Note-Taking for Different Lecture Styles


So, when I entered college, I was amazed at how many different lecture styles professors could have. Some used PowerPoints, some used the white board and some just talked at you and expected you to learn that way. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe amazed is not the right word. Maybe it’s better put as “culture-shocked to the point that required me to up my note-taking game.”

Regardless of the word you choose, there will eventually be a point in college (or grad school) where your regular note-taking style just can’t efficiently sort through the information presented to you. Therefore, I have decided to write a post that talks about how I adapted with each lecture styles in order to take the most efficient notes and ultimately determine the important test-worthy information.

I disclaim that this post presents only tips that work for me. As such, your results may vary. However, if you’re completely lost on how to take notes for lecture-style classes, I hope this serves as a good starting point so that you can eventually develop your own method of note-taking success!


The PowerPoint Lecture. This is perhaps the most common way that professors will present information. Unfortunately, the way they make their PowerPoint can vary. Ultimately though, I have found that the most common PowerPoint lectures come in three different flavors.

  1. The “Enjoy reading this giant block of text”
  2. The “Here’s an image that may or may not seem relevant to the lecture”
  3. And the “Just right”

Of these, the first two are the most difficult and always gave me the most trouble in deciphering what needed to be written down and what could be ignored. So, I’m going to go over these first two examples below:

Block of Text PowerPoints


So, lucky, a lot of professors know NOT to do this. And they should. This is like PowerPoint 101: What NOT to do. Unfortunately, not all professors got the memo and some still like to smack their students with slides and slides of text during each lecture. For me, this made lecture a very overwhelming experience. Not to mention, it also made it very hard to know what needs to be written down in your notes and what doesn’t.

So, what do you do?

  • First, look for any text that is CAPS, bolded, italicized, underlined, or a different color. These are usually indications that there is something important on the slide such as a definitions or key point. These things should be made priority and need to go in your notebook before the slide change.
  • Second, after looking for the above, speed read through the rest of the text as fast as you can. Does anything look like a definition or a fun fact that can be put on the next exam? Write these down too.
  • Third, if you notice that the professor verbally repeats something that’s on the slides, this is probably something they want to emphasize and could be a key piece of information to jot down.
  • Lastly, if your professor says something that isn’t on the current slide, use your best judgement to determine if it’s note-worthy or if they’re just going off a tangent.

(Side note: Did anyone notice the example uses the wrong form of “too”? It bothers me, but I like the image too much to find a new one.)

Image Heavy PowerPoints

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 4.11.39 PM

This is an actual slide from my class last semester. It looks fine. Just a giant graph talking about the peak for world oil production. It would be great, except my professor didn’t just say that and move on. He kept talking about anything and everything related to world oil production, climate change, global warming, etc. It was as if this slide was just a pretty picture he wanted to show but only barely relevant to the material.

So, what do you do now? Essentially, the only thing you can do is listen to what the professor says. The slides have basically become visuals to remind him or her what they need to say next. This essentially becomes an oral lecture, which I will talk about in a later section.


Chalk talks are what you would most commonly find in a math-heavy lecture. This can include any and all math classes, chemistry, physics, etc. Of course, like PowerPoint lectures, chalk talks can also have their variations. For instance, some professors write all the math, graphs or diagrams on the board but then verbally say important points and definitions about them. On the other hand, others write anything and everything down. The latter is easy. Just make sure that what is on the board is on your notes before it gets erased. However, the former is a little more tricky because you have to balance frantically writing everything on the board down while simultaneously listening to what your professor has to say.

How do I deal with chalk talks?

  • I like to use regular printer paper or graph paper for these types of lecture. Both have their benefits. I use printer paper when I know the lecturer can be a little scattered. This way, the paper represents the board their writing on and I can draw arrows to connect the trains of thought. For graph paper, I use these mostly in math-or diagram-intensive classes. This is mostly because it makes my notes look neater without much effort, and therefore, more legible.
  • Again, whatever is on the board goes on your notes. A professor isn’t going to make himself even more prone to Carpel Tunnel just to write something on the board that isn’t relevant. This is always my top priority.
  • Just like in PowerPoints, take notice if your professor repeats something. Repetition means there is something they want to drive into your mind and make you remember. Make sure these get written down somewhere, even if it’s in a little bubble on the margin of your paper.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up if you can’t read a professor’s handwriting. In the rush of lecture, sometimes the instructor can get sloppy  or perhaps they just have bad handwriting to begin with. If you can’t read it. Ask. That’s better than trying to take the time to decipher it later.


Oral presentations were always tricky for me. Obviously, I can’t write (or even type) fast enough to copy everything the professor says. At the same time, it’s also hard to know if the instructor is going on a tangent that’s not important or reciting key pieces of information.

So, to get through these lectures, here are some things you can do:

  • Record your lectures. I personally don’t do this but I see it working for a lot of others. The only real downside is you will probably have to listen to the lecture a second time, and slower. This could be a pain if you’re in a time crunch.
  • Write your notes in an outline format, starting with your main point and indenting each secondary point and supporting detail thereafter.
  • Again, if there is something that is repeated or verbally emphasized, it is probably important and needs to be written down
  • Do any reading needed for the class ahead of time, that way you can at least be somewhat familiar with the material and thereby you can kind of guess which direction the lecture is going.
  • Only write what you don’t know. Don’t worry about small details that are common knowledge. This will save a lot of time and make sure that you are able to write down all the information you need.


And finally, here are just some last minute note-taking tips that apply to every type of lecture style:

  • Write quickly. Neat notes are great but they do you no good if you can’t write down all the information you need. You can always rewrite your notes later as a type of review.
  • Shorthand. When you can, use shorthand. However, don’t go too far and use crazy symbols and forget what they mean. When you perfect your shorthand, keep it consistent and keep it simple. You can google search “note taking abbreviations” if you need some examples. I’m particularly bad at this tip, so I’m going to leave it at that.
  • On that same note, don’t feel the need to write complete sentences or correct grammar. Your notes are for your eyes only. The only thing that matters is that you can understand it. As I said before, you can rewrite your notes to perfection on another time. Lecture is not that time.
  • Finally, if you highlight or color code, KEEP IT SIMPLE! I am amazed at those people who can switch between 10 different color pens in a matter of seconds, but ultimately, they always seem to fall behind. I recommend no more than three colors if you choose to color code. Also, I recommend highlighting your notes AFTER lecture.



3 thoughts on “Note-Taking for Different Lecture Styles”

  1. I definitely agree that highlighting notes is better saved for after class, I prefer to rewrite my notes and highlight and color code them afterwards. I don’t think I could highlight in class, but I have had friends manage to swap between several pens in class and keep organization with it. It amazes me every time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had to do a lot of notetaking for dense presentations and lectures the previous semester, and I’ve got another suggestion.
    I’m surprised you don’t mention another thing: take notes on a laptop/tablet (something with a keyboard) rather than on paper. If you can type fast, it’s a real time-saver, and you can format and highlight instantly with hotkeys, all caps, bolding, etc.. Yes, supposedly writing things down with a pen helps you remember better, but let’s be real, you’re going to need to review things either way. Might as well save the pensmanship for your flash cards and review sheets.

    I make headlines and split the info into chunks and subsegments, elaborating on each as needed. A digital format also has the benefit of letting me quickly search for a keyword if I can’t remember what something is or how it relates to other things.


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