All students seem to accept that they should take notes during a lecture. However, they don't think about why they are doing this. Most students think that the reason to take notes is to have a reference for later, but we know that the real reason to take notes is to make your brain process the material. As a result, many students frantically write down computations instead of thinking about what is going on -- and reserve the "thinking about what is going on" until later!

Ideally, students would not write down every little thing said by the instructor, but would take note of important facts and also write down many of their own thoughts and questions.

What methods have you actually tried in your courses to help students learn how to take effective math notes? I'd welcome success stories and otherwise.

  • $\begingroup$ The question seems to assume that the mode of instruction is straight lecturing, in which the professor presents the material. IMO this is the least effective mode of instruction, and difficult to justify except on the grounds of tradition or expediency. With other modes of instruction, there would be no reason to take notes on "the material." $\endgroup$
    – user507
    May 6, 2014 at 15:35
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Ben Crowell Are you saying that note-taking as a skill has been made obsolete by advances in instructional techniques? $\endgroup$ May 6, 2014 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I think note-taking as a skill was made obsolete by the printing press. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    May 7, 2014 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Ben Crowell Then if you saw my classes, you might literally say they are out of the dark ages! I currently spend about 25-50% of class time in a lecture format. Assuming you are here to be constructive and not trolling (a bold assumption on the internet!), would you be interested in leaving your views as an answer? I can imagine an informative answer that begins with "We should construct our classes to avoid the necessity of taking notes." $\endgroup$ May 8, 2014 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand why taking notes is useful. I know that when you're reading something, you're probably more likely to remember it if you copy it down in handwriting than if you just read it because writing is slower than reading so writing it down forces you to read it slowly enough to take in more of what you read. Although writing is slower than talking, you cannot make yourself remember the lecture better by writing it down because you will fall behind on your writing keeping up with their talking. Although maybe researchers say writing it down makes you remember it better, I'm not sure $\endgroup$
    – Timothy
    Mar 4, 2019 at 5:13

1 Answer 1


It's a skill you can teach fairly explicitly

I teach 16-18 year old students A-level maths in classes (not lectures) in the UK. Over the course of two years I gradually switch from telling them exactly what to write, where and when to letting them decide. They do occasionally still ask near the end, but that's OK, and we can discuss it.

This is comparable to teaching them any long term skill - at first I make every decision for them, then involve them increasingly in the decision making, and finally I'm only needed for occasions when they're unsure again.


As a student your needs may vary from what is expected

From the other side of the fence, as an undergraduate I found some lecturers had magic dust in that I understood them very clearly when they were in the room but when they went away I was lost. It took me a long time to figure out that the magic dust was the explanations they were saying out loud but not writing on the board.

When I wrote things down that helped explain, I found I understood even when I was away from the lecturer.

Conclusion: students and teachers may actually underestimate how much needs to be written down, and it depends on the combination of subject, student and lecturer.


Guide them to experienced choices

There's no easy way for students to see which details they will need to write down. Experience is the best teacher, but you can help them acquire that over time rather than they suddenly switch from all guidance to no guidance.

  • $\begingroup$ Your "magic dust" is what I try to sprinkle liberally on my class notes, in form of detailed solutions of examples. But it seems very few make the effort to read through them... $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Jun 20, 2014 at 7:24

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