Note-making

Study guide

Note-making is right at the heart of academic study. As a student, you will make notes when you:

  • attend lectures or seminars
  • read to support your writing of essays, reports, dissertations, and theses

Note-making is fundamental to these activities.


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Study guide table of contents:

note-making from reading | being selective | deciding what to read | deciding which material to make notes on | reading with a plan | note-making templates | avoiding plagiarism | note-making in lectures | streamlining your notes | shortcuts for note-making in lectures | final comments

Differences between note-making in lectures and when reading

You may have a set of lecture slides in front of you, but you will still need to make your own notes in lectures. The lecturer will usually offer more information than appears on the slides. You will also want to record any ideas or queries of your own that you have during the lecture.

The difference between note-making in lectures and from reading is one of control. When note-making from reading the student has control over the process. In lectures this is not the case. This means that:

…when note-making in lectures: …but while note-making from reading:
  • you can’t pause the lecturer; rewind; then replay; to go over something you haven’t understood
  • you can easily stop and read something again if you need to
  • if you are reminded of some information you want to look up, you have to make a note and remember to follow it up later
  • if you are reminded of some information you want to look up, you may be able to do it straightaway
  • You can’t slow down the lecturer if you fall behind with your note-making
  • you can read and make notes at the best pace for you, to make sure your notes are complete

Note-making from reading

One of the challenges we face when note-making taking is the risk of being too brief or too detailed.

Being too briefThe risk

To avoid making masses of notes that you may not actually use, you decide to write down the minimum

You fail to record crucial material, and have to go back to the source and read it again

Being too comprehensiveThe risk
To make sure you don’t miss anything important, you decide to write down every piece of information that may possibly be relevant Your reading takes far too long; you end up with masses of notes; you still can’t decide which are the most relevant; and you run out of time to do your writing

Being selective

Being selective is the key to successful note-making. Being selective is the key to successful note-making. You should be selective when deciding what to read and what not to read. Also be selective when deciding which specific material to make notes on.

Deciding what to read and what not to read

Information that may help you decide whether a source is worth reading is:

  • the year of publication: how up to date is the information in relation to your specific topic?
  • the contents page and index: are there specific sections devoted to your topic?
  • the abstract, introduction, or preface: they should show how relevant the source is.

Deciding which specific material to make notes on

Some useful questions are posed by Stella Cottrell (2003, p.126):

  • Do you really need this information? If so, which bits?
  • Will you really use it? When, and how?
  • Have you noted similar information already?
  • What questions do you want to answer with this information?”

Mantex (2016) has a website offering resources to support learning development, and has this advice:

Some people take so many notes that they don’t know which to use when it’s time to do the writing. They feel that they are drowning in a sea of information.

This problem is usually caused by two common weaknesses in note-taking technique:

  1. transcribing too much of the original
  2. being unselective in the choice of topics

There are two possible solution to this problem:

  1. Select only those few words of the source material which will be of use. Avoid being descriptive. Think more, and write less. Be rigorously selective.
  2. Keep the project topic or the essay question more clearly in mind. Take notes only on those issues which are directly relevant to the subject in question.

Approach reading with a plan

It is important to take an organised approach to reading and note-making. Writing down everything that looks interesting is neither efficient nor effective approach. You need a plan.

This list gives some suggestions for how to begin your planning.

  • Start by taking a close and critical look at your assignment title, to see what you need to do.
  • Create a list of the kinds of information, examples, ideas etc. that you will be looking for in your reading.
  • Keep referring to your assignment title and to your plan. Do not be tempted by interesting but irrelevant material.
  • Assess the relevance of those articles and books you choose to read. Make notes when you find material that is directly relevant to your assignment.
  • Sometimes you come across material that you hadn’t anticipated. If it is directly relevant to your topic, make notes on it, and revise your plan.
  • Keeping to this plan should save you time and effort. It can also streamline the actual assignment writing process.

Note-making templates

Using a note-making template can help you to:

  • make notes in a clear and readable format
  • remember the kind of information you want to record from each source
  • standardise your notes so you can find particular elements more easily when you come to use them.

