A Word on Seminars: Taking Notes on Discussions

Until now, you have learned how to take notes during a lecture. These are classes where most of the time is spent listening to a professor speaking, imparting information oftentimes (but not always) to larger classrooms or auditoriums full of students.

In addition to lectures, many of your classes might be seminars, where students participate in smaller group discussions led by the professor, an upperclassman, or graduate student Teaching Assistant (T.A.). Discussions can sometimes happen before, after, or during a lecture, as well.

When taking notes during seminars or discussions, your concerns are somewhat different than in lectures. Discussions in seminars are less oriented toward key terms and much less structured. Often they are an opportunity to review and flesh out ideas that may have been less clear from the professor or reading. Here are some suggestions on how to gather the most important information from them in an organized fashion.

Listen More/Write Less and Participate

Since the discussion will be open, feel free to sit back and listen more. By following the discussion carefully, you’ll learn a great deal; it won’t necessarily be important for you to document everything that is said. These settings are also opportunities for you to speak and participate in the dialogue of the class (if there is one). Your ideas can be discussed, debated and exchanged in seminars more easily than in larger lectures.

Look for Key Terms

Even in a discussion, key terms may come up. You can feel comfortable sitting back and listening, but watch out for them. Whenever the professor introduces new terms, make certain you write them down.

Note Topics of Discussion

“In high school I took notes on whatever piece of paper I had at the bottom of my messy backpack. Sometimes I lost it and never saw it after that day I wrote my notes. Back then I could get by easier with serious listening and borrowing friends’ notes. In college, it is a whole other ballgame. I have had to teach myself new techniques and ways to take notes that I can use to review for midterms and exams. I have a notebook for each subject and a system of tabs and post-its I have developed. The best thing I did for myself as a college student was to master a system that works for me.”

—Joel T., Freshman

Rather than write down everything that everyone says, note only the various topics that come up for discussion. What some other student thinks or feels about a given topic may help you understand the subject better, but you don’t need to keep track of it in your notebook. No professor is going to test you on what another student thinks. Having a record of the various topics that were covered in the seminar or small group discussion section gives a good sense of the kinds of topics you may be asked to discuss on an exam.

Note the Professor’s Opinions

Your fellow students’ opinions about material might not help on an exam, but your professor’s views certainly might. After all, the professor is the one who makes the exams. Knowing how she thinks or feels about a topic can indicate what to emphasize in your preparation. When the professor speaks, listen to what she says and take notes. If the professor is expressing an opinion, just write, “Prof. thinks …”

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