Listening Well and Taking Effective Lecture Notes

Most people retain only a small fraction of what they hear. Good notes can increase that fraction significantly. Use the tips below to improve your listening skills and your note-taking skills:

Before Lecture:


Readings plant seeds in your mind that will be watered and cultivated in lecture. Be sure to complete required readings before lecture. If you haven’t done the reading, you will scramble to keep up with the unfamiliar information coming at you, and remember even less of it than otherwise. You will also find it harder to take effective notes because you won’t know where the lecture is headed.


Arrive early and take a seat in the center of a row and up front near the lecturer, where you can see the board and slides and hear the lecture clearly.


Skipping lecture is not an option. Do not rely solely on your classmates’ notes or online lecture notes. Individuals tend to take notes on different things and in different ways. Learning depends on repetition: reading before lecture, hearing the material analyzed during lecture, reviewing your notes, then working on psets—each of these reinforces the others. Besides, you are paying the professors to teach you. Why skip out on their lectures?

During Lecture:

Less is More:

Do not attempt to write down the lecturer’s words verbatim. Try to get down as much of the relevant information as possible using the fewest possible words. Save writing time by using personal abbreviations and symbols that you will remember.  Develop a system that works for you.

If you have trouble taking notes, consider recording the lecture, if the instructor allows this; not all do. Many lectures are available for review on MIT OpenCourseWare.

Listen for Signal Words and Phrases:

Signal words and phrases can help you pinpoint when key ideas and formulas are going to be introduced.

Some common signal words and phrases include:

  • ‘There are 3 reasons why…” or “First…Second…Third…”
  • “And most important…” or “It is worthwhile to note”
  • “A major development…” or “A key concept…”

Some common signals for supporting material include:

  • “On the other hand…”
  • “On the contrary…”
  • “For example…”
  • “Similarly…”
  • “In contrast…”
  • “Furthermore…”

After Lecture:


Review your notes as quickly as possible after class when the material is still fresh in your mind. If possible, schedule time for this when planning your time (see Constructing a Balanced Schedule); otherwise, even five minutes before the next class starts will help.

If you have terrible handwriting, consider typing your notes. Either type them directly into your computer in class or type them up from your handwritten notes after class. Don’t type notes if your handwritten notes are clear, unless this helps you review the concepts presented.


Regardless of how you took your notes, be sure to spend time touching them up, filling in blanks, clarifying abbreviations, and making note of any questions that come up as you review them.

If anything from your notes is unclear or you have remaining questions from lecture or your readings, jot them down and have them ready to discuss with your TA in recitation.

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