Each time you make notes from a source, you need to record the full referencing details. After that there are various headings under which you may want to make notes. Here are some useful templates for taking notes from a range of sources.

One or more of these systems may suit you. If not, you may be able to modify one of them, or combine two or more, into a personal system that works for you.

Avoiding plagiarism

Plagiarism is using the words or ideas of someone else as if they were your own. Universities consider plagiarism to be a serious offence, and you need to take great care to avoid it. The Academic Skills Centre website has an online tutorial on how to avoid plagiarism.

Unfortunately, it is relatively easy to plagiarise another’s work. The two main risks within the note-making process are:

  • paraphrasing too closely when you are making your initial notes; and
  • being careless about using inverted commas (“..”) around the precise sections you have copied.

When you find some detailed material that is highly relevant, it can be a good idea to copy it verbatim. However, you must make sure to use inverted commas, and to record the page number. You can then make a decision about whether to use a direct quotation or to paraphrase the material in your own words.

Note-making in lectures

The particular challenges presented by trying to make notes in lectures are:

  • You have no control over the speed at which the lecturer talks. As a result, there may be some time pressure on your note-making.
  • You cannot pause and go over some information again, like you can when you are reading.
  • You may not be able to identify which elements of the lecture are the most important.

Streamlining your note-making practice can help you to gain control over the process.

Streamlining your note-making in lectures

There are several ways in which you can increase the efficiency of your note-making. Stella Cottrell (2003, p. 138) provides the following advice:

  • ‘Before the lecture, try to get a feel for the subject. Read (or just flick through) a book on the subject of the lecture. Look for themes, issues, topics and headings. Look up any technical words you don’t understand.
  • Write down questions you want answered. Leave space to write the answers under each question either during or after the lecture.
  • Jot down your own opinion. Notice if it changes during the lecture.
  • Glance through your notes for the previous lecture, and look for links with the next lecture.’

She also advises that, after the lecture, you:

  • “Label and file your lecture notes and any handouts.
  • Read through your notes. Fill in details from your reading or research.
  • Discuss the lecture with others. Compare notes and fill in any gaps.”

If you can get into one or more of these work habits then great!  However, if you find you cannot use this advice, there are alternative steps you can take. The suggestions below focus on shortcuts to speed up your note writing. This means that you can focus on the lectures, and come out at the end with clear and informative notes.

Shortcuts for note-making in lectures

  • Have pens of different colours available, so you can use them to highlight:
    • something you need to follow up because you didn’t fully understand it
    • a key criticism
    • the main explanation
    • a recommended reference
    • connected ideas
  • Establish a collection of abbreviations so you can speed up your note-making e.g.:
    • theory becomes - Θ
    • evidence in support/against becomes- ev+/ev-
    • strength/weakness becomes - Sg/Wk
  • Create a collection of codes for yourself using symbols such as *  ☼  †  ¦  »  **, and attach your own meaning to them. The idea is to use these symbols to refer to common concepts within your discipline. You can save time by jotting down the symbol rather than writing out the full word or sentence. There is a useful list of widely used codes in Cottrell (2003, p. 130).
  • Leave plenty of space around your notes. This way you can add further thoughts, or extra information that comes later in the lecture.
  • Use headings, sub-headings and numerical lists to introduce structure into your notes.
  • Use key words in the margin to summarise each section.

Final Comments

Note-making certainly presents challenges. For the best results, you need to design your own method of taking more control over your note-making. In doing this take inspiration from the ideas of others but make sure it fits well with your own working style.

References

Cottrell, S. (2003) The study skills handbook. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Deakin University (2019) Note-taking: six strategies. Available at: https://www.deakin.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/900906/Note-taking-Six-strategies_Deakin-Study-Support.pdf (Accessed: 6 May 2020).

Mantex (2016) How to take notes. Available at: https://mantex.co.uk/how-to-take-notes/#comment-287 (Accessed: 6 May 2020).

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