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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Note making

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.

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.

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

How to take notes

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. 


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 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.

Digital tools

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.

Successful notes

Include the following to make the notes as useful as possible:

  • Source - all the bibliographic details or those of the lecture including the date on which you took them. Remember to record page numbers if you are taking notes from a text. Number you own notes too if they are loose-leaf.
  • Headings - clearly define sections and indent material to give a hierarchy to themes and ideas.
  • Structure - insert bullet points, arrows, numbering. Show connections where possible.
  • Key word(s) - draw out key points, examples, illustrations, names, new ideas. 
  • Shorthand - abbreviate common words and names, use symbols.
  • Mnemonic triggers - things that make the notes memorable – cartoons, colour, illustrations.
  • Further reading - names highlighted in the notes or gathered in a specific place
  • Summarise - this will save you having to reread all your notes again to find out the main points.
  • Be critical - record your own thoughts throughout. How does this fit with what you know, what questions remain unanswered?

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.

Techniques for reading or lectures

linear notes from University of Sussex

Linear Notes


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


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

Download this template to have a go at using this method (pdf)

mind map from

Pattern or keyword notes


  • Easy to make and add to up to a point
  • Visual notes can be easy to understand and remember, see at a glance
  • 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


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


Techniques for summaries

notemaking in sun form


Put your main idea in the centre and make 10 lines round the circumference. Fill in the blank lines with anything to do with the topic, accept all ideas.  Write along the lines (or it gets too messy) and keep the paper the same way or you won’t be able to read it later. Draw another set of blank lines all the way round. The blank lines are important as your mind wants to fill them – it helps you to empty your brain. Keep going until your think you have exhausted your ideas.

Image credit: Margaret Greenhall

branch appraoch or magic lines


Similar to the pattern method but with an imposed hierarchy or chronology, working from one end of the book//theme to the other.

Draw a diagonal line with the main thought of the material.  Add in lines that give more detail alternative left and right.  Try to write it down without referring back to the text.  Add more detail in as you read further.

Image credit: Margaret Greenhall

tower appraoch to notes


Either by topic or by chapter, try to summarise everything in a book ar article on one or two sheets of paper.

Image credit: Margaret Greenhall

post it notes on a wall

Post its

Get all your ideas down, one per post it. Organise your post-its into groups, with similar ideas together and label them with the overarching ideas. Arrows can be very useful to help with this stage to show interlinked parts of the report. 

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