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Effectively Using Your Notes

Now that you have the notes, what do you do with them?

The key to remembering new material is to actively interact with it and manipulate it. It should be an ongoing effort starting as soon as you leave class and continuing until the end of the course.  


When and how to review your notes.

First review should be immediately after class.

Reviewing your notes immediately after class gives you the chance to add material, make connections, ask questions, and to reorganize anything that does not make sense. This will help you consolidate your understanding of the material and produce notes that are more useful when studying. You might find it beneficial to review with another student. Working with two sets of notes and sparking each other’s memories will improve both your encoding of the material and the notes for later study.

Second review should be before the next class meeting.

Actively review your notes to solidify your knowledge and help organize the course material. This will help you remember more of the material and help you prepare for the next lecture. Actively rehearsing your notes involves more than simply looking them over. Useful strategies include self-questioning, summarizing, semantic mapping, drawing inferences, and connecting new information to something you already know. Working with another student will make reviewing easier because you can force each other to clearly explain the main ideas of the previous lecture. You will remember more if you test yourself at the end of every rehearsal session.

Continue to review the material on a regular basis between exams.

Set a schedule for reviewing your notes. During these periodic rehearsals concentrate on connecting new material to what you already know and to the course structure. Use study strategies that require you to actively engage the material. Write summaries of the main ideas, create content maps, and anticipate exam questions. If done correctly, studying with other dedicated students is more productive than working alone. This can be through formal study groups or just by getting together with a classmate.


Further tips for encoding material.

Use Multiple Senses. 

Elaborately encoded memories are more likely to be retained. Reading, writing, and speaking material out loud is more effective than simply reading it over. Drawing a picture to represent an idea or relationship is more effective than simply restating the relationship.

Create a meaningful context for material.

Memories are more strongly formed when attached to a personal context. If you are having difficulty remembering pieces of information, study them in a place that has a personal meaning to you. Or, study the material for different parts of the course in separate locations. Then, during exams, think back to the context of where you learned the material to aid in recall.

Use mnemonic strategies. 

Mnemonics are any memory technique that involves attaching images or words that are meaningful to you to new information you are having trouble remembering. The goal of these strategies is not that you will hold these connections forever, but that they will help you remember details until you can connect them to a broader structure.

Other mnemonic strategies:

  • Imagery: Create an image that incorporates words, ideas, or people that you need to remember. Thinking of the image then sparks the recall of the information. For example, creating an image of your friend Greg in a Bishop's hat fighting Uncle Henry from the Wizard of Oz will help you remember that Pope Gregory III clashed with Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire in a struggle that had wide ranging effects in the political restructuring of Europe during the Middle Ages.
  • Loci: Most helpful in remembering information that must be recalled in serial order. First create images of yourself walking through the rooms of your house or a building you know well. Create a visual image connected to each piece of information and place one in each room. When it comes time to recall the material, visualize walking through each room and looking at each object. This will prompt the recall of the information in the proper order.
  • Keywords: Especially helpful in learning new vocabulary. Connect a familiar keyword with a new word. Then create an image that includes the meaning of the new word with the familiar word. When trying to recall the meaning of the new word, think first of the keyword, which will bring the image to mind and the meaning of the new word. For example, to remember that the Spanish word for letter is ‘carte’ think of the English word cart. Then create an image of a letter in a cart. At the beginning, recalling that ‘carte’ means letter will require the intermediary step of visualizing the image you created. Over time, however, you will learn the word and your recall will be automatic.
  • Chaining: Another strategy useful for recalling information in serial order. Chaining involves creating a chain of visual images or words that connect each piece of information in a list to the next piece. Verbal chains are most effective if you can develop a sentence or short story using words that will prompt the recall of the information.
  • First-letter or sentence mnemonics: “Argh, never help x-ray kryptonite!” = noble gases, or  “My Very Excited Mother Just Starched Uncle Ned’s Pants” = order of planets (however, astronomers now believe that Uncle Ned’s ‘Pants’ aren’t really pants, after all.