Richardson's Rules of Order, Part II: Tips for Taking Notes in a College History Course

Heather Cox Richardson (Umass Amherst) offers up more from her handbook for history students. Note taking is a craft that takes practice and reflection to perfect. Richardson gives some cues here for how to take good notes, pitfalls to avoid, and the purpose of the whole process.

College history courses are designed not simply to cover a bunch of facts,
but rather to interpret the meaning of those facts. Every instructor will have certain main points (or skills) that s/he wants you to understand before you finish the course. Usually, these themes will NOT be in the reading assignments for the class. Rather, the teacher will explain the themes through lectures. Assignments will reinforce those themes (sometimes by attacking them), and it is your job to put the different parts of the course together into a coherent whole.

Note taking, then, will be different than it was in high school. First of all, don’t get so frantic about scribbling everything down that you miss the point of the lecture. I notice that when I put up a power point slide that has words on it, students often seem to copy it down mindlessly without listening to my explanation of why these particular points are important to the larger story. My heart sinks, also, when I’ve given an important lecture that encapsulates how, say, the quest for political dominance in the 1850s led to the Civil War, and someone comes up after class to ask not for clarification or more information, but to ask how to spell the name of some obscure reporter I mentioned in passing. Avoid these forest-for-the-trees mistakes.

What you want in your notes is the general thesis of each lecture, its relevance to the larger theme of the class, and the points the teacher made to support that thesis. If you miss the details of some Supreme Court decision because you were too busy listening to jot them down, you can undoubtedly remember enough to look it up in your books, or on-line, or to ask another student for that information. Since the themes of a course are unique to each professor, it makes far more sense to get the themes and miss the details than to get the details and miss the themes.

You will, occasionally, run across a teacher who doesn’t seem to have any theme or thesis to his or her material, and is just going through it headlong, a bit at a time. This offers you a challenge, but also much more scope for your own interpretation. If the teacher doesn’t tell you why Andrew Johnson is important to American history, think it through for yourself. Why should you care about him? What do his life and his era say about yours? As you develop your answers to such questions after every lecture, you’ll come up with your own ideas about why the material is important. Far from being an empty exercise designed only to get you through a class, this will help you think about your own beliefs and interests, and may well help steer you toward a future career as you figure out what you really care about. (I speak from experience on this one!)

See also, Richardson's Rules of Order, Part I: Why Study History?