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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.

Notetaking scenarios

You will be taking notes in different situations depending on whether you are learning from readings, lectures or recordings. Each of these scenarios requires a slightly different approach so you can make the best notes for future you.

A large proportion of your notes are likely to come from readings, either set texts or materials you have found yourself.

  • Notes should be your shortened version of the original source. You shouldn’t copy out everything word for word unless you are recording a direct quote.
  • Making notes in your own words can cause trouble of you end up using it in an assignment without proper acknowledgement because you cannot remember which parts are copied and which are not. Using your own words also helps you to learn and develop an understanding of the material as you need to absorb the information in order to make your notes.
  • Recording your references as you make your notes will save you a lot of time, effort and stress later. You will not remember page numbers, chapter headings or even what the source was unless you write it down. There is nothing less fun than frantically hunting for a reference to something you want to include the night before your essay is due.
  • You may wish to make copies of the original to refer back to, highlight or annotate. Remember that there are limits on the amount of material you can copy under copyright legislation. When highlighting, avoid the temptation of highlighting everything – the point is to make the highlighted part stand out.

Taking notes from lectures is a process which extends beyond the live lecture itself.

  • Do some preparation before the lecture. Think about how the content fits in with the rest of your learning and other concepts you are learning about. You might need to do some preparatory reading and make some notes ahead of the lecture itself so that you re familiar with the content.
  • Think about practicalities. Do you have all the supplies you need to make your notes? If you are taking notes electronically is your device charged? Some lecturers make slides available in advance of a lecture so you can print these out and make your notes directly next to the slides themselves.
  • Most of your note taking will happen in the lecture itself. As the content will be delivered live you will need to practice keeping up with the speed of someone talking. Abbreviations and shorthand can help you to record information. Try to practice active listening and really engage with what’s being said rather than just passively listening and recording.
  • Continue your learning after the lecture and review your notes. Are there any gaps you need to fill or areas you do not understand? Try and write a brief summary of your notes to help with your learning and test your knowledge.

Learning from recordings has become far more common since the pandemic. This could be either recordings of live lecturers or specifically created recorded content. Although this method of learning offers greater flexibility there are some pitfalls to be aware of.

  • As with live lectures it’s important to have a plan and do some prep work prior to watching the recording. Think about what you want to get out of the recording - are you watching it for the first time or are you using it to review or catch up on content? Thinking about your goals will help you prepare. Make sure you have all your note taking supplies to hand before starting to watch.
  • Treat a recording as if you were watching the session live and try and watch it through at least once, making notes as normal.
  • It can be tempting to keep rewinding the video and noting down what was said because you can. This can lead to a transcription rather than notes - remember you are not trying to record everything, just the points you actually need. You can go back over a point if you think you really need to watch it again but try not to spend hours going over a single video.

Digital notetaking

Many traditional notetaking methods are designed with pen and paper in mind. 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.

Using your notes: In your writing

There are several ways to include information from your notes in your writing and you will be expected to use a range of methods to get good marks.

  • Quoting: you may want to include short extracts of another work in your own through a direct quote which you have recorded in your notes. Be careful not to be excessive in your use of quotes – markers want to see your thoughts not just how much you can quote other people. Quotes are best used when the reader needs to see the original words of the statement. Perhaps this is the only way to express the point or the author is an authority on the topic and their words add weight to the argument. Make sure you only quote when no other method will do.
  • Paraphrasing: this involves explaining the meaning of someone else’s work in your own words in a way that preserves the essential meaning of the work. This technique is not about just rearranging the order of the existing words but demonstrating that you have understood their meaning and how they relate to the point you are making
  • Summarising:  this technique is similar to paraphrasing but involves highlighting the main points of a work in your own words, for example offering an overview of the central argument or key points. Your summary should always be shorter than the original text.

Whichever technique you use you need to include references to any ideas that were not your own, even if you are using your own words. This helps to acknowledge the original source of the material and prevents accusations of plagiarism. You can read more about referencing and any of the above techniques in the Good Academic Practice Guide from Cambridge University Libraries.

The development of artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT has raised a lot of questions about how these can be used to aid in the writing process. The University of Cambridge sets out clear guidelines on the use of these tools on its Plagiarism and Academic Misconduct site and advises that they should not be used.

Notetaking 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 topic and using these as headers to make notes. Under each of these headings you can record as many sub-headings as needed followed by any evidence 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. 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.

Example of the Boxing MethodMost methods of taking notes have been designed for people using paperbut it is increasingly common to use digital tools. You may just want to type your notes straight into a documen but you could also try the Boxing Method. Designed specifically for writing on screens, this allows you to group your notes according to topic and place them into boxes on your page. You can then group and rearrange the boxes as you develop more knowledge. To keep your notes organised you can also add headings or annotations. This helps to keep notes on related concepts together and forces you to be concise. Find out more about the Boxing Method.

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

Critical reading

At 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.

Using your notes: Revision

Your existing notes are one of your key revision tools but there are some extra steps to take to improve them.

Start by decluttering your notes. Go through them and place everything on the same topic together. Remove any duplicated content so you don’t waste time going over the same thing.

Next, try and collate the notes you have on each topic. If you have followed a similar format for all your notetaking this will be a simple process. You can then condense your notes so you have a single, clear narrative for the whole topic.

Go through your notes and practice active reading. Annotate your notes with questions, connections or extra thoughts. Identify any gaps in your information and where you might need to make further notes.

Use your notes to test yourself. Create index cards to record key points and then use these as flashcards to test your recall of key knowledge.

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