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Taking notes, both when reading texts and when listening to lectures or presentations, is an essential aspect of student life.
Note-taking for reading has many areas in common with
note-taking when listening, for example the need to
identify main ideas, to distinguish main from supporting details, to make your notes clear and concise, and to be
sure about your purpose before you begin note-taking. There are, however, some important differences, such as the need
to skim for main ideas before reading and to be critical while reading and making notes. This page considers the
basics of note-taking while reading.
Basics of note-taking
Below are some tips for making effective notes from reading texts. These include actions to take before making notes (points 1-4),
while making notes (points 5-9) and after making notes (point 10).
- Be clear about your
purpose. This will affect not only how but how much of the text
Reading for an assignment will probably need quite detailed notes, though perhaps for only part of the text;
in contrast, reading to prepare for a lecture might result in much briefer notes, with a list of key vocabulary.
- Be a
critical reader. This starts before you begin reading by making
judgements about the author, the intended audience and how trustworthy the source is. This information could potentially reveal that the
text is one you should not be reading or making notes for.
skim through the text first. This will help you to get a general idea of
the text, which makes taking notes easier. You may also find that only part of the text relates to your purpose, in which case you can engage in
selective note-taking by making notes for only a section of the text.
- Read the text
actively. This means engaging with the text in order to understand what it
contains, for example by highlighting key words and phrases, making annotations in the margin, testing yourself as
you read, or
reading critically by asking questions about the text.
- Make a note of the source. It is best to put this at the top of the first page, with full details of the
author, title, year of publication, etc. This is especially important if you plan to use this text in your writing, as you will need to
cite it to avoid
plagiarism. It is much easier to make a note of source details
before you begin note-taking than to try to find the text again later.
- Make a note of the main points, using an
You will need to decide what style of notes, either
best suits the text and your own preferences. Using colour or highlighting can also help to make your notes more memorable.
- Keep your notes clear and concise. Pay attention to
transition signals as you read in order to understand
the connection between ideas, for example a cause/effect relationship, comparison, contrast, etc. Remember also that
these are notes, so keep them brief, with enough space so you can add more detail later.
- Try to use your own words. This will not only help you understand the meaning, but will also assist you in avoiding
plagiarism if you use the information in your writing.
- Make sure your notes clearly distinguish between ideas in the text and your own ideas. If you have
read critically and added annotations, you will probably want to include
these in your notes. However, you need to make a
clear distinction between the writer's ideas and your own, especially when you are using the information in your writing
(your ideas do not need
- File the notes carefully. You will probably want to be able to access the notes later, so make sure you are able to.
Below is a checklist for taking notes, based on the ideas above. Use it to help guide you in your note-taking,
or to check someone else's notes.
||I have a clear purpose for making notes.
|I have used critical reading skills such as considering who the author is and how reliable the source is.
|I have surveyed the text or skimmed through it to understand the main points.
|I have read the text actively, for example by underlining main points or making annotations in the margin.
||I have made a note of the source at the top of the page (name, title, etc.).
|I have used an appropriate style (linear or pattern).
|My notes are clear and concise.
|I have used my own words.
|The ideas of the writer are easily distinguishable from my own ideas.
||I have filed my notes for easy retrieval later.
Wallace, M.J. (1980) Study Skills in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.