How to Take Good Notes in Math Class

It’s time to talk about an age-old topic: taking notes. All of us take notes, but few of us know how to do it properly. Until my last year of university, I didn’t know how to take notes properly. Can you imagine that?! 15 years of taking notes and I still wasn’t any good. How many times have you walked out of a lecture and realized that you have no idea what you've just heard? Do you ever think to yourself, “there must be a better way to take notes!” If you do, you’re in for a treat. In this article, I attempt to provide you with a solution for taking the best notes possible.  

01 | How to Take Bad Notes

Students usually suffer from at least one of three note-taking problems: 

  • they are taking notes passively, 
  • they are distracted in lectures, 
  • or, they have not mentally primed for the lecture. 

I’ll explore each of these topics in more detail. 

Passive Note-Taking

So… what do I mean by taking notes passively? The main form of passive note-taking is writing down every single word the teacher says without giving it any thought. The next time you’re in a lecture, take a look around the room. You’ll see that 95% of students are mindlessly writing down every word the professor says. When I was in university, I would sometimes feel GUILTY if I was not constantly taking notes. Everyone was doing it, so it must be the right thing to do... right? There is almost this “hive-mind” behaviour with note-taking. Let me say this: taking good notes is HARD WORK. You have to actively be thinking and listening. Most students don’t want to put this hard work in. So, they default to the easier task of writing down everything, yet understanding nothing.  

how to take notes in math class

Being Distracted in Lectures

Students often have trouble focusing in lectures because of the two F’s: Facebook & friends. 

Facebook is more or less a metaphor for social media, texting, and technology. When a student doesn't give their undivided attention to taking notes - which is hard work remember - they end up taking bad notes. Sitting near friends is usually not a good idea, because they constantly shift our attention to conversations that are more interesting in the moment. In most lectures, I sat separate from my friends. I’m someone who really likes to separate my work from my play. I don’t like to do activities where there is a grey area. For example, when I sit near my friends I have to constantly shift my attention between what they are talking about and what is going on in the lecture. I’d much rather focus hard in the lecture, and then go really deep into other conversations during my break. Besides, good friends don’t care if you don’t talk to them during the lecture and it gives them a chance to focus better as well. 

Not Mentally Primed

The average person needs to see something a few times before it really sticks in their head. Most students come to lectures unprepared and therefore unprimed. Since they have no prior knowledge of the topic, the lecture is the first time they are hearing about it. Naturally, you are not going to learn very much if it’s your first time hearing about a difficult topic. 

don't understand lecture

02 | How to Effectively Take Good Notes

The Cornell Method

The note-taking method I recommend is the Cornell method. Split the page up into 3 sections: main ideas, summary, and notes. This method will help you clearly organize your thoughts in the lecture. Most importantly, it promotes active learning.  

cornell notes method engineering

Being An Active Learner

Taking notes is hard. When we're sitting in a lecture, we often have to choose between listening to the professor's words or writing stuff down. This can easily feel overwhelming. As a result, most students immediately default to rewriting everything the professor says, so that they can review it later. In my opinion, this is a huge waste of time. After writing the notes, we'll have to spend time understanding them later because we were not being active learners in class. Furthermore, when we’re going over our notes, we might have some questions about the topic and run into things we don’t understand. Now, we have to e-mail our professor or go meet her during office hours in order to clear up any misunderstandings. When we write everything the professor says, we become superficially focused on what they are saying and forego any kind of understanding. Instead, it’s better to listen for understanding in the first place. Get into the habit of mentally trying to re-teach yourself what the teacher is saying. Think to yourself, "how would I explain this to someone else" as the lecture progresses. This is commonly referred to as the Feynman technique.  

Mental Priming

As I said before, most people need to see something a few times before they truly understand it. Coming into a lecture having never seen the material before is doing yourself a huge disservice. I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to read a whole chapter on the topic from the textbook!” I understand. I was an engineering student once too. Here’s a practical hack to mentally prime yourself without having to do any heavy reading. Most professors will hand out a syllabus early in the semester that outlines what topics they are going to talk about on any given day. If you know what the topic is going to be in the next lecture  - and you should - look that topic up in your textbook. Next, I want you to start a Cornell notes page. Go through each of the headings in your textbook for that topic and write them down in the main idea's section of your Cornell notes page. Now, you have a rough idea of what the teacher is going to talk about. If you want to take it a step further, look up YouTube videos on each of those headings before you go to sleep. This will allow you to get a general overview of the topic. When you go to the lecture, you will have a rough idea of what topics are going to be talked about and you will have encountered some of the information already. This greatly increases your ability to understand what’s going on in a lecture. 

Should my Notes be Clean and Organized? Should I Rewrite my Notes on my Computer?

In my opinion, never sacrifice speed for cleanliness and organization. The Cornell notes method is already fairly organized. I used to worry about making my notes “pretty”. I’d use highlighters and different colours for graphs and examples. Honestly, it was a huge waste of time. The final destination for the information is in our brains, not our notes! I would make the writing neat enough to read later, and organized enough to follow. After the semester, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever look at those notes again. Rewriting notes is another huge waste of time. More often than not, it’s another form of passive learning. Just focus on applying and understanding the information, rather than rewriting it or making it neater. Again, the final destination is your brain.  

Cornell Method: Summary Section

At the end of each lecture, I would take 10 minutes to summarize and re-teach the main points of what I just learned using simple language.  

03 | Conclusion

Focus on being an active learner in class and being mentally primed. Use the Cornell method to take better notes. If you have any questions at the end of the lecture, make sure to ask your professor right away.  

What are your best note-taking tips? Let me know in the comments!