Note Taking: University Style

This article is written by paulien. She studied mathematics and classical languages and just finished two master degrees. She lives in the Netherlands and just started working on her PhD in applied mathematics. You can visit her WordPress blog where she occasionally writes posts (he’ll update it soon!). She just love books, notebooks pens and the like. And we’re happy to have her here and writing.


When you first go to university, you are suddenly expected to do much more work than in school, and with much less help and guidance than you are used to. After all, you are an adult now, and you should be capable of managing your own affairs. Sadly, no one has ever told you how to do that. How do you plan for writing papers, giving presentations and studying for exams. And how can you manage to get good grades without too much stress and still have time for a job and a social life? I want to share some things I learned, and which I would have loved to hear at my first day of lectures.

First I will name some of the tools and supplies I used a lot. Then I will take a look at different aspects of the student life. I don’t mention computer and printer, as every university has those for use.

Tools and stuff

  • A planner/calendar. I think that you should use one planner for school and social stuff, to avoid planning a party the night before an important exam.
  • Wire-bound notebooks with pre-punched paper. You can take the pages out and put them in a binder. In this way you can carry one notebook around to lectures, and later at home take the pages out and put them in the appropriate section in the binder.
  • Binders and tabs. I use one binder per semester, with a tab for each course. Behind each tab you can put all the notes, and also the course outline or any other papers that get passed around. At the end of the semester I label the binder and take out a new one.
  • Pens, pencils, post-it notes and flags. You can mark up your reading and put notes in it without writing in the book itself.
  • Something to take notes in while you are out. I used my planner for this, but index cards or a small notebook will work too. You never know when you have a good idea for your next paper.
  • Good dictionaries and reference works. Speaks for itself I think. You need these for writing.

Lectures
To get the most from your time spent listening to lectures, it is important to prepare yourself. Read the assigned texts and print the handouts (if any). Now you will understand much more of what the professor is saying, and you know if there are any questions or things you donít understand. Ask if your questions are not answered during the lecture.

The other important thing is to take good notes. These will help you remember important things and they will come in handy when studying for exams. Good note taking takes practice, but a few tips can help:

  • Use keywords and short sentences
  • Underline or highlight important things
  • Note things you want too look up later too
  • Make references to page numbers in the textbook or handout to save time writing

If you then go through your notes shortly after the class, you’ll have a lot of the material already in your head.

Exams
Sometimes exams can be scary, especially oral exams. But if you have prepared for all lectures and taken notes, it will not be too hard to study for the exam. The first thing I recommend is to try and find some old exams or examples of questions. Knowing what to expect makes it easier to prepare and feel confident.

Also, it is important to schedule your studying at times when your energy level and concentration are at its best. Donít forget to schedule breaks too. I study best in a quiet environment, like the library, but at least put off the phone and computer. Distractions donít help.

The last thing that I found helpful is to o over old exams and hard parts of the course with a few classmates. We would always do this with three or four people a few days before the exam. I then there are still things unclear, you can still find time to visit the professor.

All this should prepare you well for the exam. Remember to eat and sleep well, and if you can take something to eat and drink to the room. This helps to relax a bit when you are stuck, and keeps your energy up.

Papers
After exams, I believe papers are the hardest part of studying. However, there are a few tricks to make writing papers a little bit easier. The first thing is to set intermediate due dates for the individual steps needed to complete a paper: identify subject or research question, search for literature, read and take notes, draft, research remaining points, and revise. Try to really keep to those due dates, and plan to finish at least a few day before the official due date. Setting due dates for smaller parts does also work for other assignments than papers.

After you have thought of some subject or question, you must start to look for literature. A good starting point is wikipedia or google scholar. (But never ever cite wikipedia in the paper!) Here you will find at lest some background info and some references. For many fields there are also databases with publications you can search by keyword (like MathSciNet for maths). Or look at the bibliography on the course website of the textbook. Once you have found a few good recent publications on your subject, the bibliographies in there will lead you further.

Now you have your literature, it is time to read it. I do this in two steps: first I read everything one time, quickly and in chronological order, without taking notes. Now I now roughly what is in what paper or book, and I read the interesting things, taking notes and underlining as I go. For the notes I use the same notebooks as for the lecture notes, so these notes can go in the binder too. I try to relate everything I read to the research question in some way, and make sure to put a reference to the paper or book on every page.

Then, when I have read everything I want to read, I make an outline and start writing. This is the first draft, so it does not have to be perfect right away. While writing, some points may come up that are not clear and need a bit more research. I note these down for now, and go back to all these points after the draft is finished. I do the remaining research, and rewrite the draft. Then print it out for proofreading. In the printout, I check all spelling, grammar and references. After that, it is ready to be handed in.

Two last things: make sure to backup your work regularly, for example by sending it to yourself by email every night. And try to use a nice layout; this is an easy way to make a good first impression.

Planning
Now you know all the things you need to do, but not how to plan for them. That is the next subject. I plan in my calendar. I write all the deadlines, exams and such in another ink colour than the other things so that they stand out. The same goes for the deadlines for individual steps in papers I set myself. I donít write down regular things to do like laundry and grocery shopping; I just do those as they come up.

In my calendar, I first put in all time-specific things like lectures, appointments and work. Then, in the remaining space, I plan the time with studying. I plan this mostly in the morning and afternoon, because I am not that good at working in the evening. Make sure you don’t plan your days too full with studying. Plan some fun things to do and some downtime too.

If you do all this, you will probably have an easier time managing all your classes and assignments. I know I did. But the reason to manage your time and stuff in a good way is not only to get good grades, but also to free up time for a social life and all the college activities there are. Your years at university should be fun, so make time for that.

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