Ethical Realism

May 20, 2010

How to Take Notes in Philosophy Class

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:46 am
Tags: , ,

Some philosophy students are clueless about how to take philosophy notes, but taking notes can be essential to understanding philosophy. I recommend that you take notes whether you are taking a philosophy class or reading a philosophy book. In order to take good notes, you’re going to have to learn what is important in philosophy. Here are some things to look for in a lecture or book that you should be putting in your notes:

1. Terminology

You need to know what the words mean. If you hear any word that you don’t know, you should write it down and look it up when you get a chance.

2. The Arguments

Arguments are the meat of philosophy. You should know the arguments that are given. You should know why an intelligent person might agree with the argument, if possible. You should also know why an intelligent person might disagree with it.

3. Your Questions

Write down any questions you have. This will help you (a) wait for the question to be answered, (b) ask the question to the professor (during office hours if necessary), (c) do your own research to try to answer the question. One of the best resources for research is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

4. Page Numbers

You should write down the page numbers for where vocabulary, importat quotations, and arguments are given. This will help you write your essays later, or just to look back at any text you forget or have a difficult time with.


How to Get an A in a Philosophy Class



  1. […] This should be obvious, but you should be taking notes. Some students don’t think about taking notes when taking an online class, but you need notes no matter what sort of philosophy class you are taking. Go here for more information about taking notes. […]

    Pingback by How to Get an A in a Philosophy Class « Ethical Realism — May 24, 2010 @ 9:08 am | Reply

  2. Good tips. Wish I’d followed them during my undergrad…

    Another thing I’d suggest is to develop a code system for your notes so you can distinguish points said by the lecturer that you want to remember from your own personal questions or thoughts.

    For mine, I use bullet points for lecturer stuff, asterisks for questions to ask or to chase up later, and > for comments or ideas that might be useful when I’m actually writing. There are probably better methods, but I find that helps a lot.

    Oh, and James’ great tip about page numbers extends to any references or names mentioned. When you’re writing it can cause a massive delay to hunt around for that reference or paper, or the page number of that quote you want to use. 20 seconds in lecture can save 10 mins when writing – and that 10 mins can be time you really don’t want to (or can’t afford to) waste.

    Comment by Tim Dean — June 2, 2010 @ 11:42 am | Reply

    • Thanks,

      I used some similar symbols that you used.

      After taking notes for a long time eventually all I really needed was page numbers and titles.

      Page numbers have often caused me a lot of pain and I’ve spent about an hour to write an essay and several hours trying to find the quotation I wanted to use. Sometimes an internet search can help; especially using the google book search.

      Comment by James Gray — June 2, 2010 @ 12:11 pm | Reply

  3. Hi James,

    Is it a must to study logic to understand philosophy? I am a philosophy minor, and my University required me to either take Logic or a class called Critical thinking. The later class, which I took, included readings such as: Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, readings of Bernard of Clairvaux, Chesterton’s The Ball & The Cross, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, and Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground. Even yet, I was wondering if you would reccomend a Logic class as a way of better comprehending philosophy.

    Comment by ultimateserge — June 20, 2010 @ 1:09 am | Reply

    • I don’t think logic is absolutely necessary, but yes I would highly recommend logic.

      I took a critical thinking class as well, but these classes are pretty pathetic overall. Philosophy classes should require critical thinking (hopefully to a much higher degree than any ‘critical thinking’ class would).

      I discussed some of the most important points to get from logic here:

      Comment by James Gray — June 20, 2010 @ 3:45 am | Reply

  4. James, I thoroughly enjoy your pages here. I like the way you have them linked, I agree with you about taking notes. I would like to add one other thing to that when your taking classes where you have to learn and remember a great deal of material from text books. Even when you take notes, it is easy for one to overlook things that don’t seem important at the moment. I do that all the time. I ask myself “Is the professor going to put that on a test? Not likely, I think”, and I move on. There can be an enormous amount of material especially when dealing with subjects like history. What I used to do when attending classes, is to make a “test buddy.” I would pick someone intelligent and seemingly reliable, and ask if they would like to become my “test budy.” We would agree to meet in class 1/2 hour before the test, and we would verbally test each other. I would ask the buddy questions from all my notes, and the “buddy” would ask me questions from their notes. They always had things I overlooked, and I had things they overlooked. If one can’t answer the question, the buddy gives the answer. It is fresh in memory!

    This way, my test buddy and I would always finish our tests before any of the others in class, and walk up there to hand them in! I was a great feeling, and I made straight “A”‘s as a result! As a result of that, the tests seemed so easy! Yet, I would see many others in the class struggling to remember. Not only was it far harder for them, their brains were not refreshed with knowledge, and their grades were not as good. It’s a great technique.

    Comment by Rex Bennett — February 8, 2012 @ 6:14 am | Reply

    • Rex, thank you for the compliment and suggestion. What is important in the text is greatly up to the teacher, but I think it is possible for philosophy students to learn all (or almost all) arguments in the text; and those should be the main focus of the class. What was your experience with philosophy notes in particular?

      Comment by JW Gray — February 8, 2012 @ 6:19 am | Reply

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