Organising your lecture notes

By admin
Category: Practical | Date: Mon 13 Oct, 2008

Somewhere in the attic at my parents’ house are several carrier bags full of lined A4 paper. If you pulled out a handful of sheets, you’d find a complete jumble of topics – from calculus to linguistics. I made notes on lined paper at school, but never got around to transferring these into any sort of filing system. When it came to revision time, I worked from the text books.

As an undergrad, though, I developed some better organisational skills – which really helped at exam time, or when looking up a vital reference for an essay. Here’s how to keep your lecture notes organised, with a minimum of fuss, so that you can easily find what you need.

Before the lecture starts

It’s definitely useful to have a working pen and some paper with you (you don’t want to end up writing on the back of your timetable with a dying biro). I use lined A4 paper pads. Loose-leaf paper is easier to file, so if you use a notebook, get one which has easy-tear pages.

Once you’ve sat down in the lecture room, write at the top of your paper:

  • Your name (in case you lose your notes or lend them to someone)
  • The year of your course (1st year, 2nd year, etc)
  • The term or semester (at Cambridge they were called Michaelmas, Lent and Easter)
  • The module or subject that the lecture is for
  • The title of the lecture
  • The lecturer’s name – especially if you have a different lecturer each week
  • The date of the lecture

Here’s how I fit all this onto the top of the sheet:

Yes, I know that seems like a ridiculous amount to be writing down before a lecture has even begun – but it only takes a minute once you’re in the habit, and saves you an awful lot of time figuring out what the heck a random set of notes were about…

During the lecture

(I’m not covering note-taking methods here – that’s a subject for a whole separate post.)

Each time you start a new page, jot the page number in the top right corner (which makes it easy to see when you’re flicking through pages), and write the lecture title at the top of the page. This really helps if your pages end up getting stuffed into a cardboard wallet for a few days before you file them; getting pages into the right order a week after the lecture can be surprisingly hard.

When you get given a handout, jot the same information on it as you would on your own notes – in particular, the date, lecture title and name of the lecturer. Again, this helps when it comes to filing everything together.

After the lecture

Most students aren’t great at filing lecture notes – they leave them in an unlabeled cardboard wallet, dump them on the floor by their desk, or carry them around for days on end. Filing is one of those universally hated activities, but I found that a “little and often” approach helps.

At the end of each week, or (if you can face it) each day, take all your notes out of your bag and file them. I used one ringbinder for each module Shove some dividers in, and keep each lecture series in order, in its own division.

It really is worth the effort when you realise you need to revise from these notes. If you’re taking an arts or humanities subject, you may well find that the majority of the content is delivered through lectures – it’s rare to have a text book – and you’re going to want to refer back to things you jotted down months ago. It’s much easier to do that when they’re neatly organised in a ring binder, not in a heap under the bed.

Over to you

Further reading:

  • How to Organise Notes – on WikiHow. Good advice both on filing and rewriting/editing notes at exam time.
  • Filing for beginners – from Emerald Insight. Well worth a read if you often feel swamped by paper.

Do you have a brilliant system for keeping all your lecture notes organised? Or have you given up on note-taking altogether, in favour of snoozing your way through that boring nine am class..?

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