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Strategies for Helping Students Take Better Notes in Class

While attending a conference, I heard Herbert McKeachie, the author of McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, say "Telling students they don't need to take notes is like telling them to stop listening." Still, with the availability of course management software systems, such as Desire2Learn, it is easy for instructors to provide students with a complete set of lecture notes. Much of the research concurs with McKeachie and supports note-taking because it ...

  • requires students to interact with new information through writing.
  • helps students transfer information for long term retention, which helps them apply their learning to different learning contexts and situations.
  • enables better performance and results in higher grades.

Most researchers recommend providing partial (versus complete) notes, which provide a guide to what is important. Additionally, a structural and/or organizational framework is available for later reference. To assist in note-taking consider the following

  1. When providing partial notes, use an outline format and include key points that allow students to more easily follow along and fill in as the lecture progresses.
  2. As an alternative to outlines, provide graphic organizers, which are visual methods for showing how terms or concepts are interrelated.
  3. Every 15 to 20 minutes, provide a five to ten minute break to allow students to review and revise their notes as needed.
  4. Give "pair and compare" breaks to allow students to review each others’ notes, fill in any blanks, etc.
  5. Encourage students to sit towards the front of the class if they find distractions hinder their note-taking abilities.
  6. Suggest that students leave a large right or left margin to later add key words or important information.
  7. Use introductory, transitional and concluding phrases such as "the following four factors" or "in conclusion" to cue a shift and/or emphasize key points while lecturing.
  8. Instruct students not to write everything you say word-for-word, unless your exact wording is crucial.
  9. Provide tips on shortening words such as btw for between, b/c for because, rel for relationship, w/ for with, + for more and – for less, hyp for hypothesis, up and down arrows for increasing and decreasing, w/out for without, texting abbreviations, etc., and/or model the use of these tips in your handouts, PowerPoint slides, etc., as appropriate.
  10. Tell students to give you a sign if you are speaking too fast and need to slow down.
  11. Suggest that they review, edit and clarify their lecture notes within 24 hours while the material is still fresh in their mind.


McKeachie, W. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory For College and University Teachers. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1994. Print.

Nilson, L. Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

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