How to Take Notes When Listening to a Speech

Students should never take notes just for the sake of writing something down.
... Visage/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Learning to take good notes is crucial for academic success although students typically dismiss it as a rote or robotic exercise. In reality, effective note-taking is an art that -- when done properly -- will significantly enhance the classroom experience.

Consistency and discipline are the hallmarks of effective note-taking along with your willingness to listen for each main point as it comes up. The payoff comes through increased retention and comprehension of your subject.

1 Keep It Organized

Following an organized format simplifies effective note-taking. The most commonly recommended format is the Cornell Method. Draw a vertical line just left of center on each piece of notebook paper. Use the left side to fill in main ideas, as well as questions to follow up on later. Save the right side for more detailed notes. Then draw a horizontal line, a few inches up from the bottom --this creates a space to summarize each page and a time-saving tool to find key subjects quickly when it's time for review.

2 Listen Actively

Active listening is the foundation of good note-taking. That doesn't mean trying to record everything the lecturer says, according to tips posted by North Shore Community College. Instead, wait for the speaker to outline his main points, which he may do by giving examples, raising his voice or repeating key statements. For this reason, you shouldn't make a formal outline. Otherwise, you'll get sidetracked by predetermined letters and numbers and pay less attention to what's being said.

3 Prepare Your Own Shorthand

Although it's not necessary to write down everything, your note-taking experiences won't be productive without a system that makes it easy to summarize key concepts for later review, North Shore's tips suggest. For example, it's best to break complex ideas into incomplete sentences. Abbreviations come in handy when a speaker talks fast or presents a lot of material. Use creative spellings, initials and partial words to ensure you don't miss anything -- but be consistent, so you understand later what you've put down.

4 Review Immediately

Always review notes within 24 hours of taking them. As Princeton University's tips explain, research indicates that students who don't take that step forget 50 percent of what they learned. That's one reason for leaving room to write in points that you didn't pick up during the lecture, according to suggestions posted by Chapman University. In most cases, you can fill in those blanks through additional reading, or by asking appropriate follow-up questions of your classmates.

5 Write Legibly

All the creative shorthand is no good if you can't read your notes. This is why you should review them as soon as possible, particularly if you took your notes quickly, according to North Shore. For best results, stick with pens over pencils when writing, as pencils tend to smear. If you're well-organized, you'll spend your post-class review session on tasks like adding extra words -- instead of re-copying notes, which is less likely to enhance your grasp of the material.

Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.