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Making effective 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.

Taking notes in lectures

Attending lectures is the best way 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

Other resources

A comprehensive resource from London Metropolitan

Variety of downloadable resources from Leeds University