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Note-taking as a study tool
Note-taking is a key part of the learning process because it requires you to: recognize the main ideas in readings and lectures; identify what information is relevant to your task; put the information in your own words, which helps you to understand and remember new information and concepts; and record bibliographic information so you can find the source again or do more research on the topic.
When you take effective notes, you have a permanent record of each reading or lecture. You can use this information for revision and to integrate into your own academic writing or presentations.
The process of note-taking requires you to put the main ideas from readings and lectures in your own words, which will reduce your risk of committing plagiarism.
Read and listen critically. Before you take notes, always ask if the information is:
IMPORTANT: Does the information demonstrate a major point?
RELEVANT: Does the information relate to the subject matter?
CREDIBLE: Is the information believable or supported?
Before you write down any notes, determine if the information is a FACT, OPINION or EXAMPLE.
Facts: 'true' statements supported by research or evidence. Relevant facts are the most important notes you can take.
Relevant, educated opinions are also worth noting.
Examples: may be interesting, but not important to note them all - you could choose one to remind yourself to do more research in a particular area.
Note-taking is a process
Note-taking is part of a process of engaging with what you are learning. This process has a series of steps that can be used to create effective, valuable notes that will provide an important way for you to remember and understand academic material:
Think before you begin - decide what your focus and purpose is, what it is you are reading or listening for.
Write down a rough version of the main ideas, important and relevant facts and opinions presented in reading or lecture.
Go back through your initial notes to reorganize, rewrite and revise material so it is presented in a clear, logical format.
Use your own words to write a synopsis of the main ideas or create an outline, a diagram or concept tree to show relationships and patterns. This is an extremely important part of the learning process that will help you to understand and remember the material as well as avoid plagiarism.
Record notes in an accessible format
Use abbreviations, symbols, different colours or fonts, diagrams or charts to help you to quickly and efficiently record your notes.
Be consistent in your use of abbreviations, symbols and use of colour or font. You should be able to easily extract information from your notes in the future, so do not add potential confusion by being inconsistent in how you write down your notes.
Keep your notes brief. Do not copy large chunks of text; paraphrase or write it in your own words.
Try to be neat in your note-taking. You do not want to be wondering how to decipher hieroglyphic-like scribbles or trying to figure out the meaning of a series of squashed words in the corner of a page when you are trying to use your notes to study for a test or write an important essay.
Store your notes logically and in a safe place. Write down titles, authors and dates associated with your notes. Store your notes in a file or a box that is clearly labeled and dated so you can access your notes well later.
Try different note-taking techniques
Linear notes: Some people prefer writing notes in a linear sequence that strictly follows the order in which the ideas and information were presented. Here is an example of some linear notes.
Non-linear notes: Other people are more visual and may feel more comfortable when they produce notes in a non-linear diagram, such as a flow chart, a spider diagram or a mind map which allows them to visually see the connections between ideas. You can choose any style you like - as long as you can easily understand and access the information in your notes in the future.
The Cornell System: This is a method of note-taking created by a department at Cornell University in the USA. It requires that a page for note-taking is set out in a very precise way. Here is an example of the layout to follow with some instructions. This type of note-taking was originally created for use during lectures, but can actually be used for taking notes from other sources as well.
Recording: Using some sort of recording device, such as a digital voice recorder, an MP3 player/recorder or a PDA, can help you to store a 'copy' of a lecture for future re-listening, note-taking and verification of the information. In some cases, it may be possible to convert the sound files to text files so the content can be read as well as listened to. You must remember that recording does not take the place of note-taking in terms of helping you to understand and remember the material presented. A useful exercise instead would be to take brief notes of a lecture while you record it, then to listen again to the recording as you expand upon your notes after class.
Taking notes from readings
One way to approach taking notes from reading is to follow these steps:
Identify your purpose for reading before you start to read or take notes.
Skim the text and highlight/mark the main points or any other relevant information you will need to go back to take notes from.
Go back to the sections of the reading you have highlighted and take separate, more in-depth notes.
You may follow the 'SQ3R' approach to reading and note-taking as developed by Rowntree (1976).
Resources to learn more about note-taking from reading:
Reading effectively and note-taking: techniques, tips, activities and examples (Imperial College, London)
Taking notes from lectures
Many of the strategies for note-taking from reading can also be used for taking notes while listening.
The primary difference between these types of note-taking is that you cannot just stop a lecture if you want to take a break or if you need a minute to review (unless you are listening to a taped lecture or talk).
Advance preparation is needed in order to improve your comprehension of a lecture/talk. To get the most from a listening you should follow these steps before the lecture begins:
Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you are listening for: what is your purpose for listening?
Revise any previous material you can find on the topic.
Check the pronunciation of any new words or terms you find in your pre-lecture reading.
Create a set of note pages according to your note-taking system - this will save you time during the lecture.
Note-taking during the lecture:
Use abbreviations, symbols and diagrams to help yourself note the information quickly.
Listen for structural cues and transition words that indicate the introduction, body and summary stages of the lecture.
Use visual cues, such as OHTs or PPT slide notes.
After the lecture:
Revise your lecture notes within 24 hours or you risk forgetting the content of the lecture. Tidy up your notes and fill in any missing details you might remember. This is part of the learning process that will help make remembering this material easier.
Write a short summary of the notes in your own words. This will help you to remember the information and reduce your chance of committing plagiarism.
Attach any handouts from the lecture to your notes.
Practice taking notes while listening to free online lectures. Here is the process to follow:
Choose a topic with a transcript that interests you
Note the time, place, audience, purpose, type of the lecture [e.g. 1st year intro to...]
Note key facts and points
Review your notes, then rewrite and summarize them after listening
The following websites provide high-quality lectures and listening practice:
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): http://www.ted.com/
BBC (documentaries, podcasts, news): http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/documentaries/index.shtml
Forum Network: http://forum-network.org/
MIT Open Courseware (audio and video courses): http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/audio-video-courses/
Open Yale Courses: http://oyc.yale.edu/
Resources to learn more about note-taking from lectures:
Academic Skills: Lectures and taking notes (The University of Southampton)
Learn more about note-taking
Studying and Learning at University: Vital Skills for Success in Your Degree by Alan Pritchard. (LB1049 .P748 2008)
Brain Train: Studying for Success by Richard Palmer. (LB1049 .P35 1996)
How to Study by Ron Fry. (LB1049 .F74 2005)
Essential Study Skills by Linda Wong. (LB1049 .W624 2006)
Note-taking Skills: An introduction (The University of New South Wales)
Note-taking Skills - from lectures and readings (The University of Exeter)
Study Skills Success (ILC software available online from the ILC website 'Learning Software' page: http://www.ilc.cuhk.edu.hk/english/learningsoftware.asp)