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Note-taking and Note-making

We distinguish between note-taking and note-making. Note-taking is a passive process which is done at lectures whereas note-making is more active and focused activity where you assimilate all information and make sense of it for yourself.


Taking notes is an important process. It allows you to have a written record of the lecture which may not be in your textbook. It also ensures that you become an active and involved listener and learner

A more important reason for taking notes is that there is a direct relationship between what happens in lectures and what comes up in the exam. If the lecturer does not personally set the exam, it is likely that he/she will still submit a number of questions.

When thinking about note-taking it is important to consider the lecturing style adopted by different lecturers. Some will prefer dictating, others will provide printed notes. If you are a Wits student you will also have the lecture slides posted on SAKAI.

The following areas are covered below:

  • Setting the stage
  • Listening actively
  • Formatting and structuring notes
  • General note-taking tips
  • If the lecturer talks too fast
  • Note-taking abbreviations
  • The note-making process


Setting the stage

  • Complete outside assignments: Lecturers assume that students have completed assignments or done the recommended reading and will construct their lecture accordingly. The more familiar you are with the topic, the better your note-taking will be and the more active the process will be. It is also a good idea to reiew your assignments/readings just before the lecture.
  • Bring the right materials:
    • Always have an adequate supply of A4 note paper /exam pads, pens, pencils and highlighters.
    • Use paper that can be filed easily. It is probably a good idea to only use one side of a sheet of paper - this allows you to review your notes by spreading them side to side - usually the benefit outweighs the cost of the paper.
    • Keep a spare pen don t use pencil to write as this tends to fade with time.
    • Use colour for emphasis; to highlight and to separate different sections or ideas.
    • Sit front and centre - sit in a position where you can hear and see clearly without straining.


Listening actively

This involves actively concentrating and paying attention to what is being said and how it is being said. Listen beyond words to the lecturers body language.

  1. Listening for repetition: When a lecturer repeats a phrase or idea, this is a signal that it is important and you should take note of it.
  2. Watch the board or overhead projector: If the lecturer takes time to write something down, consider that as another sign that the material is important.
  3. Listen for introductory, concluding and transition words and phrases. For example:
    • "The following three factors"
    • "In conclusion"
    • "The most important consideration"
    • "In addition to"
  4. Highlight obvious clues: Often your lecturer will blatantly point out what information is likely to appear in the exam - make a note of this - don't rely on memory.
  5. Notice the lecturer's interest level: When the lecturer seems excited about something, make a note as it is more likely to appear in the exam.
  6. Use pictures and diagrams - This makes the notes more visual and assists in recall. What you need to do is try to find a note-taking format and system that works for you.



  • Establish lecturer's interests:  Try to establish what topics of research or advanced study your lecturers are part of, especially if these also relate to your syllabus. Also be aware of any articles or books written by your lecturers and their areas of specialisation.
  • ATTEND ALL LECTURES:  Try to attend all lectures - apart from the obvious academic advantage, it also creates an impression of you as a dilligent student which may be to your advantage at some point in the course.
  • THE LAST LECTURE:  Make a special effort not to miss the last lecture of every course - information about the format of the exam is usually covered and the lecturer may also provide information about sections of the syllabus that need special attention or sections that can be excluded. 



Some methods will work better for some individuals than others.  See what works best for you.

General note-taking tips

  1. Give yourself plenty of space.
  2. Label, number and date all your notes.
  3. Develop your own system of shorthand and abbreviations
  4. Use colour, pictures or diagrams to make notes more visual.
  5. Keep your own thoughts separate - this ensures that you don t mistake your own idea for that of the lecturer's.
  6. Use a lost signal - when you find yourself lost in a lecture, make a note of it using a specific symbol and leave space to fill in this later.
  7. Write legibly: Many people feel that they have no control over their handwriting and resign themselves to writing illegibly for the rest of their lives. However, if you put your mind to it and make it a point to write more legibly, your handwriting will improve. This has implications not only for note-taking but for writing exams as well.

2. Mind-Maps

This can be used in conjunction with the Cornell system of note-taking or you might want to use mind maps exclusively.

Advantages: Visual; contains lists and sequences and shows causes, is often easier to recall; uses both left and right brain functioning; helps one think from general to specific and puts subjects in perspective.

Click to explore more about Mind Maps


3. the Outline System

You can use a standard Roman numeral outline or free-form, indented outline to organise the information from a lecture. The outline form illustrates major points and supporting ideas. It has the major advantage of being an active process of organising incoming information.

 Click for more information on the Outline System


4. The Cornell Format

On each page of your notes, draw a vertical line, top to bottom, 5cm from the left side of the paper. Write your notes on the right of this line and leave the area to the left of the line for key word clues and sample questions.

Click for more information on the Cornell Format


If the lecturer talks too fast

  1. Try to be extra prepared for the lecture before class: Familiarity with the subject makes it easier to pick out key points.
  2. Exchange notes with classmates
  3. Leave large empty spaces in your notes - for filling in information you missed.
  4. See the lecturer after the lecture and show the lecturer what you missed.
  5. Consider using a voice/sound recorder.
  6. Go to the lecture again - if it is offered at a different time.
  7. Use your shorthand.
  8. Ask questions.
  9. Ask the lecturer to slow down.
  10. Remember, you don t have to take down everything the lecturer says verbatim.


Note-taking abbreviations

Thus / Therefore                                                              Between                                                  betw  
Because                                                               or                                                                   /
Equals/same as                                                 =   Definition                                                     def
Does not equal / not the same as                           Conclusion                                                 conc
Greater than / more than                                   >   Regarding / with regard to                               re
Less than                                                          <   As against / contrast with                                vs
And                                                                   &   Before                                                          B4
Important / importance of                                 NB   Especially                                                    esp
Example / for example                                      eg   Namely / that is to say                                    ie
However                                                         but   -ment (e.g. agreement becomes agreem't)     m't
Compare/contrast with                                       cf   It is/ that is                                                    ie
Without                                                         w/o   Transfer                                                       t/f
-ion  (e.g. proposition becomes proposit'n)           'n    
Usually                                                          usu            


Once you have taken down notes in lectures, the learning process is not complete. The next step is the note-making process.

Reviewing lecture notes:

Your lecture notes form the basis of your final consolidated notes and your entire examination preparation is based on these. The following should be done on a daily basis:

  1. Read through your lecture notes.
  2. Underline headings and subheadings.
  3. Correct spelling mistakes and rewrite illegible portions.
  4. Fill in any gaps.
  5. Underline or highlight important sentences or paragraphs.
  6. Make sure you understand the concepts.
  7. If you use the Cornell system, fill in the key words in the left-hand column.

Integrating lecture notes and readings

  1. The main aim is to integrate your lecture notes with reading from articles, prescribed and recommended books or tutorials.
  2. It is best to use your lecture notes as the basis of your integration and not rewrite these unless your handwriting is extremely poor.
  3. Mind-map summaries can be made to give you an overall picture of the topic. 



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