A student is taking notes for an online class
September 3, 2020
5 mins read

How to take rock-solid notes for online lectures

Navigating Online Learning

Welcome to the start of a new school year! If you're looking to level up your note-taking skills, you've arrived at the right spot.

Whether or not this is your first term taking online courses from start to finish, one thing is certain: how we engage with course materials matters—and that includes taking effective notes. 

To help you sharpen up your note-taking skill set this term, here are some strategies you can try before, during, and after the lecture:

3 things to do before the lecture

1. Look through the pre-lecture materials

Part of taking good notes is making sure you understand the information as early as you can, so it can get more solidified in your mind upon repeated exposure. Thus, if your prof uploads pre-lecture slides for the next class, get a head start on the material by looking up some of the new terminology and concepts. 

It’s also helpful to capture any questions that come to mind during this sneak peek. To solidify your understanding of the subject, first try finding answers/solutions independently. And then, during class, see if your pre-lecture questions get addressed; if not, use the chatbox function to ask your prof to clarify. Try to do this before class ends, but if you can't, make sure to follow up during your prof's office hours. 

2. Decide on which note-taking method to use, and stick to it

According to this research insight, students who take notes by short/longhand and those who prefer typing them up actually have no significant differences in their ability to recall facts. However, those who write by hand are more adept at retaining concepts—that is, they perform better when asked conceptual questions.

A student is taking handwritten notes

The fact is, students who type up notes often end up taking them down verbatim, and this offers a shallower level of cognitive processing than does writing notes by hand. The latter forces you to think more critically about the information you’re getting, and thus makes it easier to identify the most important elements of the lesson. However, typing up notes has pros, too—like the ability to easily bring up a specific term using a quick search command.

Experiment with these different methods in the first week or two of class, and decide on which works best for you. Make sure to keep track of all the places you took notes and store them securely.

3. Carry out final preparations just before the lecture begins

Get together the utensils you need—and make sure you’re in a productive space where you’ll focus well by:

  • Closing all unnecessary tabs
  • Moving into a position that’s not too comfortable (or sleep-inducing)
  • Stashing away technology that’s not needed for the lecture

3 things to do during the lecture

If you have the time and the prof has promised to post the recorded lecture after class, you could actually just first watch the lecture video to familiarize yourself with the content—and then re-watch, this time taking notes. 

Pro tip: Add the date and title of the lecture to your notes, just so you can a) better find and navigate them later on, and b) more easily cross-reference with the posted lecture materials (e.g. lecture slides).

Here are some tips on taking effective notes during class:

1. Focus on emphasized points

Resist the urge to take down everything. Look for cues instead—concentrate your efforts on details your profs repeat, tonally emphasize, or just straight-up tell you are important. Make these details stand out.

Avoid copying directly from the slides during class—instead, take down what the prof says that isn’t covered in the slides or written down elsewhere. You’re watching the lecture to get new information; that’s one thing that’s different from just reading through the slides by yourself. Otherwise, using Google Text-to-Speech would suffice...

If your prof writes out lecture notes during class, know that you don’t have to copy down exactly what they write. Doing so is similar to typing up notes verbatim—and it’s why we sometimes don’t remember writing down certain notes when we revisit them on a later date. Rather, consider translating the prof’s written notes into your own style, wording, or format in your notes.

2. Annotate your notes

  • Jot down connections to what you learned or knew already (e.g. topics that were covered in other classes)—building on previous knowledge helps you stay grounded and better retain these new details
  • Note questions that pop up
  • Indicate certain details as highly examinable if your prof gives you those *hint*/*wink*/*nudge* signs

3. Use strategies to keep up with what’s being said

a) Use abbreviations/truncations and shorthand while taking notes, as they can help you comfortably keep pace with your prof’s talking speed. I particularly like to use symbols to save space, paper, and/or computer storage, regardless of the course I’m taking.

b) Avoid Googling stuff during the lecture—stay focused and look up things after the lecture, so you don’t miss what your prof is covering at the moment (and have to go back to watch the segment you missed).

c) If the slides have diagrams and you don’t have enough time to take them down, make a note of their locations in the slide deck (e.g. see slide titled…). This way, you can find them later on more easily and fill these gaps in your notes.

3 things to do after the lecture

Reinforce your learning by reviewing your notes after class. Here’s how to more effectively remember what you learned:

1. Summarize your notes and revise them 

Reconsult posted materials/recordings to cover anything you missed while you still remember that you missed something. Further strengthen your understanding by adding related terms and concepts from other sources.

2. Re-organize your notes in the style you’ll get tested in. For example:

Pro tip: If your class will allow for cheat sheets during exams, maybe get a headstart on it now!

3. Clarify any questions you have—asap

Make sure to reach out to a study buddy or your prof to get your areas of confusion cleared up, well before any exam or test. It’s an ego-deflating feeling to go back to your notes and to ask yourself, “Did I write these?”

You’ll be taking notes a lot this year, so remember to get up and take regular breaks!

If you’re interested, consider applying for note-taker jobs through CareersOnline (you’ll have to browse the catalog)—do factor in your time commitments before signing up though, as it can be a pretty rigorous responsibility. 

Check out the role’s training document from 2019/2020 for even more tips on taking effective notes!