Note Taking for Success in Chemistry Courses



By Alayna Johnson, 2018-2019 SCS Student Advising Leader:

Note Taking for Success in Chemistry Courses

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about tackling organic chemistry where I mentioned the importance of taking great notes. I thought I would write this week’s blog about successful note-taking! Without further ado: this is my tried-and-true note-taking method for acing your chemistry classes.

Step 1: during lecture

  • Attend the lecture. Even if the professor posts notes after class, don’t rely on them. It’s simply impossible to capture every nuance and comment they provide in person.
  • Put away your devices and prepare to write your notes the old-fashion way. Although typing or writing on a tablet may seem slick, just about every study conducted on the subject agrees that writing notes significantly improves your long-term memory. (Don’t believe me? Check this out:
  • Write down as much as you can, including what the professor writes on the board and what they say out loud. Don’t worry if your notes look a little messy; you’re just trying to get all of the ideas down.

Step 2: as soon as possible after lecture

  • This step is most effective if done immediately after lecture, but that’s not always possible, so some time the same day is ideal. Take out a clean sheet of paper, your lecture notes, and a pen. You guessed it: no typing allowed in this step either!
  • Reread your notes, now thinking deeply about each concept. Attempt to make connections to material you already know. Begin rewriting the notes on your clean sheet of paper, even rewriting concepts you think you completely understand. Your goal is a complete, neat copy of the lecture notes.
  • When you come across something you don’t understand, write down as much as you can about it, leave some space, and specifically note what is confusing in the margin. Rather than marking it with a question mark, physically write out “I don’t understand why the nucleophile attacks carbon 2 and not carbon 4”, for example.   

Step 3: office hours and beyond

  • Bring your organized notes, filled with specific questions to office hours and ask away.
  • After talking with your TA, attempt to fill in the space you left in your notes. If you’re still confused, repeat the process by writing down a specific question, presenting it to a TA, and independently thinking about their response until you feel comfortable with all the material presented in lecture.
  • Violá: you now have a complete record of lecture that you completely understand. If you maintain this routine after every lecture, when exam time rolls around, you will understand every concept. This turns your study time from “I don’t understand anything!” to “I already know all of the concepts and have addressed the areas that I struggle with: I just need to review and practice.”

The entire process may seem lengthy and excessive, especially writing out all of your lecture notes twice, but remember that the rewriting is actually a study technique. You’re not simply transcribing; you’re thinking deeply about the material and identifying areas of confusion. Obviously, this method won’t work perfectly for everyone and different classes will call for different note-taking techniques. However, I’ve found that if I put in an hour after every lecture to re-write and re-think my notes, the amount of time I need to spend studying before an exam is cut by more than half.