Note Taking: The Basics

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Alternatively entitled: The Overembellished Remarks of an Obsessive and Passionate Notetaker!

Dreaming of the excess of highlighters, colourful sticky notes, smudge-free pens, notebooks with intricate patterns and designs… the options are endless, and I would have to admittedly say that the stationary collection I possess is extensive. Since I can remember, notetaking has been a long-established passion of mine. Even as an undergrad, I worked as a notetaker, where I attended classes for individuals who were unable to be present due to extenuating circumstances. Not to say you must be at the eccentric level of myself or even Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, rolling into your Law classes with a heart-shaped notepad and a pink, fuzzy flamboyant pen, but having an array of writing utensils and methods and using them in an effective manner not only exhibits a level of preparedness, but it can really take your notetaking to the next level.

The notes field in PowerPoint

Saying goodbye to the pink notepad?

As probably assumed, I take great pride in taking handwritten notes, but sometimes this poses a challenge during class lectures. Depending on the lecturer, some will provide your lecture notes or PowerPoint slides prior to your class period. In the settings of PowerPoint, if you go to the top bar, and click View, and scroll down to Notes Page you can create a larger notetaking section that appears below each slide. From my previous work as a Learning Strategist and Teaching Assistant, a fundamental mistake and one that has taken myself years to deter from is taking identical notes to the slides and it’s apparent how this becomes a redundant practice. I find this formatting to be extremely helpful, as you can truly focus on your lecturers’ sentiments and their own interpretations and descriptions of materials.

Printing the slides

If you have the means to and in classes where your slide count is minimal, another alternative would be printing your slides prior to your class if you prefer to write out your notes. In PowerPoint select File, then scroll down to Print.

From this section you will be able to view your Printing Preferences, where you can select in Layout how many slides you would like to print per page. I have always found three to be a solid number in terms of spacing and being able to read the slides on paper. The provided lines available for writing additional notes is a great tool to utilize as it keeps your notes in order.

My lecturer talks so fast!

Many students I have spoken to over the years have relayed their concerns on trying to get every single word down that the lecturer is saying, and this can be quite overwhelming. In the case that your lecturer does not provide you with the lecture notes prior to your class period, I would recommend this format: Begin with your Title, Class of Study, Day of the Week and Date. Then label your slides numerically, and title each one depending on the subject material the lecturer has provided. Don’t try and chase every word down the lecturer is saying, instead focus on Key terms, Principles, Case Law, and Statutes. Taking away the crucial bits is of the outmost importance. Remember, you can always go back after your lecture to do additional research or focus on specific areas in your readings to gather more information or insight.

Colour categorisation

Depending on the pace of your lecturer, you may or may not have time in the moment to add in colour coating, bolding, or underlining. Now, highlighting can get a bit fun for those of you who love to colour coat, but you must be careful to not go overboard. I remember at the beginning of my undergraduate degree; I would have full pages of readings or textbooks covered in highlighting. It takes time to find a system where you can extract key pieces of information. Typically, I use a spectrum of colours to denote different meanings when I’m highlighting whether this is on my electronic device or on paper. As a general legend, this is the way in which I designate and label information:

Case Law/ Statutes– Yellow Held/Courts Ruling -Light Blue Key Influential Thinkers – Light Pink Key Concepts or Principles – Light Green

Depending on your own preferences, you can use a vast array of colours, but I find the more you use the same set by not switching them up gives your highlighting a sense of purpose. Using this is as an additional enhancement to your notetaking methods, as it helps a great deal with memory recall and comprehending information more effectively.

Table your ideas

I’m a big brainstormer, and the excess of scribbles, spiderwebs and tables I use is constant. Using Tables to separate and organize information is extremely beneficial. Especially in terms of preparing for formatives or summatives, being able to dissect, categorize and analyse information with a critical lens is key. In tutorials, I have also been using tables more frequently and it has been a lifesaver as they are particularly helpful for essay-based questions or prompts. As important as it is to separate and categorize information, pay attention to the overlap that is created, highlight those areas in which you see this as this will be key to answering your given prompt. I’ve provided an example of an essay-based prompt from Constitutional Law to exhibit this:

Expand your horizons

To add to this passionate monologue on notetaking, it’s important to remember that taking notes can feel a bit messy and a little inorganic. It takes time to find basics that truly adapt to your own understanding. Moving beyond Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, applications such as Notion and Obsidian are incredible platforms to expand your notetaking horizons. With a few simple tips and tricks, I hope this provides a bit of a foundation to the ins and outs on how to be a successful notetaker from a 1st year postgraduate Law Student perspective.

The author

Thanks to Sarah Calder, GELLB1 student at City for this excellent series of tips on note-taking. Sarah is an international student who graduated with an Honours BA in Sociology from the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada).

Her main research and writing interests have stemmed from my work experiences and academic studies, those of which include analyzing the politics of race and gender, looking at ableism and ableist practices, the ingrained effects of systemic and colonial oppression and the representation of marginalized groups and communities.