How to Read Faster, Take Better Notes and Absorb More Information in Less Time: Make Your Student Life Easier!

24 April, 2014

Image shows rows and rows of old-looking books.

No matter what degree you undertake, there’s no getting away from the fact that you will have a great deal of learning to do.

Facts, figures, arguments, dates, theorems, formulae – all must be jotted down, memorised and recalled. You’ll be spending a lot of time in teaching groups taking notes on what the lecturer tells you and on academic discussions in class; and you’ll be spending even more time in the library, reading books and taking notes from them. Because there’s so much to get through, it’s vital to be systematic and efficient when it comes to taking useful notes from books and lectures. Yet effective note-taking is an art to be mastered, and that’s why we’ve put together these tips to help you get more organised about it and stick to the notes that will provide long-term value.

Why bother taking notes?

Image shows a large traditional lecture theatre.

Taking notes makes the passive learning experience of a lecture more active.

Before we begin, let’s address a fundamental question: why bother taking notes? Let us count the reasons! For a start, lectures are a passive form of learning, in which you are talked at rather than actively participating in academic discussion. Taking good notes from your lectures is essential for getting something out of this method of teaching. You can also get added value from classes by noting down the points raised in group academic discussions; with many points of view being expressed, not all of which you will have thought of yourself, you’ll be armed with plenty of arguments for use in essays.

What’s more, you may think that you’ll remember what was said in a lecture, or what you read in a book, but unless your memory is truly exceptional, you almost certainly won’t remember it in enough detail to write an essay or answer an exam question. Here’s a quick summary of the main ways in which note-taking will benefit you:

– Notes are there to jog your memory of what was said in a lecture or class.
– Taking notes also helps you engage more with what’s being said, because you have to focus your attention in order to select the most important points.
– By being actively engaged in this way, you’re more likely to absorb relevant information, get a deeper understanding of the topic, and you’ll find it easier to remember what you’ve learned.
– Your notes will come in handy later on, when you may need them for writing essays or revising for exams.
– Taking notes also stops your mind from wandering.

Convinced? Then read on and find out how to take better notes.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Study Skills articles."Tips for effective note-taking in lectures and classes

We’ve probably all been in a situation in which we’ve tried to note down what someone is saying, but not been able to write quickly enough to record it in full – leaving some glaring gaps. With lectures necessarily fast-paced, and academic conversations moving quickly, it’s easy to get behind with your note-taking and miss out something important that could have been critical to learning a point accurately. That’s why honing your note-taking skills is crucial to making the most of lectures.

Get hold of the hand-out before the lecture starts

If there’s a handout, make sure you have a copy before the lecture starts (if you arrive late, for example, you may miss these being given out). Some of the important points may already be written down on the handout, saving you from writing them out again. You could also annotate your handout to clarify certain points during the lecture.

Filter out the irrelevant bits

Image shows a lecturer using slides to introduce his talk.

A good lecturer will often include background detail, anecdotes and even jokes to grab your attention – these things make lectures more interesting, but they don’t need to go in your notes.

You don’t need to write down everything, word for word. You’ll quickly learn the art of filtering out the most important points and not bothering with the rest. In particular, keep in mind your end goal from each lecture: for instance, this could be supporting an essay you’re writing that week, or it could be something upon which an exam question may be based. Jot down the things that will help you write a better essay, or answer an exam question more effectively. If there’s a lot of introductory background material, write down two or three of the most interesting points so that you can drop these into answers to show that you know the background; it’s unlikely that you will need all of it.

Soundbites

Occasionally you may come across ‘soundbites’ – something a lecturer says that’s so clearly expressed that it sums up the essence of a problem or argument. It’s worth recording these in full, as you can use them to impress in essays or exam answers later on (make sure you cite whom they came from – your lecturer won’t be impressed if you try to pass off their words as your own!).

Decide whether you agree

Don’t just write things down without critically considering them; note down your responses. Do you agree with what the lecture is saying? Are the points being raised based on empirical evidence or trustworthy sources? Never take anything for granted in the world of academia; arguments made must be based on solid evidence, and sources should be questioned for their accuracy.

Look out for summaries

A good lecturer will summarise what they’ve talked about at intervals, allowing you time to catch up and make sure you’ve noted down the most important points.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions afterwards

Image shows lots of arms raised from a crowd to ask questions.

Some lecturers will welcome questions during the lecture; others will want you to wait until after, or get you to email them.

If you didn’t understand something that was said in the lecture, don’t be afraid to approach the lecturer and ask them to clarify what they meant. They may be able to recommend additional reading if it’s something you’re struggling with.

