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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Note making

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

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, we find that we don't 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 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.

Top tips

1. Think about why you are taking notes

  • so you don't have to read something again
  • to help you understand something and put it into context
  • to help you reflect on what you already know
  • to commit to memory
  • to avoid unintentional plagiarism - we take notes to clearly distinguish our own thoughts from those of an author or speaker

2. What do you want to get from the notes  - having a 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.

3. Make active and creative notes (first or second time round) - you need to engage with the text or lecture, rework it for your purposes and individualise the information so that it is unique to you and your needs. This will mean you use your own ideas and words and there is less chance of you confusing them for the words of the author or lecturer.

4. Skim and scan - Use these techniques to identify the main themes within your subject, pull out the main arguments and determine your focus.

5. 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. 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.

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.

How to

Also known as linear notes, these are the notes we often take when listening to a lecture or reading a book. They are structured by the order in which we hear or read something.

To make them most effective, don't just start writing and copy out what you hear or read. Add structure to them:

  • Source - record all the bibliographic details or information about the lecture including the date on which you took the notes. 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 between material, where possible.
  • Key word(s) - draw out key points, examples, illustrations, names, new ideas. 
  • Shorthand - abbreviate common words and names, use symbols.
  • Variety - use colour to differentiate between key facts, opinions, and your own thoughts
  • Space - don't write over inch of the page; leave a large margin so that you can annotate as you go to make connections and ask questions of what you read and hear

Advantages

  • Can be clear, with highlighting
  • Good for long texts as they can go over several pages
  • Follow the way we read or listen, which may jog our memory
  • 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

These methods are particularly useful for summarising longer notes and acting as cover sheets

Tower structure

Either by topic or by chapter, try to summarise everything in a book or article on one side of paper. record the deatils of the book or paper in the basement, write out your objective above this at 'ground floor level', then make a quick summary of key sections in the paperor chapter bove this in 'floors'. Finish with a 'penthouse' summary at the top of the tower block.

Cornell method

This involves using a template. You will write down less than when taking linear notes, but it is much easier to see the main points and your own ideas at a glance. You can use it as you go along if you don't need to record a lot of detail or you can use it as a cover sheet for the front of a set of long linear notes. It is really useful when reviewing notes to remind you what the main points were in a reading or about a topic when writing up or revising. You might also find it a helpful structure to make a summary of your essay to take into a supervision.

Draw up a template on a piece of paper or print out the template:

  • write the details of the book/paper/talk at the top and the draw a line underneath, all the way across the page
  • then draw 5cm or so from the bottom of the page, all the way across; this is for your summary at the end
  • finally, draw a vertical line down the page from from one line to the other, about one-third of the way across
  • on the right of the vertical line write down key points, facts, diagrams, formula
  • on the left of the line write down your thoughts, questions, or connections you make to other literature/lectures
  • then make a quick summary in the box at the bottom of the page to help you when writing up/revising

Advantages

  • Designed for taking notes in lectures
  • Very 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 in a confined space; to be useful it shouldn't go over a page
  • Inefficient use of space
  • May take time to learn to do effectively first time

Some people find that a loose version of this template can help structure their linear notes, even when they run over several pages.

Sun method

This can be useful when getting started with an essay or when trying to recall things for an exam. Put your main idea or essay title in the centre and draw a number of lines, radiating outwards, around the circumference. Fill in the blank lines with anything to do with the topic, accept all ideas.  Write along the lines and add more, if necessary; 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.

Pattern or key word notes

This is what we might think of as a mind map. It is for thematic notes and is very helpful for breaking away from the structure of whatever we are reading or listening to. Whilst you might feel out of your comfort zone trying this in a live lecture or as you read, a well structured talk or paper should signpost you on how to structure your mind map. It is particularly useful for revision as every set of notes will be distinctive.

Advantages

  • 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

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

Taking notes online is a great idea if you want to organise them better and search them for content.

  • Word works well for longer notes but requires you to create a meaningful file structure and searching them for content can bring back unrelated results.
  • A tool like OneNote or Evernote allows you to record notes in a structure. This is useful for lectures e.g. create a section for each paper and then a new page for each lecture. Or for a research project you could create sections on key topics and then a new page for each reading. Or you could even create separate notebooks for different parts of your research project. You can easily search just within your notes, rather than across all your files.
  • Bibliographic management software such as Zotero or Mendeley, helps you organise your notes around readings, but also seminars, lectures and supervisions. They are easily searchable, you can tag them so that you can find subsets of notes, put records into multiple folders (unlike Word) so that they aren't pigeon-holed. If you still prefer Word, you can attach the document to a record.
  • If you are also looking for ways to jot down shorter notes, then try online post-it notes such as Google Keep

Try it out

Try coming up with a key that will help you when taking linear notes to make them more effective/memorable.

This might include a colour code for different types of information e.g. facts = red, author/lecturer opinions = blue, your thoughts/questions = green

Then make a list of some abbreviations to make taking notes quicker. Have a look at this suggested list from Warwick University

Draw up a template on a piece of paper or print out the template:

  • write the details of the book/paper/talk at the top and the draw a line underneath, all the way across the page
  • then draw 5cm or so from the bottom of the page, all the way across; this is for your summary at the end
  • finally, draw a vertical line down the page from from one line to the other, about one-third of the way across
  • on the right of the vertical line write down key points, facts, diagrams, formula
  • on the left of the line write down your thoughts, questions, or connections you make to other literature/lectures
  • then make a quick summary in the box at the bottom of the page to help you when writing up/revising

If you are making mind maps in a time-pressured system, it will probably be easier to make them free-hand, whether on a laptop/tablet drawing programme. Draw a shape in the middle of your page and inside list the book you are reading, the lecture title or your essay title. Each branch that radiates from this should be a key theme - write this along the branch or in a shape at the end. From here might radiate key points, authors, studies. You can retrospectively rank them by importance or the order in which you might write them up. Leave lots of space to make connections, add further information/readings, insert questions and reflections.

If you are making the mind map for revision purposes or to summarise longer notes, then there is plenty of software out there, which makes it more flexible, editable and distinctive. Try Coggle, GitMind or Canva.

Now pick a technique that you'd like to try out or perfect.

Listen to this short lecture (3 minutes) and see if you can take some effective notes.

 

It is short enough to go back through and listen again. Review your notes on the second time and see if you caught all the relevant information without writing down everything.

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