Developing a systematic approach to note-taking is an important skill. Including evidence in assessment pieces and revising for exams are smoother when there is a good set of notes to work with.
New students are often not sure how to take notes - what to include and how to organise them. Two key things to consider:
- Note-taking needs to go beyond taking down the content - it needs to include your critical analysis or engagement with that content.
- In terms of organisation, a systematic approach is recommended. However, everyone's system will be different, so do what works best for your discipline and your personal style.
Consider when you have taken notes in the past. What has worked best for you? What helped you to revise for exams? Reflecting on past experiences might help to build on existing skills. Did you incorporate colour, diagrams, mind maps? These don't appeal to everyone but some students find them useful for recalling ideas and helping to understand difficult concepts.
Note-taking for reading
Dealing with the reading load will be easier if you adopt some reading strategies. A key strategy to help you with your note-taking is to read with a purpose - always have a question in mind when reading a text.
Taking notes is not just about annotating the content, it is also about engaging with the material and thinking critically about the arguments and evidence.
Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when critically analysing the content:
- What is the overall position?
- What is the line of argumentation?
- What are the key points?
- What are the underlying assumptions in the paper?
- How adequate is the evidence presented?
- Are there any problems? Do the problems involve methodology, theory, ideological biases, etc.?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the article and why?
It's important to be actively engaging with the lecture materials. As with taking notes when reading, it's not just about noting down the content, it is also about connecting key ideas and messages, as well as clarifying your own ideas about the material. Note-taking also helps you to sharpen your listening skills.
Jot down any questions prompted by the material. Sometimes the lecturer may invite students to ask questions during the lectures, in which case you can ask the lecturer quick questions. Most of the time, however, tutorials are the place where you are expected to ask questions.
Here are some questions to help you take notes during lectures.
- Where does this material fit in relation to the course as a whole?
- How does the material relate to the topics discussed last week and next week?
- What is the lecturer's argument?
- What are the lecturer's key points?
- What evidence is used in the lecture?
- What information does the lecturer take for granted, and what information is interrogated in depth?
It is common to see many students taking notes on laptops or tablets in lecture theatres. More students are making use of note-taking software (such as OneNote ®). Other students prefer to use pen and paper. While it is important to use whichever method suits you best, you need to take notes actively. Don't simply write or type out everything said during lectures. This may lead to you missing the broader, conceptual points being made, and you may not concentrate as well during the lectures.
On these pages we offer two examples of note-taking - Cornell note-taking and Mind mapping. We also demonstrate a method for systematically preparing all your notes.