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Do's and Don’ts For Taking Effective Lecture Notes

Lectures are a new format of learning for a lot of medical students and they can often really struggle to not only keep up with the content, but also summarise it in a way that is useful for later revision. As a medical student who really struggled with making notes, a lot of the don’ts stem from mistakes I made and the do’s reflect my current lecture style. Below are some of the most important tips for taking lecture notes effectively.

DO: Watch/Read your lectures back

Medical students can often make two types of mistakes - one is to watch the lecture once, fully focused and without making notes, and on the other side of the spectrum, some make extensive notes during the lecture without really processing the information they are receiving. People do have different thoughts and preferences regarding this, all of which are valid, but one key thing to do – regardless of preference – is to revisit the lectures after. What worked best for me was to make brief notes during the lecture, and then to make a clearer copy later on with the help of a textbook and recording of the lecture for concepts I didn’t quite catch the first time.

DON’T: Copy off the PowerPoint

Handouts or PowerPoints are almost always made available to students after the lecture, if not before. So if the information is already there - it’s relatively pointless copying it out again (three times in total if you’re going to make more concise notes). This is a mistake most medical students make in the first weeks, but eventually, students realise that the sheer content on each slide is too much to note down if they want to actually listen to the lecturer. You attend lectures to listen to the lecturer teach you the topic – so noting down key points that they are making (especially ones not on the PowerPoint) is great, but copying down information that is already available to you is not a priority.

DO: Use abbreviations

It is incredibly difficult to multitask listening and writing at the same time, so an easy way to save time is to use abbreviations. I used to abbreviate normal words thinking that would make my note-taking faster but over time I’ve learnt that the words that take the longest to write are the ones you’ve never seen before. There’s no need to copy out that Metronidazole is used to treat Entamoeba histolytica - by shortening this to “metro...azoleà E.hist”, you can save valuable time. You can Google the correct spelling later if need be and your notes will be more concise and clearer in the long run.

DON’T: Feel like you have to learn everything

Often, after a complicated lecture with word-heavy slides and a lecturer who keeps referring to his extensive research, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. It’s important to be able to determine the parts of the lecture that is purely extra information – this will come with time and experience. Lecturers provide this extra information for two main reasons: firstly, genuine excitement about the topic (as it is one he cares about enough to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy into researching about it), and secondly, to inspire possible future pursuers of this specialty. If you don’t fit into this category, and don’t find particular interest in learning more than you need to know, look at the learning objectives to see what is going to be seriously examined. If you are unsure, a few questions at the end or even an email can easily resolve this issue - just don’t be afraid to ask.

DO: Work as a team

Gone are the days when all students were neck and neck trying to secure medical school places - it’s important to learn to work as a team in preparation for life as a doctor. Talk to other students to see if they have any handy way of remembering key terms. Use the notes from seniors in the years above too - they usually have been refined over the years and are exam-oriented as well, and so will have everything that you need to know for your exams. Form study groups to share resources, test one another on concepts, and practice OSCEs together.

By Anjana Lakshmi Narasimhan


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