How to Take Science Notes

Learn how to take science notes to maximize your ability to remember content. (Chung Ho Leung)
Learn how to take science notes to maximize your ability to remember content. (Chung Ho Leung)

Taking notes for a science class requires organization and practice. As you gain experience taking notes, they can aid mastery of the topic both during note-taking and later when you are working problems and studying for tests. Here are some tips on how to take good science notes:

  • Write an Outline
    An outline is a structure where you identify key concepts and break them down into key points. For each key point, try to include any examples given by your instructor. If you are taking notes from a text, you could simply reference examples so you know where to find them, but it’s better to write out the example and work through it so you understand it.
  • Leave Space
    When you back to examine your notes, you may want to enter in additional information. Leave yourself space to flesh out ideas.
  • Write All Steps To Problems
    Don’t leave out steps to problems, particularly when math is involved, assuming you’ll understand how to get from one point to another just because it made sense during the lecture. Write down every little step — show your work.
  • Date Your Notes
    It’s a good idea to start on a fresh page for each new day you take notes. Write the date on the notes. Sometimes this can jar your memory. Also, dating notes makes it easier to scan them when you study.
  • Write Keywords and Phrases
    This is not the place for complete sentences! For one thing, you likely won’t have time to write all the extra words. For another, the extra text can be a distraction. If you are marking key points in a book, highlight important words and phrases. It doesn’t do you any good to color in an entire page with highlighter.
  • Use Abbreviations
    Learn scientific units and use them. For example, write g instead of grams or K instead of Kelvin. Use shorthand notation for words you use a lot. These can be symbols you develop yourself or you can get them from a book. Examples of helpful notation include w/ for with and e.g. for examples.
  • Cross Reference with Labs
    Refer to relevant lab exercises. If you are taking lab notes, let yourself know where to locate the lecture notes. Your lab book will be separate from your lecture notes, so you won’t be able to keep all of the information in one place.
  • Review Notes Before and After Class
    If you review notes soon after class, you’ll reinforce the material and learn to identify holes in your coverage. Write down any questions you need to ask in class. Right before class starts, review notes to make sure you’re up to speed and the concepts are fresh in your mind so that you are ready to move on to new material.
  • Compare Notes with Classmates
    You and your classmate or lab partner might identify different points as important. It helps to compare science notes to cover all your bases. It’s also more fun than studying by yourself (just don’t get distracted and switch over to playing video games together).
  • Make Flash Cards
    Organize your thoughts using flash cards so you can quiz yourself on key concepts. Flash cards present material in a different order, helping establish long-term memory of the facts.

How Not To Take Science Notes

While any notes are better than having no notes, you should avoid practices that won’t help you learn the material. For example, it’s not very helpful to copy notes taken by other people because there’s nothing to help you jog your memory. If you simply must copy notes, re-copy them by hand (or type them) to get the most benefit. Using a copier is the worst because you don’t have any personal connection with these science notes.

Another common pitfall is taking too many notes. If you’ve got an audio transcript of a lecture, written notes, hand-outs, someone else’s notes, flash cards, etc., chances are good you’ll spend more time organizing your notes than actually studying. For some people, taking video of a lecture may be helpful for reviewing key points, but it’s usually a waste of time and data storage, since almost no one studies effectively this way.