Perhaps the most important thing to say about taking notes in lectures - and when reading - is not to take too many notes! It is important to learn how to 'see the wood for the trees', but admittedly it does take time to get the hang of this. Keep practising.
When you sit in a lecture, you are being given an opportunity to listen to an expert talk passionately (hopefully) about their specialist subject. Taking a few notes will help you to orientate yourself later, when revising or reading through notes for essay planning, but it is very hard to listen closely to someone speak AND take useful notes at the same time.
Note taking is, luckily, something that you will get better at with practice.
Tips for taking notes:
- listen out for changes in direction; has the lecturer divided up their talk into sections? Have they signaled a change between one subject and another? These changes of direction are useful to note down as headings.
- ALWAYS review your notes soon after a lecture - what can you remember to fill any gaps? Did you note down further reading to do or resources to chase up?
- be careful of illustrative examples - and be SELECTIVE. Choose a handful of examples that you can recall well and clearly rather than 300 that you remember vaguely; when it comes to the pressured situation of an exam, you won't be able to remember (or write down) more than three of four examples.
- build up your own dictionary of technical terms whenever you come across something you didn't understand at the time. Try to link your explanation to examples, authors, sources etc (for example, on note cards) for easier revision.
- Don't just make notes in lectures or when reading that will help you to answer just one question. Always make notes in such a way as to be able to turn them into several answers, to gain an overview of a subject - this allows you a greater flexibility when you get to exams.
- Do look at the past Tripos papers to see how a single topic has been treated in the past and the range of questions that might crop up. These appear on the Faculty website, or ask your supervisor for copies.
- Do create your own critical summaries of a topic to aid your revision later.
- Do swap your notes and essays with others - it always helps to get another critical insight into a topic.
Types of note-taking
There are arguably three types of note-taking, each one of which relates to a different purpose. You may well start at the beginning of the year by practising taking detailed notes from your reading, but it is well worth practising making more condensed notes or even creating case studies that compile all of your notes on one subject into a single resource.
You might make detailed notes when reviewing a good source or a well-respected book on a subject. You would probably read the book more thoroughly than normal, and take down the details on the examples it contains or the evidence the author uses to support their arguments. This type of note-taking would also be a useful way of capturing the essence of your reading of source material or conversations with people.
These are 'snapshots' written after you have attended a lecture of a topic or read a book or journal article. Writing summative notes is a very good habit to get into both for your reading (as above) or when reviewing your lectures; it is always easier to revise a clear summary than a sprawling collection of unlinked notes. Think of this as creating an 'abstract' of your reading, in the same way as authors have to supply an abstract of their article for publication in a journal.
Once you feel that you have begun to understand a subject or have collected sufficient notes on sources, it is worthwhile trying to write a 'case study' of the topic that brings everything together and allows you to then develop your own thoughts and interpretations of the subject. This is very good training for your critical faculties and will help you develop one of the most important skills an apprentice historian can gain; analysing the work of others and the sources they have used and synthesising these into your own view on a subject.
It is important in your note-taking to signal to yourself which notes represent your own thoughts rather than a summary of an author's.