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Taking Notes

Taking Notes

It is important that you decide what the purpose is for you in taking notes. Students take notes from lectures and tutorials, as well as from reading and written material. There are various reasons for making notes:

  • To note down facts
  • To contrast similarities and differences
  • To summarise main points
  • To help pay attention
  • To review and revise
  • To record thoughts & brainstorm

What reasons do you give to yourself for taking notes?

In some ways identifying the purpose allows you to focus on what you want and the work of notetaking can be easier as a result. Your purpose may also influence your method of talking notes.


There are several ways of taking notes, with various advantages and disadvantages.

Method Description
Prose or linear Many students use this format (basically written paragraphs) and they are familiar with it. While this type can provide a summary the disadvantages are that it encourages verbatim copying and doesn't allow for organisational strategy use.
Outline The advantage of this method is that it is more visual and allows for the imposition of structure. It forces the note taker to create main points. A disadvantage is that sometimes the material is not conducive or provided in such a format that lends itself to outlining.
Mind maps or patterened [Buzan] Sometimes referred to as spider diagrams. The notes start in the middle of a page and 'explode' out towards the edge of the page. The advantage is that it is very visual, allows for structure and displays relationships. They are very useful for review and recall, brainstorming and revision purposes. Also, they work on both a verbal and a non-verbal level. Another advantage is that a lot of information can be condensed into a small area. Disadvantages include they are hard to produce, especially from lectures and they require practice.
Cornell or split page This method involves drawing a line down the page, about 1/3 from left side of page. The right side is used to record notes. The left side is reserved for key words and main points. These can be done after the lecture, when trying to condense the information. The advantage of this method is that it forces the note taker to select main points; it also provides a basis for self-examination (by covering over the right hand side and quizzing using points on left-hand side). However, it needs practice.

Whatever method is employed, it is vital that all notes are kept organised. Ring binders are useful because they can be added to and expanded. Students should try to have a system for classification.

Taking Notes in Lectures

Attending lecturesis is the best chance to learn about material that may not be covered in the textbook, to be aware of links and possibly to discover what may be on the exams. Another useful idea is to discuss the ideas in the lecture as soon as possible to consolidate the information, for example leaving lecture hall take a moment or two with fellow students to cover main points or questions; or possibly just at the end of the lecture this can be encouraged by the instructor.

Taking good notes from lectures involves being an active listener. Some hints for improving notes:

  • Sit in an appropriate spot to avoid distractions
  • Focus on content not speaker
  • Review previous notes for better continuity and comprehension
  • Note examples and information on board/overhead
  • Listen for key words: because, two reasons, however, etc.
  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues: information that is repeated, amount of time spent on topic, change in lecturer's tone

Taking Notes from Reading

When taking notes from books it is a good idea to use summarising strategies to differentiate between arguments, main points and evidence or details. This may be a good time to review the department's preferred referencing system and policy on plagiarism.

Tips on summarising:

  • Skim the text and gain the general impression of the information, its content and its relevance to your work; underline/highlight the main points as you read.
  • Re-read the text, making notes of the main points
  • Cover the text and rewrite your notes in your own words
  • Begin your summary.
  • Restate the main idea at the beginning of your summary, indicating where your information is from
    mention other major points change the order of the points if necessary to make the construction more logical
  • Re-read the work to check that you have included all the important information clearly

For a more comprehensive reading strategy please see the section on reading and in particular the SQ3R strategy.

Notes for Writing

Why take notes for writing?

  • It is essential for providing you with the necessary evidence to inform and develop your argument
  • It assists you in concentrating on and understanding the information you are reading by helping you to summarise the ideas and arguments in the text
  • It allows you to focus on the points relevant to your purpose
  • Well-organised notes make the writing process much more efficient
  • Notes developed using an active and critical approach will also allow you to refine your argument before you begin writing

How to take notes for writing?

  • Always identify the main line of argument and reasoning that runs through the entire article and try to summarise it into a few sentences
  • Identify the author's purposes and assumptions (explicit and implicit)
  • Note down single phrases or sentences which encapsulate key elements or the author's purposes or assumptions
  • Take note of details or facts which appeal to you, such as useful statements, statistics or factual evidence
  • Note items to follow up, such as a question, an idea that offers further possibilities, a puzzling comment, an unfamiliar word, an explanation you don't understand, or an opinion you question

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Last updated 16 December 2015 by Student Learning Development (Email) .