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Physical Sciences: Notetaking


Man sitting at an open laptop writing notes into a notebook.The important thing to remember about notes is that they are designed as a way for you to remember and react to the key points of a lecture, reading or other source. As long as the system you use works for you the it doesn't matter which one you like. You may find that you end up using different methods depending on the topic or assignment you are working on so it's always good to have a range of methods in your toolkit.

If you have not yet found a method you prefer there are several established techniques to chose from. You can find some suggestions below.

Note-taking methods

Example of the Cornell MethodThe Cornell Method is one of the most popular techniques for recording academic notes. This template offer space for you to record your main thoughts on a topic or reading but also prompts you for some extra information. You can record the title, author and page numbers of what you're reading - vital when it comes to good referencing. There is space at the side of the page for you to note down any keyword, thoughts and questions about a topic which can help you start to think more about what you are reading and how it connects with other ideas. Finally there is space at the bottom of the page to summarise your reading in your own words. Find out more about the Cornell Method.

You can read a summary of the pros and cons of these and other methods on the LifeHack website.

Outline MethodThe Outline Method involves thinking about the main points of a reading and using these as headers to make further notes. Under each of these main headings you can record as many sub-headings as needed followed by any evidence which backs this up or thoughts you have about the material. This method requires you to think about the main topics in your reading and may work best after you have already read through the material once to get an idea of what is being said.  It can also be a useful revision tool when reviewing notes for an exam. The main advantage of this method is that it makes it simple to determine the main points of the reading which is useful for quick revision of a topic. Find out more about the Outline Method.

You can read a summary of the pros and cons of these and other methods on the LifeHack website.

Mind mappingMind mapping is a great way to explore connections. It's also useful if you respond to more visual methods rather than lots of text. Sometimes referred to as spider diagrams, mind maps put a topic at the centre and then draw branches to sub-topics. These can be further divided into more sub-topics and so on. Limited space means that this type of note-taking won't be as detailed but this can stop the problem of just copying down what you have read. The main advantage to this method is that it is easy to draw connections between ideas to help you build up a picture of current thinking. This is especially useful if you're doing any type of literature review. Find out more about mind mapping.

You can read a summary of the pros and cons of these and other methods on the LifeHack website.

Critical reading

Book with pencil iconAt a university level reading is different. You will be set some core readings by lecturers and tutors but you will also be expected to supplement this with your own reading. Your time is precious and it's important that you make the best use of when reading for an assignment. This Cambridge University Libraries online course on critical reading can help you to better understand what you are reading and how to use it in your studies. The course is on Moodle so you will need to log in and enroll using your Raven password.

Making good notes

Whichever method you are using it's important that it you use it well. Any notes you make should be purposeful and meaningful to you and your work - if you are just copying extracts of textbooks or articles there is something wrong. Your notes are a way to make sense of what you are learning and start to draw connections. Good notes should record the main points in your own words. Not only does this help you to better understand what you are reading but avoids accidental plagiarism when you put these notes into practice. Make sure that you record the full reference details for whatever you read so that you can attribute ideas to the right authors. There is nothing worse than the stress of hunting for the page number of a quote you want to use the night before an essay is due in! Try and record what YOU think about what you're reading, in a separate space if needed. This can help you start to form connections and arguments that you will need to use in assignments. If you can, try and leave some gaps on your page so that you can go back and add more information later if needed. 

If you prefer to take notes in a digital format there are several options to choose from.

  • Microsoft OneNote - all Cambridge staff and students have access to Office365 including OneNote. This tools allows you to organise your notes into multiple tabs and notebooks as well as adding in extra materials such as scans and images.
  • Notability - the app version of this tool can be used to capture handwritten notes on the go. 
  • Mindmapping - if you like using mind maps there are several tools available such as Mindmeister and WiseMapping.
  • Audio notes - most mobile phones come with note-taking and audio apps to capture thoughts on the go.

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