EyeTools Optometry Skills

95: Making notes in lectures

95: Making notes in lectures

People who are studying optometry or one of its subspecialties will no doubt at some point be required to take theoretical and/or practical exams.

Part of learning and or exam preparation is attending lectures in person and/or online.

Lecturers usually provide some form of notes some days in advance of the class or in the minutes before the class starts. This is often a pdf copy of the slides with a space on the handout to enter your own notes. If you get the notes some days in advance skim read them to get a quick overview of what is to come before reading through more carefully, highlighting important information.

Good lecturers will talk around the images and text displayed in the slides. They will use them as a scaffold around which the flesh of the topic is built. Those people who filter and write down what they consider important from all the words the lecturer speaks, usually do better in knowledge development and exams than those who just sit there and listen and much better than those who just sit there and don’t listen.

I think it is very important to make a note of the important things the lecturer says. It can be easy to work out what to write down and what to ignore. For example:

‘I used to work in community practice and one of the patients I saw had a retinal tear. I detected pigment in the anterior third of the vitreous which is called Schafer’s sign and conducted a retinal examination through a dilated pupil. I found the retinal tear in the supra-temporal periphery of the retina. This is where retinal tears typically occur. I explained to the patient what I’d found and the importance of being treated that day. I referred him straight to eye casualty. This is the fourth retinal tear I have seen. The patient was treated and came back a month later to thank me.’

This is what doesn’t need to be written down in the notes:

‘I used to work in community practice and one of the patients I saw had a retinal tear. This is the fourth retinal tear I have seen. The patient was treated and came back a month later to thank me.’

This is what does need to be written down if it is not already in the notes provided by the lecturer:

‘Pigment in the anterior third of the vitreous Schafer’s sign. Retinal examination through a dilated pupil. found retinal tear supra-temporal periphery retina. Retinal tears typically occur. Explained to patient importance of being treated that day. Referred to eye casualty.’

It takes time to develop note-taking skills and if you have access to one go to a course on note-taking. Many universities and colleges provide these. Many lecturers and course leaders assume that students who have managed to get a place on the course will know how to take notes in a lecture but this is wrong. There is often little note-taking required in secondary/high school and if people aren’t taught how to do it how can they be expected to make good notes?

There is a concept called ‘active note taking’. This can be a difficult skill to learn. Active note-making involves making decisions each time you make a note, about:

  • what to note (or not)
  • how much detail you need to capture
  • how best to record it so it will make sense later
  • what purpose you might put it to
  • how it links with other notes
  • Whether you need to record the content or your own response to it

You will be actively making these decisions throughout the lecture. This means it’s much more likely that you will end up with a set of notes which is concise, useful, and aids your understanding both now and in the future.

Active note-making plays such a useful role in keeping your learning active, engaging more deeply with the content, and processing it yourself that it is a good learning strategy in itself.

Note-making requires you to decide what to note or not, and this in itself keeps your learning active.

  • Note-making helps you prioritise and emphasise the information on your own terms, in the context of what you already know or what you’re interested in.
  • Making notes requires you to rework the content creatively in your own words or in other visual forms, and this helps you to process it as part of your own understanding.
  • You can also note down your own questions, to ask the lecturer or look up later.
  • You can begin to make your own connections between pieces of information, as well as the overall structure provided by the lecturer, which means you’re integrating it into your own understanding.
  • You can leave notes to yourself about your reactions, thoughts, or impressions

Engaging with the information provided by the lecturer helps you understand and understanding lets you turn information into knowledge. When you turn up for an exam it’s good to have knowledge.

Some students write down every word the lecturer speaks but this takes a lot of mental effort leaving very little mental energy for the student to use to process the meaning of what the lecturer is saying. Also when it comes to revision instead of having, for example, two pages of concise notes packed with useful information the student may have four pages two of which are full of useless information. This student then has to search through the four pages looking for useful information. This all takes time and more effort. Two extra pages of notes for each lecture with a typical course consisting of 20 lectures means forty pages of useless information in which the good stuff is buried.

As soon as possible after the lecture and preferably the same day read your notes and the pdf slides. Make sure you can decipher all the words you have written and that everything makes sense. You understand all the concepts set out in the lecture. Make connections between different subtopics and add further notes. Annotate your notes and add your own comments or questions in the margin.

For example, you might want to add ‘Retinal tears cause pigment in the anterior one-third of the vitreous. Retinal tears mean same-day referral to eye casualty. Write out any questions you have and try looking up the answer online. If you still don’t understand then ask other people in your group for the answers as soon as you can. If you can’t ask your group or no one knows the answer contact the lecturer using office hours or ask via email or a discussion board. Some lecturers welcome email queries others prefer face-to-face meetings during office hours.

Some lectures are recorded and can be played back later and some people have said to me that because the lecture is recorded they don’t need to take notes. This is all fine but do you really want to trawl through 20 hours of recorded lectures in the build-up to exams when there are only around four hours of useful stuff in there? Isn’t it easy to read through a few pages of concise notes? You can take them anywhere; read them on the bus or train to work or study. You can add extra notes as new information becomes available, or you think new thoughts or make new connections.

Recorded lectures can be useful if you missed something, didn’t hear something in the lecture, or are unsure of something and your group can’t help you fill in the gaps. You can go back to the recorded lecture and find what you missed or didn’t hear you can pause to think more deeply about what you’re hearing and what kind of notes you need to make. If you remain unsure check with the lecturer.

There are a number of reasons to make notes in a lecture, even if it’s recorded:

  • To record information if it’s not otherwise preserved in print or digitally. You don’t need a record of everything though, so you can still be selective.
  • To absorb and make sense of information at the time. You may never need to refer back to these notes again, but making them helps you process your understanding.
  • To select, structure, and get an overview of information. Building a framework of a topic using the structure of the lecture can help you to integrate and consolidate information into a coherent whole and align it with your current understanding.
  • To help make it memorable. The notes you make also leave visual clues which will trigger your memory of the lecture and your insights.
  • To extract or highlight certain information for later use. You might want to draw on content from lectures for particular purposes such as assignments or revision, and you might note this at the time.
  • To note things to follow up for future reference. Lectures are a starting point for your learning. You may still have questions or areas you’re not sure of or aspects you want to research in more depth, and you can leave notes to yourself to do so.
  • To note your own response. Whether you are summarising something in your own words or symbols, adding your own explanation, or jotting down whether something strikes you as interesting or important, you are noting your own reactions as well as the lecture content, to make the learning your own.
  • To help you concentrate and focus on your purpose. Whatever your purpose, it helps to try and stay aware of why you are making a particular note so you concentrate, choose the most appropriate strategy, and don’t start to ‘zone out’ and copy things down passively.

Sometimes you might want to copy something down exactly (but is it already recorded in some form?), annotate a handout or slide with your own comments, capture a shorthand summary in your own words, bullet points, or symbols, connect information with other knowledge from earlier or just listen and make sure you are following an explanation, with a brief summary at the end or a note to read up on this later. You might also want to write down your own observations and questions for the lecturer.

I’m happy to add my notes to a pdf copy of the slides if it has been provided in a way that provides space for me to add my own notes.

Where a pdf copy of slides is not available perhaps because the lecturer does not use slides and the class is more of a discussion I like the Cornell note-taking system. I’ll write about this in another piece.

Examples of my own note-taking and page setup in the Cornell note-taking system.