Have different notepads for different modules, lecture series or topic areas

If you have one big notepad that you use for absolutely all your lectures and classes, you may find it difficult to find relevant material later on, when you need it. Have separate notebooks for each module so that you can quickly locate notes on a particular topic.

Shorthand

Shorthand is a system of writing that uses abbreviations or symbols in place of full words and phrases, and is one way of taking down more information, more quickly – as quickly as the words are spoken, if you get good at it. Doing it properly takes a bit of getting used to, so you don’t have to learn how to do it officially; you can simply apply its principles to your own note-taking, making use of abbreviations to help you take down what’s being said in more detail. If you do use your own abbreviations, make sure you write down somewhere what they mean; otherwise you won’t be able to understand your own notes when you look back over them!

Record the lecture

Image shows a dictaphone set to record.

Be sure to ask the lecturer’s permission before making a recording; some may object. If you have dyslexia or something similar, they ought to accommodate the request.

If you’re not confident in the speed of your handwriting and don’t fancy giving shorthand a go, another option is to make an audio recording of the lecture. Most smartphones have in-built recording equipment (you’ll need to have enough memory left on your phone, though), or alternatively you can purchase a dictaphone very cheaply.

Type up your notes straight after the lecture

Whether you take handwritten notes or make audio recordings of lectures, there’s a lot to be said for typing up your notes as soon as possible after you come out of a lecture, while it’s still fresh in your mind. It’s amazing how quickly you forget the context of a hastily scrawled note, with the result that you can’t for the life of you figure out what on earth you meant. Typing up your notes also makes them much easier to use later on, when you need them for writing essays or revising from.

Use a laptop or tablet

Image shows a young woman in a university building, using a laptop.

It can also be useful to type up any additional thoughts after the lecture.

You could cut out the ‘typing up’ process, or at least cut down on the time it takes, by typing in the first place. Many people type faster than they handwrite, and if the same applies to you, there’s nothing wrong with taking a laptop or tablet into lectures to help you make notes faster.

One word of caution though: only take a laptop in if it’s quiet! It’s very embarrassing being the one whose noisy laptop fan whirls all the way through a lecture and distracts everyone. It’s also advisable to put your laptop or tablet in silent mode, lest the entire room be made aware every time you receive an email.

Use note-taking software

If you opt to use a laptop or tablet, a great way of keeping your notes organised is to make use of note-taking software, such as Evernote. These allow you to have different online notebooks for each subject, as well as enabling you to add tags to help you categorise your notes and search easily for anything you may have jotted down about a particular subject. For example, you could have a notepad for the Romantic Poets module of your English course, with your notes tagged with things like Keats, autumn, background history, and so on. When you come to write an essay on a particular subject, all you need to do is perform a search in Evernote and it will bring up anything relevant ready for you to incorporate into your essay.

Exchange notes with friends

We don’t mean borrow their notes because you couldn’t be bothered to go to the lecture; we mean compare your observations with those of your friends and discuss what you thought of the topics covered. Swapping notes, you may find your friend noted down something they considered to be important that you didn’t at the time, or that they got down something you missed.

Note-taking from books

Image shows a laptop with someone using it to take notes.

Organise your notes carefully so they can be of maximum use to you later on.

We’ve now seen how to take notes in lectures more effectively. A rather different kettle of fish is taking notes from books. On the one hand, it’s easier because you’re not under such time pressure, and you don’t have to keep up with what somebody is saying. On the other hand, however, the temptation is simply to copy down entire passages of books. Why bother note-taking from books? Because, as with lectures and classes, taking notes helps you engage more with what you’re learning, and the act of writing down the salient points means you’re more likely to remember them. Here’s how to do it effectively.

Use bullet points

A good way of making your notes more succinct, and of ensuring you summarise the salient points rather than copying everything out, is to use bullet points. If possible, try to keep each bullet point to no more than a single line; this forces you to be concise, as well as making each nugget of information easier to remember.

Have an end-goal in mind

The chances are that you’re reading a book with a view to using its material in an essay. If this is the case, ensure that you keep your essay question in mind and only note down points that will be useful in the essay. This means you don’t waste time writing down things that won’t actually be useful in constructing your argument.

Organise your notes

Using your bullet points, add a heading to each section so that you know what each segment of your notes is about. One way of organising your notes is that the heading outlines the premise of an argument, while the bullet points note each of the supporting arguments.

Bonus: how to get faster at reading

Image shows a page of text with the word 'effort' underlined in blue and the nib of a pen beside it.

Underlining helps focus your attention on the important parts of a text.

A useful skill when you’re note-taking from books is being able to read quickly. You’re likely to have a lot of reading material to get through during your years at university, and if you’re naturally a slow reader, your reading lists may seem overwhelming and you may struggle, particularly once you factor in note-taking time as well. Luckily, though, you can get learn to read more quickly.

