor will testify. Students, as a rule, do not realize that there
is any skill involved in taking notes. Not until examination time arrives and
they try vainly to labor through a maze of scribbling, do they realize that
there must be some system in note-taking. A careful examination of note-taking
shows that there are rules or principles, which, when followed, have much to do
with increasing ability in study.
criterion that should guide in the preparation of notes is the use to which they
will be put. If this is kept in mind, many blunders will be saved. Notes may be
used in three ways: as material for directing each day’s study, for cramming,
and for permanent, professional use. Thus a note-book may be a thing of
far-reaching value. Notes you take now as a student may be valuable years hence
in professional life. Recognition of this will help you in the preparation of
your notes and will determine many times how they should be prepared.
chief situations in college which require note-taking are lectures, library
reading and laboratory work. Accordingly the subject will be considered under
these three heads.
LECTURE NOTES — When taking notes on a lecture, there are two extremes that
present themselves, to take exceedingly full notes or to take almost no notes.
One can err in either direction. True, on first thought, entire stenographic
reports of lectures appear desirable, but second thought will show that they may
be dispensed with, not only without loss, but with much gain. The most obvious
objection is that too much time would be consumed in transcribing short-hand
Another is that much of the material in a lecture is undesirable for permanent
possession. The instructor repeats much for the sake of emphasis; he multiplies
illustrations, not important in themselves, but important for the sake of
stressing his point.
not need these illustrations in written form, however, for once the point is
made you rarely need to depend upon the illustrations for its retention. A still
more cogent objection is that if you occupy your attention with the task of
copying the lecture verbatim, you do not have time to think, but become merely
an automatic recording machine.
Experienced stenographers say that they form the habit of recording so
automatically that they fail utterly to comprehend the meaning of what is said.
You as a student cannot afford to have your attention so distracted from the
meaning of the lecture, therefore reduce your classroom writing to a minimum.
Probably the chief reason why students are so eager to secure full lecture notes
is that they fear to trust their memory. Such fears should be put at rest, for
your mind will retain facts if you pay close attention and make logical
associations during the time of impression. Keep your mind free, then, to work
upon the subject-matter of the lecture. Debate mentally with the speaker.
Question his statements, comparing them with your own experience or with the
results of your study. Ask yourself frequently, “Is that true?” The essential
thing is to maintain an attitude of mental activity, and to avoid anything that
will reduce this and make you passive. Do not think of yourself as a vat into
which the instructor pumps knowledge. Regard yourself rather as an active force,
quick to perceive and to comprehend meaning, deliberate in acceptance and firm
After observing the stress laid, throughout this book, upon the necessity for
logical associations, you will readily see that the key-note to note-taking is,
Let your notes represent the logical progression of thought in the lecture.
Strive above all else to secure the skeleton—the framework upon which the
lecture is hung. A lecture is a logical structure, and the form in which it is
presented is the outline.
outline, then, is your chief concern. In the case of some lectures it is an easy
matter. The lecturer may place the outline in your hands beforehand, may present
it on the black-board, or may give it orally. Some lecturers, too, present their
material in such clear-cut divisions that the outline is easily followed.
Others, however, are very difficult to follow in this regard.
arranging an outline you will find it wise to adopt some device by which the
parts will stand out prominently, and the progression of thought will be
indicated with proper subordination of titles. Adopt some system at the
beginning of your college course, and use it in all your notes. The system here
given may serve as a model, using first the Roman numerals, then capitals, then
concluding this discussion of lecture notes, you should be urged to make good
use of your notes after they are taken. First, glance over them as soon as
possible after the lecture. Inasmuch as they will then be fresh in your mind,
you will be able to recall almost the entire lecture; you will also be able to
supply missing parts from memory. Some students make it a rule to reduce all
class-notes to typewritten form soon after the lecture. This is an excellent
practice, but is rather expensive in time. In addition to this after-class
review, you should make a second review of your notes as the first step in the
preparation of the next day’s lesson.
will connect up the lessons with each other and will make the course a unified
whole instead of a series of disconnected parts. Too often a course exists in a
student’s mind as a series of separate discussions and he sees only the horizon
of a single day. This condition might be represented by a series of disconnected
O O O O O
summary of each day’s lesson, however, preceding the preparation for the next
day, forges new links and welds them all together into an unbroken chain:
method that has been found helpful is to use a double-page system of notetaking,
using the left-hand page for the bare outline, with largest divisions, and the
right-hand page for the details. This device makes the note-book readily
available for hasty review or for more extended study.
READING NOTES.—The question of full or scanty notes arises in reading notes as
in lecture notes. In general, your notes should represent a summary, in your own
words, of the author’s discussion, not a duplication of it. Students sometimes
acquire the habit of reading single sentences at a time, then of writing them
down, thinking that by making an exact copy of the book, they are playing safe.
This is a pernicious practice; it spoils continuity of thought and application.
Furthermore, isolated sentences mean little, and fail grossly to represent the
real thought of the author.
better way is to read through an entire paragraph or section, then close the
book and reproduce in your own words what you have read. Next, take your summary
and compare with the original text to see that you have really grasped the
point. This procedure will be beneficial in several ways. It will encourage
continuous concentration of attention to an entire argument; it will help you to
preserve relative emphasis of parts; it will lead you to regard thought and not
words. (You are undoubtedly familiar with the state of mind wherein you find
yourself reading merely words and not following the thought.)
