Great Tips for Note-Taking in Class

by Dr. Emily Levy
(Originally published in Big Apple Parent Magazine, September 2006)

Has your child ever come home with a blank page of class notes?  Has he complained of not being able to listen in class and jot down information fast enough?  Has she ever missed important facts from a teacher’s lecture?  If so, then your child may be in need of some tools for listening and taking well-written notes.

Listening in class and taking notes can be a challenge for almost any student.  As students progress through school, in-class note taking demands become increasingly more challenging.  Students are required to listen to information dictated by their teachers, process that information, and rewrite it in their own words in the form of easy-to-read notes.  Without proper strategies, this multi-step process can be frustrating and overwhelming.

Luckily, there are some helpful tools for developing listening and note taking skills.  For starters, it’s important for students to learn how to jot down information quickly.  This skill is especially important in class, when teachers often speak quickly and relay an overwhelming about of information.  Students often hear dates, names, numbers, and key names, and scramble to try to capture every bit of information in their notes, usually in the form of time consuming full sentences.  Learning shorthand strategies can help students combat this I-must-write-everything-down trap:


Symbols — percentage (%), question (?), number (#), money ($) — save time. For practice, have your child come up with symbols for the following words:  and, equals, star, sun, and circle.  You can then dictate mock sentences integrating these words and have your child write the sentences using abbreviations.  For example: “Jack has a question about problem number one and would like an answer.”  Your child might write, “Jack has a ? about problem #1 & would like an answer.”  Have fun coming up with these symbol-filled sentences!


Abbreviations — Wednesday (Wed), homework (hwk), people (ppl), school (schl) — help students break down words into smaller chunks of letters. Your child can feel free to make up his own abbreviations – there are no set rules for abbreviating most words!  For example, he can choose to abbreviate therefore as thfr, maybe as mbe, or assignment as asmt.  He can be as creative as he likes, as long as he remembers what the abbreviations stand for.  For practice, have your child come up with abbreviations for the following words:  Thursday, workbook, problem, notebook, lesson.  Then dictate sentences integrating these abbreviations for extra reinforcement.


Contractions help save time by combining two words into one shorter, more compact word.  Some examples include: couldn’t (stands for could not), he’s (he is), and hasn’t (has not).  Have your child come up with contractions for the following words:   you are, is not, it will, and they are.  For a bonus practice session, dictate sentences containing symbols, abbreviations, and contractions.  He’ll be writing shorthand in no time!

The Notes

Once your child has learned shorthand techniques, it is important to learn how to integrate these symbols, contractions, and abbreviations into well-organized notes.  What is the best way to organize a well-written page of notes?  Part of that answer depends on your child’s preferred learning style.  Some students are more linear learners, who will likely take an affinity towards Column-Style Note Taking. Others are more visually-oriented and will more likely prefer Webbing.  Try both styles of note taking with your child to see which one works best!

Column-Style Note Taking

Column-Style Note Taking helps students organize information into two different columns.  The left column should be drawn 1/3 from the left side of the page, and labeled “Main Ideas”; the right column should be 2/3 from the right side of the page and labeled “Notes”. He should pre-prepare three to four pages of notes (depending on his grade level and the complexity of the lecture) using this column-style set-up.

In class, when the teacher begins speaking, the only place on the page where the student should take notes is on the right side, under the “Notes” column.  During class, nothing should be written under the “Main Ideas” column. At home, he should re-read his notes and group different sections of the lecture into specific main ideas.  For example, if the entire lecture was on World War I, the first part may have been about causes of the war.  Thus, the student would write “Causes of World War I” on the left side of the page, under the “Main Ideas” column, and next to the information corresponding to that section of the notes.  The student would move through all of his notes in that manner, categorizing his notes into different main ideas.

Column-Style Note Taking encourages students to look back at their notes at the end of the school day to ensure they understand all the information that was dictated, and that there are no information gaps.  If there were any gaps in the notes, students can either ask their teacher or a friend for the missing information, or research that information in their textbooks.  Column-Style Note Taking is a very comprehensive strategy for taking notes and preparing well for upcoming exams.


Webbing is a sound strategy for students who prefer a more visual technique for taking notes.  To use this strategy, the student first draws a circle in the center of page.   Inside that circle, he writes the topic of the lecture (for example, World War I).  Next, he draws a line branching out of the center circle.  On the line, he writes the first section, or main idea, of the lecture (for example, Causes of World War I).  He then draws bubbles branching out of that line containing important details which describe that main idea.  Once the teacher has finished discussing that section, he draws another line branching from the original center circle.  On that line, he writes the next main idea (for example,  Battles of World War I).  He then draws bubbles branching out of that line with important details describing that main idea, and continues with that pattern until the lecture is complete. Webbing helps students visualize information that they hear, and Web diagrams serve as great tools for test preparation!

The process of listening in class and taking well-written notes can be an anxiety-filled task.  Students will be required to take more and more complex notes as they progress through school.  Learning these techniques for shorthand and different styles of note taking can ease this process and help develop students’ confidence in their own classroom abilities.  So get your note taking gear ready, and start practicing!

Dear Dr. Levy, My son received an excellent report card. I can’t say enough good things about his EBL tutor. She has done a tremendous job helping him improve his reading and writing skills. Most importantly, she is wise and kind. She is always patient with him. Because of his tutor, my son writes with much more ease.
– Parent