– Read with a goal in mind – this could be what you want to learn about, what essay you’re writing, an exam you’re revising for, and so on.
– Learn to skim over irrelevant passages – with practice, you’ll become adept at quickly identifying passages that aren’t relevant to your end goal, and you can skim over them.
– Point at your place in the page – if you’re always losing your place, move your finger down the page to show where you are. Alternatively, you could also use a ruler to underline the line you’re on, moving it down steadily to force yourself to keep up with it.
– Avoid reading ‘aloud’ in your head – inevitably your reading will be slower if you’re pronouncing all the words in your head, so try to cut this out.
– Underline key phrases – as you read through a book, keep a pencil in one hand and underline words, phrases or paragraphs you feel are significant (only if you’re using your own book, of course; if you do take a pencil to a library book, make sure you use a soft pencil and erase your markings before you return it). As well as helping you find important passages when you go back to it, the act of underlining helps you engage with the text and encourages you to seek out the points you feel are most important.

These tips should be enough to help you get through your reading lists more quickly and get more out of your study sessions, whether by yourself or with other people. Reading and note-taking may seem a drag at times, but going about them in the right way will pay off when you realise how easy it is to revise – and do well in your exams.






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Image credits: banner; lecture theatre; lecture; hands raised; dictaphone; student; typing; underlining.

13 Responses to “How to Read Faster, Take Better Notes and Absorb More Information in Less Time: Make Your Student Life Easier!”

  1. November 03, 2014 at 11:20 pm, Shelly said:

    Every word with a “z” the author put a “s”.

    Reply

    • November 04, 2014 at 9:08 am, ORA Admin said:

      Dear Shelly,

      As you might have noticed, we’re located in Oxford, in the UK. That means we spell things the British way, not the American way.

      Thanks for your comment,

      The ORA Team.

      Reply

      • March 02, 2015 at 2:59 am, Shelly said:

        > You mean you don’t do it the right way.

        Reply

        • June 25, 2015 at 10:45 am, Lee James said:

          Actually English was created by the Brits, so the American way is actually incorrect.

          Reply

        • June 08, 2016 at 4:58 pm, Anon said:

          > Obvious troll is obvious

          Reply

  2. April 04, 2015 at 6:17 pm, Don said:

    Both ways are correct. But if you used your way all the time Shelly how would you spell ‘easier’ or ‘revising’??

    Reply

  3. May 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm, Steve said:

    I find it sad that after such a well-written article, one finds such trivial remarks as Shelley has left. One has to ask, what was the point in her commenting if all that was accomplished was to display her ignorance of the differences between British and American English?
    Hey, Shelly. Look up “puerile” in the dictionary.

    Reply

    • March 29, 2016 at 3:41 pm, Joe said:

      > The responses to Shelley are equally pointless. Mindless drivel.

      Reply

  4. June 16, 2016 at 11:00 am, Alaa Mawla said:

    Thank you for writing this article. It was very well written. I write blogs myself, so I know how hard it is to write an article this big. So good job and keep up the good work.

    Reply

  5. September 27, 2016 at 4:21 am, Tony L said:

    Great article.

    I have a question about taking notes when reading. One thing I still struggle with is reading and note taking quickly enough. Your advice, and the same advice I read elsewhere, is to keep in mind the purpose of the notes e.g. To prepare for an essay or revise for an exam. How about if you’re just taking notes in general reading throughout the year? Obviously this is ultimately for exams but the chapters of books on our reading list cover the information we will be examined on. We don’t know more than that at this stage which means everything seems relevant so it takes SO long.

    Reply

  6. November 20, 2016 at 2:27 pm, Anne said:

    If I dont read it aloud in my head, I cannot absorb anything. It has to be as if someone is reading it to me, slowly or nothing goes in. I do have memory and learning issues due to damage from SSRI medication, and really want to get past this. My brain just wont take it in… unless I read slowly, and re read over and over. Sigh… I want to study but it takes forever

    Reply

  7. May 26, 2017 at 10:06 am, Shachee said:

    Thank you for writing this helpful article. I have a question though. I have always read subject matter aloud in my head. if I don’t, I cannot focus on it. As such, I read very slowly. is there anything I can do to change this?

    Reply

    • September 12, 2017 at 9:06 pm, Anonymous said:

      This is a REALLY late response but from someone who reads 1000 wpm – you can usually count in your head to stop reading aloud. I still haven’t kicked the habit (you CAN read quickly while reading aloud in your head, it’s just more difficult) but I do use that trick quite often, and it does help.

      Reply

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