Note-Taking from Reading

See also: Study Skills

When engaged in some form of study or research, either informally or formally, you will probably need to read and take in a lot of information.

This page describes how to take effective notes while reading. Taking notes is a way to engage with the printed word, and can help you to retain more of the information, especially if you summarise and paraphrase it.

There are plenty of ways to take notes, both in terms of the tools you use (pen and paper or computer, for example), and the style of notes. Some of these may be more effective, and some may be a matter of choice and personal preference.

This page covers some of the principles involved to help you make the most appropriate choice for you.

Further reading from SkillsYouNeed

We have a series of other related pages that you may find helpful.  Our page, Effective Note-Taking covers how to take notes when you are listening to the information, rather than reading it.  It is therefore useful for classes, lectures, and meetings.

See our pages: Effective Reading and Critical Reading for explanation, advice and comment on how to get the most from, and develop your, reading.

Why Take Notes When Reading?

Reading for pleasure or as a way to relax, such as reading a novel, newspaper or magazine, is usually a ‘passive’ exercise.  When you are studying, reading should be seen as an ‘active’ exercise.

In other words, you engage with your reading to maximise your learning.

One of the most effective ways of actively engaging with your reading is to make notes as you go along.

However, how much you take in seems to depend on how you take notes. Research shows that students who took notes by hand, using pen and paper, tended to retain significantly more information than those who used computers. It was suggested that this was because those writing by hand tended to summarise the points more, whereas those with computers tended to type verbatim and therefore engage less with the content.

Paraphrasing and summarising what you read in your own words is far more effective in helping you to retain information. This seems likely to apply whether you are using a computer or a pen and paper.

By writing notes, in your own words, you will be forced to think about the ideas that are presented in the text and how you can explain them coherently.  The process of note-taking will, therefore, help you retain, analyse and ultimately remember and learn what you have read.

What NOT To Do

It is important to understand that effective note-taking requires you to write notes on what you have read in your own words.

Copying what others have said is not note-taking and is only appropriate when you want to directly quote an author. It can be tempting, especially if your reading material is online, to copy and paste straight into a document. If you do this, then you are unlikely to learn or reflect on what you have read, as copying is not engaging with the text.

Copying, Referencing and Plagiarism

As a general principle, you should expect to summarise and paraphrase other authors’ ideas rather than quote them verbatim. This helps to show that you have understood the ideas and are able to set them into context. When you summarise an author’s ideas, you need to provide a citation to the original source.

It is, however, acceptable to quote another author if they make a point particularly neatly, but you should do so sparingly. If you quote directly, your citation usually needs to include the page number.

Copying and/or discussing someone else’s ideas without proper attribution is plagiarism.

This is a serious academic offence. See our page: Academic Referencing for more information and instructions on how to reference properly.

Use online sources as appropriate but summarise, re-write and/or paraphrase and always reference.

Effective Steps for Note-Taking

There is no magic formula to taking notes when reading. You simply have to find out what works best for you.  Your note-taking skills will develop with practice and as you realise the benefits.  This section is designed to help you get started.

1. Highlighting and Emphasising

A quick and easy way to be active when reading is to highlight and/or underline parts of the text.  Although the process of highlighting is not ‘note-taking’, it is often an important first step.  Many people also recommend making brief notes in the margin. Of course, this is not a good idea if the book or journal does not belong to you!  In such cases, make notes on a photocopy or use sticky ‘post it’ notes or similar.

Highlighting key words or phrases in text will help you:

  • Focus your attention on what you are reading – and make it easy to see key points when re-reading.
  • Think more carefully about the key concepts and ideas in the text, the bits that are worth highlighting.
  • See immediately whether you have already read pages or sections of text.

When you come across words or phrases that you are not familiar with it may be useful to add them to a personal glossary of terms. Make a glossary on a separate sheet (or document) of notes, so you can easily refer and update it as necessary. Write descriptions of the terms in your own words to further encourage learning.

2. Making Written Notes

Although highlighting is a quick way of emphasising key points, it is no substitute for taking proper notes.

