Making notes in class

Effective note making enhances learning.

Students often talk about 'taking' notes, but it is much better to aim to ‘make’ your own notes.  When you make notes you select and summarise the content and this allows deeper learning to take place.

A class can be in real time together with a group of others at a specific time, but it can also be a learning session that can happen at any time in a particular day or week and therefore happens at slightly different times for members of a group.  Learning sessions might include watching videos, listening to audio recordings and taking part in forms of online discussion.

Classes and online learning materials bring an area of study together. Sessions might include examples from several published works, compare and contrast points of view and introduce you to new ideas which may not have been published yet.  Keeping up with the schedule keeps you on track moving through the course material.  Sometimes a class will provide you with a broad overview and you will be expected to go into in more depth (possibly in the form of an assignment).  On other occasions sessions will be on a specific topic and you will have to put that topic in context.  

The basics

Be prepared

Information about materials relating to taught sessions should be available in your course handbook or within the VLE for your course.  Class outlines, key technical words, formulae and/or presentation slides are usually made available at least 24 hours in advance.  It may be necessary to do preparatory readings or other work prior to participating in a session.  These are valuable both for preparing beforehand and for adding to your own notes. 

Making notes

Think about why you are making these notes and what your purpose is. Then think about how you will be using these notes in the future. 

One approach is to think of there being three stages involved in making notes in class:

  1. Firstly tune in beforehand and avoid going into the class knowing nothing at all about the topic;
  2. Secondly, make your notes in a way that gives you time to listen and watch;
  3. Finally add value to your notes afterwards.

Our Making notes in class handout explains this process in more detail.

Making notes in class (pdf)

Making notes in class (Word rtf)

Note-making styles

Teaching styles and contexts vary and you might find you adopt a slightly different note-making strategy for different courses and/or types of class. The main thing is to actively make a record that will engage you with the session and be useful to you afterwards. Styles can be mixed and you should experiment to find out what suits you.

Note-making styles (pdf)

Note-making styles (Word rtf)

If you have an outline or printed set of slide notes, or a pdf you are able to annotate electronically, you can add further comments and emphasis

Class summaries

Using a sheet or document you fill in shortly after a session is a way of summarising the main points and identifying what you need to follow up.  A summary can complement other notes you may have rather than replacing them.  Recording the title of the session and other key details in a systematic way can help you to file and find your notes easily.

You can devise your own summary sheet or try ours.

Class summary sheet (pdf)

Class summary sheet (Word rtf)

Using recordings

You should make your own notes while viewing recordings and add value to them afterwards as you would for any class. Try not to stop-start the recording on a first viewing; watch it as if it was live. It is useful to review any outline, presentation slides or slide notes available on the Learn VLE before watching a recording.

A recorded learning session allows you to revisit parts of the recording to enhance your notes. Take time to think about what you want from a recording and what your questions are, particularly if you have already attended the class or viewed it previously. This allows you to identify which parts of the lecture you want to review or concentrate on.  You may need to do further reading beyond the recording to clarify your understanding.

Information Services (IS) provide guidance for students on accessing and viewing recorded lectures. There is further information on making the most of lecture recordings, how to use the notes tool and other features of Media Hopper Replay.

IS accessing and viewing recorded lectures

Using notes and making summaries

Using your notes in an active way afterwards helps you to learn effectively. This might be through organising material into a meaningful structure, thinking about inter-relationships and relating what you are learning to examples or case studies or real-life situations. 

You can look for points for and against an argument or summarise the main points on a table/grid or concept map. Different parts of a topic can be linked together to form a bigger picture to which examples or case studies can be added. Aim to construct meaning for yourself.

Self-testing using your notes is a powerful way to learn. You can write your own self-test questions and look for points for and against an argument.

Our handouts on Note restructuring, which includes a method for using lecture slide notes more actively, and Ways to self-test can be found on our Effective studying page.

Effective studying

Discuss with your peers

Discussing your impression of a class with your peers is really useful.  Getting together in a small group regularly and quizzing each other about a course topic is a really good way to discover what you have understood and where you might need to put further work in. You can also compare notes.

Please note you should not collaborate on a piece of course work unless it has been set as a group activity. If you are not sure what constitutes collusion you should check the university's Academic Services website for advice on student conduct.

Academic conduct

Notes from reading

Some of the note-making styles we recommend for classes can also be used to make notes from texts and other sources. If you would like to learn more about using books and other texts take a look at our reading page.

Reading at University

Go further

Making your own recordings

Students are normally permitted to audio record lectures, tutorials and supervision sessions using their own equipment for their own personal use.  This is part of the University's Accessible and Inclusive Learning Policy.

Accessible and Inclusive Learning Policy

Mainstreaming common learning adjustments

One Note

Microsoft Office 365 including One Note is provided online by the University. OneNote is a digital note-making application available both in the Office Online apps and also as part of the Microsoft Office suite on University-supported computers. 

IS One-note and Office online

If you would like to learn more about how to use One Note to create e-notes, there are online courses on using Office software available for Edinburgh University students via LinkedIn Learning. 

IS LinkedIn Learning online skills development