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Study Skills

Research skills

Online course for Cambridge researchers about publishing, managing data, finding and disseminating research.

Note making for dissertations: First steps into writing

Welcome to this guide about how to make notes strategically and effectively for long-form writing projects such as dissertations and theses.

Note making (as opposed to note taking) is an active practice of recording relevant parts of reading for your research as well as your reflections and critiques of those studies. Note making, therefore, is a pre-writing exercise that helps you to organise your thoughts prior to writing. In this module, we will cover:

  • The difference between note taking and note making
  • Seven tips for good note making
  • Strategies for structuring your notes and asking critical questions
  • Different styles of note making
To complete this section, you will need:


  • Approximately 20-30 minutes.
  • Access to the internet. All the resources used here are available freely.
  • Some equipment for jotting down your thoughts, a pen and paper will do, or your phone or another electronic device.

Note taking v note making

When you think about note taking, what comes to mind? Perhaps trying to record everything said in a lecture? Perhaps trying to write down everything included in readings required for a course?

  • Note taking is a passive process. When you take notes, you are often trying to record everything that you are reading or listening to. However, you may have noticed that this takes a lot of effort and often results in too many notes to be useful.  
  • Note making, on the other hand, is an active practice, based on the needs and priorities of your project. Note making is an opportunity for you to ask critical questions of your readings and to synthesise ideas as they pertain to your research questions. Making notes is a pre-writing exercise that develops your academic voice and makes writing significantly easier.

Seven tips for effective note making

Note making is an active process based on the needs of your research. This video contains seven tips to help you make brilliant notes from articles and books to make the most of the time you spend reading and writing.


Question prompts for strategic note making

You might consider structuring your notes to answer the following questions. Remember that note making is based on your needs, so not all of these questions will apply in all cases. You might try answering these questions using the note making styles discussed in the next section.


Answer these six questions to frame your reading and provide context.

  1. What is the context in which the text was written? What came before it? Are there competing ideas?
  2. Who is the intended audience?
  3. What is the author’s purpose?
  4. How is the writing organised?
  5. What are the author’s methods?
  6. What is the author’s key argument and conclusions?

Answer these six questions to determine your critical perspectivess and develop your academic voice.

  1. What are the most interesting/compelling ideas (to you) in this study?
  2. Why do you find them interesting? How do they relate to your study?
  3. What questions do you have about the study?
  4. What could it cover better? How could it have defended its research better?
  5. What are the implications of the study? (Look not just to the conclusions but also to definitions and models)
  6. Are there any gaps in the study? (Look not just at conclusions but definitions, literature review, methodology)

Answer these five questions to compare aspects of various studies (such as for a literature review. 

  1. What are the similarities and differences in the literature?
  2. Critically analyse the strengths, limitations, debates and themes that emerg from the literature.
  3. What would you suggest for future research or practice?
  4. Where are the gaps in the literature? What is missing? Why?
  5. What new questions should be asked in this area of study?

Styles of note making

photo of a mind map on a wallThere are many styles for making notes. Over time, you will learn the formats that work best for you. You might find that a particular style works better for specific tasks, such as organising your ideas before you write. You might try using these styles to answer the strategic questions listed in the previous section:

  • Linear notes. Great for recording thoughts about your readings. [video]
  • Mind mapping: Great for thinking through complex topics. [video]

Further sites that discuss techniques for note making:


Did you know?

You can self-report that you have completed this module to have it added to your training record. Simply visit the booking page and register.

How did you find this Research Skills module

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Image Credits: Image #1: David Travis on Unsplash; Image #2: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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