Remember your main purpose in taking notes is to learn, and probably to prepare for some form of writing.  When you first start to take notes, you may find that you take too many, or not enough, or that when you revisit them they are unclear, or you do not know which is your opinion and which is the opinion of the author.  You will need to work on these areas - like all life skills, taking effective notes improves with practice.

There are two main elements that you need to include in your notes:

  1. The content of your reading, usually through brief summaries or paraphrasing, plus a few well-chosen quotes (with page numbers); and
  2. Your reaction to the content, which may include an emotional reaction and also questions that you feel it raises.

It can be helpful to separate these two physically to ensure that you include both (see box).

Your notes may also take various forms and style, for example:

  • Linear, or moving from one section to the next on the page in a logical way, using headings and sub-headings;
  • Diagrammatic, using boxes and flowcharts to help you move around the page; and
  • Patterns, such as mind maps, which allow a large amount of information to be included in a single page, but rely on you to remember the underlying information.

The style that you use is very personal: some people prefer a more linear approach, and others like the visual elements of mind-mapping or diagrams. It is worth trying a number of approaches to see which one(s) work best for you, and under which circumstances.

TOP TIP! A Suggested Format for Notes

One useful way to make notes that encourages you to include both content and reaction is to separate your page into two.

  • Use the left-hand side to summarise and paraphrase the content. When you first start taking notes, it is worth including a reasonable level of detail (say, one sentence per paragraph), although as you become more experienced you will get a better feel for when this is not necessary. You should also record a few interesting quotes (in quotation marks, and with details of the page number).
  • Use the right-hand side to comment on your reaction, including whether you agree or disagree with the author. It is worth adding details of any personal memories that are ‘jogged’ by the content, as this will help you to remember it better.

As you complete each page of notes, check to make sure that both columns are reasonably full.

Remember to include the source of each point, including the page and/or paragraph number, to make it easier to refer back if necessary.

  • When referring to a book, record the author's name, the date of publication, the title of the book, the relevant page number, the name of the publisher and the place of publication.
  • When referring to a magazine or newspaper, record the name of the author of the article, the date of publication, the name of the article, the name of the publication, the publication number and page number.
  • When referring to internet sources, record (at least) the full URL or web address and the date you accessed the information.

See our page: Academic Referencing for more detailed information on how to reference correctly.

As well as notes on the detailed content, it is also worth compiling a summary at the end of each section or chapter.

A summary is, by definition, precise.  Its aim is to bring together the essential points and to simplify the main argument or viewpoint of the author.  You should be able to use your summary in the future to refer to the points raised and use your own explanations and examples of how they may apply to your subject area.

3. Reviewing and Revising Your Notes

Once you have gone through the text and made notes as you go, you will have a reasonable summary of the document, and your reactions to it.

However, as you read the whole document, other things may emerge. For example, as you reflect on your reading, you may notice themes emerging, or you may find that your earlier reactions have softened or sharpened as you have gone through, particularly for books.

It is therefore helpful to review your notes a few days after completing them. In particular, you may want to:

  • Use headings or different sheets (or documents) to separate different themes and ideas;
  • Use brightly coloured pens or flags to highlight important points in your notes.  You may find it useful to have a simple system of colour-coding, using different colours for particular themes or issues; and
  • Note where your opinions changed, and why.

4. Organising Your Notes

Depending on your circumstances, you may find you accumulate a lot of notes.

Notes are of no use to you if you cannot find them when you need to, and spending a lot of time sifting through piles of papers is a waste of time.  It is therefore important to ensure that your notes are well-organised and you can find what you want when you need it.

How you organise your notes will depend on whether they are ‘physical’, written on paper or ‘digital’, stored on a computer, or a combination of the two.  It will also depend on your personal preferences, but good options include binders and folders, whether real or digital. There are also a number of apps that can help you to store and recover information effectively.

Finding Your Way

Ultimately, how you write and organise your notes is up to you. It is a very personal choice, and you may also find that you have different preferences for reading for assignments, lectures and more general reading.

It is, however, important that you find a way of doing it that works for you, because note-taking is one of the most effective ways of recording and retaining information.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

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