Start the semester with stellar grades: A smarter note-taking strategy

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Throughout my time at UC Berkeley, I’ve met some of the fastest-talking professors to ever live. Everything they say comes out so eloquently, as if they are writing a chapter of their next textbook while lecturing to the bewildered and intimidated students who sit in front of them. I’ve also had professors who treat the classroom as their stage and practically perform a theater play for the class as they move back and forth with animated expressions and a dominating presence. No matter what type of professor I’ve had, I’ve still struggled to take notes in the most effective way I could. Now that I’ve finally figured it out, I thought I’d share some of my tips with you so we can all receive “gold stars” throughout the semester on quizzes and exams.

At the start of every class, I open up a blank document on my laptop or turn to a fresh page in my notebook and write down only the important things I hear. I realized that when I tried to write down what the professor says verbatim, I either miss their main point or never process what they actually said because I’m too focused on writing everything out perfectly. Now, I only fill up around a page for each class. I circle key terms and include a few words to summarize the professor’s explanation, along with a sentence that contains an example.

But here’s the trick: I go back and reread my notes after class. After lecture is over, I go up to the top of the page. Now that I’m not distracted by trying to listen to what the professor is saying next, I write down everything I can remember to fill in the blanks and add meat to all the keywords and examples I had written down. If you do this right after class or even later that day, the knowledge will be fresh in your head, and as you look at a word, it will trigger you to remember everything else the teacher said about it. Essentially, what you are doing is going over the material twice, helping your brain process what you’ve been taught and taking away all the key points the professor mentioned so you’re ready for the exam when it comes around. I know — it sounds too good to be true.

For me, class is about listening and absorbing the material. If class for you is about writing down things as fast as you can, telling yourself that you are going to go back after class to understand the material … more often than not, you never go back because everything has been “written down” already and you think you can try to figure it out when the exam comes around. That method doesn’t work for me, and I’ve realized that listening and watching the professor speak allows me to keep the information in my head.

Another reason I encourage others to take notes in this way is that if you find that you missed something during lecture, you now have the chance to go to office hours, bond with your professor and stay on top of any concepts you may be struggling to grasp. Professors hold office hours for a reason, and they would much rather meet you than sit in an empty Zoom room for an hour.

To really go the extra mile with this strategy, motivate yourself to use your Saturday mornings wisely! Every Saturday, I spend two hours transferring all the key terms I learned that week from each of my classes onto blank “study guides.” By doing this every Saturday morning, I end up with a concise study guide all ready to go when it’s time to study for the exam. In doing so, I’m going over the material for the third time before the exam is anywhere in sight! Who wouldn’t want all their key terms, concepts and equations already on one document for each of their courses?

With everything online again this semester, it’s important to change the pace and try different things that might just end up working perfectly for you. I understand it might be scary to move away from your tried-and-true note-taking strategy, but with so many things our lives looking the same day after day, maybe some spice is exactly what you need. So next time you’re in class, I encourage you to try this method!

Contact Natalia Brusco at [email protected].