Tips for Taking Notes

By: Yichu Wang

Note-taking is a valuable skill. Using notes as an extension of your memory, you can better prepare for classroom engagement, get ready for exams, and save time during the research process. Even if you do not end up referring back to your notebook, taking notes constitutes a form of active learning that can improve comprehension and recall.

Consider keeping track of

  • key concepts, key arguments, notable details
  • bibliographical information, quotations (with sources)
  • your own responses and questions

Developing a personal system of note-taking can go a long way toward efficiency. Remember to give yourself time to explore what note-taking methods suit your style of learning, as it is often not a one-size-fit all affair. Finding what feels intuitive will not only help you turn note-taking into a habit, but also create a kind of structure that enables deeper engagement with the content. The most effective and generative method for each task can also vary depending on both the nature of the task as well as what you aim to accomplish.

Consider these questions

  • Do you like taking notes by hand or on a computer?
  • Do you keep your notes in the same place?
  • What learning technologies have you tried? Google Docs, OneNote, Zotero, etc.?
  • How selectively do you take notes?
  • How do you organize your notes?*
  • Do you go back and review your notes?

*For some ideas, see Concept Mapping and The Cornell Note-Taking System.

Taking Notes in Class

To speed up your note-taking process, consider

  • keeping a consistent format
  • developing a set of abbreviations and visual aids
  • being intentional about what you record*

*which trains you to be a better listener as well.

To maximize note-taking as a learning tool, consider jotting down questions, sources, or concepts that might be worth exploring in the future. A common problem for students is that their own notes can turn cryptic after a while, especially when the notes are handwritten. One possible solution for this is to review your notes while your memory is still fresh. Reviewing not only allows you to organize and process new information, but also gives you an opportunity to track down (and flesh out) anything you may have noted down earlier in shorthand form. For example, if you take notes by hand, consider setting aside half an hour or so of your day to transfer your notes to a computer.

(If you are also an instructor, consider the option of providing guided notes or skeletal notes to your students before class.)

Taking Notes on Your Own

Sometimes, it can be hugely rewarding and clarifying to use notes as a way of breaking down a piece of writing into all of its component parts. However, following every single step of an argument or recording every point made by an article can turn into a time-consuming project. As you take notes, be sure to ask what you want from a source.

  • Are you reading for a class?*
  • Are you looking for new perspectives?
  • Are you looking for materials to support your own research?
  • Do you need to understand everything?
  • How much time do you have for this task?

*If you are, you might want to note down a question or two that you can bring to class for discussion. It also helps to note down page numbers of key passages for quick reference (e.g. in a fiction class).

For some alternative strategies, consider writing down only ideas that particularly intrigued you or have stayed with you after reading. You can also try pausing after each paragraph (or each chapter, etc.) to create a summary sentence, leaving space to fill in more details later if you want.

Annotating and highlighting can make it easier to go through the article again for note-taking purposes, especially if on your first read you find it hard to separate out the main argument or identify information most relevant to your research. For more thoughts, see highlighting and annotation.

Often students benefit from taking quotations directly out of the texts they are reading. However, with this strategy, it is important to avoid simply copying down key passages without spending time unpacking and paraphrasing them in your own words, whether or not you write those words down. Especially when the goal is to collect materials for an essay, it can be tempting to start building an argument directly from several pages worth of block quotes, which can sometimes lead to poorly integrated sources as a result.

Resources consulted:

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