Deliberately 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.
We take notes all the time but it is very easy to write too much and so the process becomes time-consuming and arduous, not capture the right things, it can distract us from what is actually happening, and can generate additional work in organisation and reviewing them to make them useful.
This guide 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 note in lectures or when first reading a book and then summarise using 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.
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 it what you need to do now to help you to understand this 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
Training - to remember skills and techniques
Reading - to either expand our broad understanding of a topic or, conversely, to ascertain very specific information e.g. statistics, a particular point of view, a case study, a quote
Revision - notes to prompt our memory, trigger responses, test ourselves
Prepare - Before you record anything, the most important thing to do is think about what you want to get from taking notes. Having that purpose clearly in mind means that your notes will reflect your needs and you will be less likely to get distracted by the rest of the information 'on offer' in the rest of the book or chapter. Some of the techniques below require a template - you also need to get this set up before you start.
Skim and scan - Use these techniques to identify the main themes within your subject, pull out the main arguments and determine your focus.
Make active and creative notes (first or second time round) - you need to engage with the text or lecture, rework it for your purpose and individualise the information so that it is unique to you and your needs.
Do something with those notes – Don't then just add them to a pile or let them languish on your desktop. Make sure that they are organised, annotated with key questions and that you have decided what to do next. You may need to review and rework them for retention.
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 quickly and effectively?
Back up: what happens if you lose or delete the original? If you take notes in an analogue form, remember to regularly scan or photograph them.
Here are some digital tools that may help you if you want to make notes on a computer. Using Word is fine, but with these tools you will have access to your notes wherever you are and they will help you organise them too. 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.
Include the following to make the notes as useful as possible:
Best practice is to turn your notes into a piece of writing that addresses your research problem or essay title. That way, when you come to write a section on that particular topic you will already have large chunks of writing that you can copy, paste, and amend slightly to answer the question.