Take Notes

You may have heard that in college you’re supposed to take a lot of notes. But often students aren’t given information on why, when, or how they should be taking notes. This page attempts to remedy that, offering advice on taking notes for this class that will hopefully also be helpful for your other courses and professional endeavors.

When Should I Take Notes?

The short answer: always. The longer (and more helpful) answer: on any material you hear, read, discuss, or watch for a class or a research project, and on any material you want to be able to remember afterwards. Notetaking is the beginning of critical thinking, and will help you learn to discern what authors/speakers/filmmakers are arguing, how they are arguing it, your own thoughts on these arguments, and how you might use these ideas.

How to Take Notes on Class Lectures & Discussions:

ALWAYS bring a notetaking device to class and USE IT. You may prefer to take notes in a notebook with a favorite pen, or take notes on your laptop or tablet with a word processing program or notetaking software. These are all fine, although some professors will not allow laptops/tablets in class (I allow them).

Before the class even starts:

  • Write the date and topic or title of the lecture/discussion in your notes.
  • Take 5 minutes to figure out what will most likely be discussed today by: reviewing at your syllabus, reviewing your notes from last class, and reviewing the assigned readings for that day.
  • If there is a guest speaker that day, write down their name, affiliation or description (are they a professor from another university, an artist or activist with a specific organization, etc.), and the topic/title of their presentation.

What to write down during lecture/discussion:

  • Authors/texts/cultural productions/films discussed and what was said about them. Jot down PAGE NUMBERS (and scenes in films) for passages/scenes that were discussed so you can refer to them later.
  • Main themes and keywords from the class, especially main arguments that were discussed.
  • Connections between texts, authors, or ideas. You’ll be asked in assignments to make these sorts of links, and notetaking is where that starts. Ask (and write down): How does Author A’s argument connect to the text we read last week? How would Author B respond to what the professor is saying right now?
  • Take notes on the conversations, questions, presentations, and comments made by students–the professor deliberately designed the class to include student voices for a reason. These student contributions are also considered “course material.”
  • Make sure to take notes on lectures, films, songs, discussions, questions, student presentations, and any other material that is presented during class time. All of that is part of your class experience, and all of it is teaching you something.
  • DON’T COPY EVERYTHING DOWN FROM THE POWERPOINT OR PREZI. Be judicious. Jot down main bullet points, ideas, authors/texts, and concepts.
  • Write down questions you have during the class (What does hegemony mean again? Wait, didn’t Butler say something about that?). Ask these questions during class if you can, and/or write about them in your notes/assignments later.

How to Take Notes on Readings:

MARK UP YOUR READINGS. Use highlighters, different colored pens/pencils, post-its, or whatever you want for hard copies, and use one of the many free software annotation programs for pdfs (see below for some links).

Highlight things, underline things, circle things, and write in the margins. Use symbols that will help you remember why you marked a particular term or paragraph, and help you abbreviate (a few of my own symbols and abbreviations include @ for “at”, squiggly lines for sentences I disagree with or that lack support, “fem” for feminism, “F” for Foucault, “ex” for example, double lines in the margins for major claims, and x’s next to minor claims. You’ll develop your own system).

If you’re selling your books back at the end of the semester, you can take notes on post-its stuck to the pages–just make sure to transfer those notes to a notebook or digital document so you don’t lose them at the end of the semester.

What to write down while reading:

  • The author and title of the article/chapter/book. You’d be surprised how many students forget this, and then bomb quizzes and assignments when they can’t attribute an argument or idea to a specific person and text. Claims that “the readings said X” or “this week’s author said Y” are rather absurd. WHO said X and WHERE did they say it? (and HOW).
  • The author’s main argument. What are they claiming, and how do they build that argument? What evidence do they provide for that argument (who/what do they cite and how)?
  • Relevant examples the author provides.
  • Key concepts and terms.
  • Any word or idea you don’t understand. You should always look these up.
  • Any questions you have about what the author is saying (what doesn’t make sense? How does this idea relate to last week’s topic? What about this point that the author doesn’t consider?).

How to Take Notes on Films and Cultural Productions:

Films, media, and other cultural productions (performances, video clips, images, websites/blogs, etc.) are part of the course material. You should always take notes on them.

We are used to watching films for narrative—if I asked you to describe your favorite film, you would most likely describe the plot and story. However,  narrative is only one of the elements of film form, and actually can only be understood in relation to formal elements that are often more difficult to pick out because we have been trained to look through them rather than at them. Critical film/media viewing, like critical reading and listening, involves learning to notice the structure and form of an argument, and analyzing how it is built.

What to write down while watching a film/cultural production:

  • Director’s name, title of the film/cultural production, date of release, country of release.
  • Openings and closings (what is the first image you see? The last image? What do those images tell us about the film/cultural production as a whole?).
  • Film techniques: editing cuts and dissolves, camera angles, camera distances and movements, costumes, colors, lighting, sound (including music).
  • Narrative and character construction (How is the story told? How are characters developed?).
  • Striking scenes or images (Scenes that confused you, excited you, delighted you, saddened you–what film techniques are used in those scenes? How was the story told? What ideologies are at work in those scenes?).
  • Scenes or techniques that connect to the assigned readings, course topics, and class lectures/discussions.

Final Tip:

Keep all of your course notes even after you’re done with the class, the major, and college in general. You will refer to those notes again, assuming you keep them somewhere you can find them (hint: good organization makes your life much easier). They will help you in your other classes, when you’re writing your senior thesis, when you’re applying for jobs and graduate school, when you’re working at your job preparing a report and want to remember that great tip about argumentation, and when you want to impress folks at cocktail parties. Seriously, keep your notes.

Resources–Notetaking Advice/Tips:

Resources–Notetaking Software:

Many of the above software programs are free. The few that are not either offer a free trial, or an academic discount for students and faculty. If you come across another resource that isn’t on the list, let me know and I’ll add it.

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