12 Tips for Taking Better Contemporaneous Notes

Taking contemporaneous notes is a critical skill in school settings. However, school settings are not the only setting where taking notes contemporaneously is important. Even if you have a great memory you won’t be able to remember everything. Taking notes can provide you with the following benefits:

  • Improves recall and memorization
  • Improves writing and communication skills
  • Improves your ability to summarize

Contemporaneous Notes as Evidence - Not Just for FBI Directors

Article: Contemporaneous Notes as Evidence – Not Just for FBI Directors
“Apparently, Comey documented a conversation with President Trump prior to being fired. This ‘contemporaneous note’ may call into question the real reason for the firing…”

When most people hear about taking notes the first setting that comes to mind is a school setting. Even though most of our experience taking notes comes from a school setting, there are other settings where taking notes may be beneficial. Some of these settings are as follows:


When supervisors request staff meetings, taking notes is a great way to stay focused and remember important details discussed in the meeting. When you take notes during meetings you stand out from your colleagues and seem more professional and trustworthy. This is because taking notes makes you seem like a hard worker who wants to do their job right.

To Do Lists

Taking contemporaneous notes of tasks as they come to mind is an important skill when creating a task list. However, taking contemporaneous notes of what was done offers benefits too. Taking notes of the date and time when the task was completed, any notes, or how you need to follow up on something will help your productivity more than just crossing something off your task list.

Skill Building

Whether you’re working to build personal or professional skills, taking contemporaneous notes of any books you’re reading will help you learn more. Whether you’re taking a skill building class or doing independent study, taking notes contemporaneously will help you expand on developed skills while gaining new ones.

Taking Better Notes

Taking great notes requires great listening skills, legible handwriting, the ability to create organized outlines, and the ability to pinpoint key points. When taking notes there are a few ways to make sure you take the best possible notes. The following 12 tips will help you take better contemporaneous notes every time:

1.       Look for Main Ideas

When taking notes it’s important to look for the main idea behind what you’re reading. Asking yourself why the author or teacher considered the information important enough to include in the book and/or lecture will help you figure out what the main idea or the main purpose behind the information is. When taking notes ask yourself what you want and need to learn.

2.       Take Note of People, Events, and Dates

Whenever you come across information that includes the names of people, official names of events, dates, statistics, or any other numbers, you can be sure that information is important. If you’re in a classroom this type of information is commonly included in tests or referred to. This type of information should always be included in your contemporaneous notes.

3.       Abbreviate

When you abbreviate it’s important to not over abbreviate so when you come back to your notes you’ll still be able to understand the main points and details you were taking notes of. Whenever you feel the urge to use an abbreviation, ask yourself if you’ll know what that abbreviation means in a week from now. If the answer to that question is no, then spell out the whole word. It’s better to spend extra time spelling out the whole word than going back to your notes to find that you can’t remember what your abbreviations mean and lose some main points in your notes.

4.       Bullet Points

Creating bullet points in your contemporaneous notes is a great way to make the information easy to read, and memorize. Bullet points create a lot of white space which makes the information easier to read and keeps you or anyone else reading your bullet points from feeling overwhelmed with too much information. Use bullet points when you have three or more pieces of similar information to group together. However, be careful not to use bullet points too often as doing so will make the eye catching effect lose its value.

5.       Summarize

Whether you are reading a book as part of a self directed independent study or part of a self improvement class it doesn’t benefit you to write things out word for word. Summarizing the information you’re coming across either through reading or listening will help you concentrate on the information. By concentrating on the information this way you will also find it easier to pick out patterns in the information being presented so you can predict what information is important and more likely to be useful in the future.

6.       Write as You Read

When studying you may find it tempting to read a whole chapter first so you can go back and take notes. It’s beneficial to skim through the reading and see how the different sections are organized. This way you can get an idea of what headings and bullet points you’ll need for your contemporaneous notes as well as how to organize your information. However, once you start reading it’s better to take notes as you go instead of going back. Taking notes contemporaneously means you’ll have an easier time memorizing the information you’re studying about.

7.       Write as You Listen

When taking notes on a lecture it may seem like a good idea to pay attention to the teacher and go back to take notes of what you remember. However, the likelihood that you will remember most of the important details after it happens without writing it down is very slim. This is because writing is one of the main ways that we actively learn. Having great listening skills and the ability to write while retaining important information you want to write down is a key element to taking great notes of lectures.

8.       Make Charts and Tables Later

When listening to a lecture it doesn’t benefit you to create beautiful charts and tables as the lecture is going on. Though charts and tables will definitely help you digest more information and remember it easier, this technique is something that should be reserved for independent study if you’re in a classroom setting. If you’re engaging in self directed study it benefits you to wait until you go over your notes a second time to create any charts or tables of the information you’ve taken notes of contemporaneously.

9.       Review and Revise

When going over your contemporaneous notes of a lecture or self directed study it’s always helpful to go back and add details to your notes. This is also the time to create any bullet lists that you didn’t have the time or insight to create at the time you were taking notes. Charts and tables should also be added in at this time. By revising your notes you’re entering in the same information in a different way which increases the likelihood of fully understanding the information you’re learning about.

10.   Go Digital

Some people prefer the paper and pen method to using a keyboard to take contemporaneous notes. This isn’t surprising as taking notes by pen and paper has a greater chance of recall in your mind. This is because of the muscle memory involved in spelling out words and letters using a pen and paper as opposed to a keyboard. However there are some drawbacks to taking notes by hand that make retyping your notes into a digital format worth the extra time.

Difficult to Read

Some people have naturally illegible handwriting and others have a hard time reading their handwriting when they rush to write something down.

Difficult to Add New Information

As you study and learn you will make new connections and find that you need to add additional information to your notes. However there is only so much room a piece of paper has while digital formats have endless room to add information to.

Rigid Format

When studying your notes and revising them to make them better, it’s not possible to move paragraphs around so they fit in a better place on paper. However, in a digital format doing so requires a couple mouse clicks.

Difficult Collaboration

If you’ve ever been part of a study group you know that messy handwriting makes sharing notes and studying together more difficult. Typing your notes out first ensures that everyone will be able to read your notes.

11.   Use Color

By highlighting certain keywords you will find picking out important words and finding your way around your notes much easier. As a general rule don’t highlight more than 4 words at a time. If you highlight more than 4 words at a time you risk highlighting too much and make finding keywords and important concepts harder. If you ever find information that needs to be highlighted and it’s more than 4 words underline it instead. By keeping your highlighting to a minimum you maintain the power of your highlighting to draw your attention. Also underlining important details works to get your attention while avoiding the possibility of becoming too overwhelming like highlighting can become.

12.   Flashcards

When you’re looking to memorize information or have it readily available by you, flashcards can be an invaluable tool. You can either use flashcards to help you memorize keywords and their meaning by putting the keyword on one side of the flashcard and the meaning of the keyword on the other side. However, you can also use flashcards to keep important information next to you for when you need it.

Taking contemporaneous notes offers many benefits to anyone looking to improve their communication skills and remember more information. Whether you’re looking to take notes in a classroom setting, meetings for work, for your to do lists, or self improvement, you’ll find improving your note taking skills will enhance your success in life. Using the 12 above mentioned tips will help you improve your note taking skills as well as your concentration and understanding of topics that are important to you.


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