Taking Class Notes with LaTeX

“Are you actually typing these notes?”

The professor looked at me in disbelief. I’m pretty confident I was the first person to ever try typing his lecture notes, especially given how equation-heavy this aerospace engineering graduate course was. I think standing on my head while singing the school fight song in the middle of class would have produced less surprise.

I had decided after several years of furiously scribbling class notes in grad school (and never capturing everything I wanted) to try something I later learned is called “Live-TeXing”. Yes, it is exactly as cool as it sounds. The idea is to type equations using the typesetting language LaTeX in real time as they are thrown up on the board. I had always assumed prior to that class that typing math-heavy notes was totally impractical. But as I became more comfortable with LaTeX, I realized it would probably not only be feasible, but also much better.

The good news is you don’t have to be a LaTeX master to do Live-TeXing. With a few pointers, I think anyone can employ this system, assuming you can type at a reasonable speed in general.

Shorthand

The key to successfully pulling this off is a good shorthand system. Nothing fancy needed: I just made up some shorter / easier versions of the equation elements that kept popping up during the first few lectures, which I did during the first few lectures. For example, instead of writing a fraction as \frac{x+y}{x-y}, a good shorthand is fr(x+y)(x-y). And if you find yourself typing that same fraction repeatedly during the class, you can just type frxy instead. Just remember to fully define the shorthand version right before you start using it in the notes.

You can then write some replacement macros or do a simple “find and replace all” after class to get the proper LaTeX commands and then build your document. I never compiled my document until after class, as I usually had a little cleaning up to do anyway. I suppose if you get good enough at this process, you can find a way to compile in class, but I’m not sure how much value that adds.

Once I got a decent shorthand system in place, I had no problems capturing all the content in class. At this point, I also started capturing far more than I used to: now I could type a great deal of the verbal-only explanations the professor gave, which added tremendous value to my final notes document.

Diagrams and Drawings

One other challenge I had to figure out a solution for: hand-written diagrams and drawings. At one point shortly after I started Live-TeXing, the same professor drew an elaborate diagram on the board, and then turned to me with a big smile on his face: “Try typing that Corwin! Ha!”

There are some folks in the Live-TeXing community that have figured out how to tackle diagrams quickly while typing class notes, but I chose a simpler route: I continued to draw them by hand in a notebook. I also typed a note about the placement of the diagram within the notes, along with an appropriate caption. Then after class I simply took photos of the diagrams/drawings and included them as figures in my LaTeX document (cropping as needed). I could then reference that figure in the notes using the LaTeX reference commands – easy as pie.

Pros and Cons

Some overall pros and cons to Live-TeXing, versus the more traditional method of furiously scribbling:

Pros:

  • You capture the lecture content in a far more permanent, accessible, and searchable medium
  • All your notes are immediately backed up if you employ a cloud-based backup service, which also makes them even more accessible (e.g. from your phone if needed)
  • Once you’ve practiced a little, you can start capturing way more content than you could previously, especially the verbal-only explanations your professor provides
  • It is less stressful, avoiding the scramble to write everything down through the entire lecture
  • It is easier on your writing hand, if you often experience cramps while writing
  • You can easily share your notes with other students, making it easy to ask others for notes in return when you miss class – which you’ll also type up to have a complete set of digital lecture notes in a single searchable document!

Cons:

  • There is some post-processing of the content involved usually, especially for incorporating hand-drawn diagrams as figures – though this gets faster over time with practice and with better shorthand systems
  • You’ll need to bring a laptop to class if you don’t already, and have enough space to type (usually not a problem for graduate courses, versus jam-packed auditorium courses for undergraduates)
  • Discombobulating your professor (though this might be pro actually…)
  • Everyone and their mother asking for your nice clean LaTeX notes – those lazy bums! Not really, that’s more undergraduate level laziness

Overall, in my biased opinion, the Pros clearly outweigh the Cons. You will save yourself a staggering amount of handwriting if you employ Live-TeXing for all your graduate courses, and you will end up with a beautiful set of digital documents you can use for years.

Some other articles describing Live-TeXing:


Previous Grad School Post: Will an engineering PhD over-qualify me for jobs?

2 comments on “Taking Class Notes with LaTeX
  1. Dohrman Wintermute says:

    Interesting article and I would not have guessed that this would even be feasible. It still frustrates me that professors don’t readily share their notes or allow students to capture them with their phones using an app like Microsoft Office Lens. (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.microsoft.office.officelens&hl=en_US

    • corwinolson says:

      Agreed, though I did encounter some professors that shared their notes. But they were the exception, not the norm. And often the notes were messy, so you couldn’t easily pull out the important points.

      The Office Lens app is a great idea, and I think Google has a similar app? Google also just released a new recording app I believe that does a much better job with speech recognition. These tools have come a long way!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.