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UG CamGuides: What skills will I develop as an undergraduate?

Generic academic skills useful to all students

Note making?

man in cap taking notesDeliberately called note making and not note taking, this is the active process of recording information from one source to make it useful for another purpose. This is a skill that will definitely improve with time. You will learn how to keep up in lectures and supervisions and take notes from books but it may be tough to begin with.

You will probably find that you make more notes at university than you are used to. When you are learning how do this effectively it is very easy to write too much, possibly because you are worried about missing something. The process then becomes time-consuming and arduous, we don't always capture the right things, it can distract us from what is actually happening, and can generate additional work in organisation and reviewing notes to make them useful.

This page will look at what makes good notes and suggest some techniques you could try for the first time or fine tune, if you are using them already.

Remember that different styles suit different people and that different styles suit different purposes. You do not have to focus on one technique; use them in conjunction e.g. take linear notes in lectures or when first reading a book and then summarise using the Cornell or pattern method.

First it is important to question why and when we take notes, to realise that there are different purposes, that require different techniques and approaches. Click on the boxes to find out more. 

  • Summarise - We make notes so that we don't have to read the whole book or journal article again.
  • Understanding - Notes can act as a way of clarifying points and helping us put something new into a meaningful context.
  • Reflect - As you are taking notes you will develop thoughts on how you may use this information, how it relates to your previous knowledge and what you need to do now to help you to understand these ideas further.
  • Recall - To commit to memory and be able to utilise that information for another purpose.
  • Avoid unintentional plagiarism - We take notes to clearly distinguish our own thoughts from those of an author or speaker.
  • Lectures - to capture the thoughts and examples given by an academic.
  • Supervisions - it is essential that you note down feedback on your work to help you improve, as well as key themes, authors and/or topics for further investigation.
  • Reading - to either expand our broad understanding of a topic or, conversely, to ascertain specific information e.g. statistics, a point of view, quotes, a case study.
  • Training - to remember skills and techniques so that we can apply them to another context.
  • Revision - to prompt our memory, trigger responses, and test ourselves.

These two videos show the approaches some students take when making notes for different purposes.

 

With thanks to:

Jesse (Medicine)

Vamsi (Economics)

Eloise (English)

 

With thanks to:

Cheryl (Music)

Dhruv (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Anna (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Techniques for reading or lectures - click on the arrows to move the slides

linear notes from University of Sussex

Linear Notes

Advantages

 

  • Can be clear, with highlighting
  • Good for long texts as they can go over several pages
  • Follow the way we read or listen
  • Can be good for emphasising points
  • Useful when there is a clear structure

 

Disadvantages

 

  • Can be uninspiring to look at and hard to read
  • Difficult to add to or make connections, especially if long
  • Risk of repeating what is said
  • May need reducing at a later date to make useful

 

Cornell or column method

Cornell or Column notes

Advantages

 

  • Designed for taking notes in lectures
  • Good for reviewing linear notes
  • Good way of organising notes by defining spaces to add more later
  • Generates revision topics

 

Disadvantages

 

  • Not stimulating visually
  • Tempting to write too much
  • Inefficient use of space
  • May take time to learn to do effectively first time

 

mind map from bubbl.us

Pattern or keyword notes

Advantages

  • Easy to make and add to, up to a point
  • Visual notes can be easy to understand and remember
  • Not fixed in any order (e.g. hierarchical or chronological unless you impose this)
  • Links are clear to new and existing knowledge
  • You're less likely to write too much
  • Interesting to look at and each set is distinct from other notes
  • Do not need to be able to write quickly
  • Good for moving from reading to writing

 

Disadvantages

 

  • May be hard to decide the order of the material
  • Hard to expand mindmap once space is filled
  • Have to think creatively at speed

 

lightbulb iconMake some notes
Look at a newspaper article or book chapter, watch a documentary, or listen to a feature on a radio programme. Try and make notes using one of the above methods that you are less familiar with. If you want to try the Cornell method, there is a link to a template below.
Compare it with your usual method. Which do you prefer?
Try a different method for listening to reading, or use one to sketch out an essay plan. Do you think the methods are better suited to these different types of learning?

arrowAlternatively, jump to our lectures page, where you can watch a Cambridge lecture and practise making notes.
 

Tools

Whether you use a notebook or laptop, your phone or loose-leaf paper, the tools you choose should suit their purpose. Consider:
  • Ease of use in a particular environment - will you always have your notebook with you? Can you balance your laptop on your knee? If using audio notes, are you able to make them without disturbing others?
  • Accessibility - can your read what you have written?
  • Review - can you edit them easily and add to them if need be?
  • Organisation and retrieval - are you able to find what you need from your notes quickly and effectively?
  • Back up - what happens if you lose or delete the original? If you take notes on paper, remember to regularly scan or photograph them.

Digital tools

Here are some digital tools that may help you if you want to make notes on a computer. They have the benefit of being accessible wherever you are, on multiple devices, and they will help you organise them too. By storing them in a single tool, they are more easily searchable than if you have multiple Word documents. If you want to stick with Word, why not attach the document to a bibliographic reference in Zotero or Mendeley to help you find them more easily.

  • person typing on two laptops‚ÄčEvernote  and Onenote are very similar and are good for mulitple notes stored in digital 'notebooks'. They are well organised and searchable. The to-do list function is also useful for helping with time management.
  • Googlekeep - like post it notes on your desktop and phone. Takes audio notes too.
  • arrowReference management software e.g. Zotero or Mendeley, allows you to store notes alongside references or to attach documents of notes. To find out more about reference management software, see our page on Tools in the How do I reference and avoid plagiarism section? 

 

With thanks to:

Anna (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Shameera (English)

Image credits

CC0 by Brad Neathery via Unsplash, Linear notes: © Skills Hub, University of Sussex; CC0 by freestocks via Unsplash

Film credits

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