Lastly, material studied in this way is remembered longer than material read
scrappily. In short, such a method of reading makes not only for good memory,
but for good mental habits of all kinds. In all your reading, hold to the
conception of yourself as a thinker, not a sponge. Remember, you do not need to
accept unqualifiedly everything you read. A worthy ideal for every student to
follow is expressed in the motto carved on the wall of the great reading-room of
the Harper Memorial Library at The University of Chicago:
“Read not to contradict, nor to believe, but to weigh and consider.” Ibsen
bluntly states the same thought:
“Don’t read to swallow; read to choose, for ‘Tis but to see what one has use
yourself, when beginning a printed discussion, What am I looking for? What is
the author going to talk about? Often this will be indicated in topical
headings. Keep it in the background of your mind while reading, and search for
the answer. Then, when you have read the necessary portion, close the book and
summarize, to see if the author furnished what you sought. In short, always read
for a purpose. Formulate problems and seek their solutions. In this way will
there be direction in your reading and your thought.
discussion of reading notes has turned into an essay on “How to Read,” and you
must be convinced by this time that there is much to learn in this respect, so
much that we may profitably spend more time in discussing it.
book you take up should be opened with some preliminary ceremony. This does not
refer to the physical operation of opening a new book, but to the mental
operation. In general, take the following steps:
Observe the title. See exactly what field the book attempts to cover.
Observe the author’s name. If you are to use his book frequently, discover his
position in the field. Remember, you are going to accept him as authority, and
you should know his status. You may be told this on the title-page, or you may
have to consult Who’s Who, or the biographical dictionary. 3. Glance over the
preface. Under some circumstances you should read it carefully. If you are going
to refer to the book very often, make friends with the author; let him introduce
himself to you; this he will do in the preface. Observe the date of
publication, also, in order to get an idea as to the recency of the material.
Glance over the table of contents. If you are very familiar with the field, and
the table of contents is outlined in detail, you might advantageously study it
and dispense with
reading the book. On the other hand, if you are going to consult the book only
briefly, you might find it necessary to study the table of contents in order to
see the relation of the part you read to the entire work.
Use the index intelligently; it may save you much time.
will have much to do throughout your college course with the making of
bibliographies, that is, with the compilation of lists of books bearing upon
special topics. You may have bibliographies given you in some of your courses,
or you may be asked to compile your own. Under all circumstances, prepare them
with the greatest care. Be scrupulous in giving references. There is a standard
form for referring to books and periodicals, as follows:
Henderson, Industrial Insurance (2d ed.;
University of Chicago Press, 1912), p. 321.
Curtis, “The Place of Sacrifice,” Biblical World, Vol. XXI (1902), p. 248 ff.
LABORATORY NOTES —The form for laboratory notes varies with the science and
is usually prescribed by the instructor. Reports of experiments are usually
written up in the order:
Object, Apparatus, Method, Results, Conclusions. When detailed instructions are
given by the instructor, follow them accurately. Pay special attention to
neatness. Instructors say that the greatest fault with laboratory note-books is
lack of neatness.
reacts upon the instructor, causing him much trouble in correcting the
note-book. The resulting annoyance frequently prejudices him, against his will,
against the student. It is safe to assert that you will materially increase your
chances of a good grade in a laboratory course by the preparation of a neat
key-note of the twentieth century is economy, the tendency in all lines being
toward the elimination of waste. College students should adopt this aim in the
regulation of their study affairs, and there is much opportunity for applying it
in note-taking. So far, the discussion has had to do with the content of
the note-book, but its form is equally important. Much may be done by
utilization of mechanical devices to save time and energy.
First, write in ink. Pencil marks blur badly and become illegible in a few
months. Remember, you may be using the notebook twenty years hence, therefore
make it durable.
Second, write plainly. This injunction ought to be superfluous, for common sense
tells us that writing which is illegible cannot be read even by the writer, once
it has “grown cold.” Third, take care in forming sentences. Do not make your
notes consist simply of separate, scrappy jottings.
True, it is difficult, under stress, to form complete sentences. The great
temptation is to jot down a word here and there and trust to luck or an
indulgent memory to supply the context at some later time. A little experience,
however, will quickly demonstrate the futility of such hopes; therefore strive
to form sensible phrases, and to make the parts of the outline cohere. Apply the
principles of English composition to the preparation of your note-book.
fourth question concerns size and shape of the note-book. These features depend
partly upon the nature of the course and partly upon individual taste. It is
often convenient and practicable to keep the notes for all courses in a single
note-book. Men find it advantageous to use a small note-book of a size that can
be carried in the coat pocket and studied at odd moments.
fifth question of a mechanical nature is, Which is preferable, bound or
loose-leaf note-books? Generally the latter will be found more desirable. Leaves
are easily inserted and the sections are easily filed on completion of a course.
goes without saying that the manner in which notes, are to be taken will be
determined by many factors, such as the nature of individual courses, the wishes
of instructors, personal tastes and habits. Nevertheless, there are certain
principles and practices which are adaptable to nearly all conditions, and it is
these that we have discussed.
Remember, note-taking is one of the habits you are to form in college. See that
the habit is started rightly. Adopt a good plan at the start and adhere to it.
You may be encouraged, too, with the thought that facility in note-taking will
come with practice. Note-taking is an art and as you practise you will develop
have noted some of the most obvious and immediate benefits derived from
well-prepared notes, consisting of economy of time, ease of review, ease of
permanent retention. There are other benefits, however, which, though less
obvious, are of far greater importance. These are the permanent effects upon the
mind. Habits of correct thinking are the chief result of correct note-taking. As
you develop in this particular ability, you will find corresponding improvement
in your ability to comprehend and assimilate ideas, to retain and reproduce
facts, and to reason with thoroughness and independence.