Effective note-making

Effective note-making in higher education is an important practice to master. You have a lot of new knowledge, and you need to develop reliable mechanisms for recording and retrieving information when necessary. But note-making is also a learning activity that helps you to process and understand the information you receive.  

Good note-making

  • Enables you to avoid unintentional plagiarism 
  • Helps you to focus on what is important in what you are reading or hearing 
  • Helps you to understand and remember material and make connections 
  • Helps you to structure the assignments you are researching 
  • Provides a personal record of what you have learnt (more useful than your lecturer’s or friends’ notes) and records your questions and ideas 
  • Sets you up for exam revision 

There can be problems 

Note-making can distract you from listening to lectures and place additional stress on those who do not write naturally. You can end up with so many notes that you spend twice the amount of time going through them again to find out the important points!  

Developing more effective note-making practices will help you to avoid these problems and make your studying less stressful and time-consuming.  

Making notes more effective 

The two key principles are: 

  1.   Be meticulous and accurate 
  1.  Be active rather than passive 

Being meticulous and accurate about recording sources and direct quotations is an important part of academic discipline, as well as helping to avoid accidental plagiarism. This means: 

  • Always recording the necessary details for any sources as soon as you start taking notes. Do not wait till you have finished reading, you may forget, or misplace the text 
  • Having a clear system so that you know which of your notes are paraphrases of someone else’s ideas, direct quotes, or your own ideas.  
  • If you photocopy an article or chapter, make sure you include the page numbers as you will need them for referencing
  • When making notes from a website, keep a note of the URL (website address) and the date that you accessed it, you will need these for referencing. 

The most effective notetaking is active not passive. Active learning helps you to make meaning from what you learn whereas passive learning is allowing yourself to be an empty vessel into which knowledge is poured with no way of organising or making meaning from it. You are less likely to remember things you learn passively, which means more checking your notes while you are writing assessments, and more repeated effort when you come to revise.  

Passive notetaking includes: 

  • Underlining words  
  • Cutting and pasting from online documents 
  • Trying to write everything you hear in a lecture 
  • Copying slides from the screen 
  • Copying lots of direct quotes rather than putting the ideas in your own words 
  • Writing notes on everything you read, because you ae not sure what will turn out to be important 
  • Not evaluating or criticising the sources you use, but just accepting them as suitable evidence 

Active note-taking means:  

  • Thinking about what you want to get out of your research before you start 
  • Looking for answers to any questions you may have about the topic 
  • Looking for connections within the topic you are studying, and to other topics on your course 
  • Writing notes mostly in your own words, your own explanation of what something says or means 
  • Recording direct quotes only when it is important to have the exact words that someone else has used (i.e. when how they say something is as significant as what they say). 

Making your notes user-friendly 

You will know how good your notes are when you try to use them! Here are some suggestions to make your notes easier to read, easier to understand and easier to find when you need them. 

  • Make your notes brief and be selective 
  • Keep them well-spaced so you can see individual points and add more details later if necessary 
  • Show the relationships between the main points (link with a line along which you write how they relate to each other) 
  • Use your own words to summarise, imagine someone has asked you “so what did x say about this?” and write down your reply 
  • Illustrations, examples and diagrams can help to put ideas in a practical context 
  •  Make your notes memorable using colour, pattern, highlighting and underlining 
  •  Read through to make sure they are clear, so that you still understand them when you come to revise 
  •  File with care! Use a logical system so you can find you notes when you need them but keep it simple or you will not use it.  

Using linear notes and mindmaps

These two forms of notetaking are useful for different things.  

Linear notes  

Linear notes are what most people are used to doing. They are written down a page with headings and subheadings and have plenty of room for detail. 

 Here are some suggestions for making linear notes more useful: 

  • Use loads of HEADINGS for main ideas and concepts  
  • Use subheadings for points within those ideas 
  • Stick to one point per line  
  • Underline key words 
  • You can use numbering to keep yourself organised 
  • Use abbreviations 
  • Do not write in full sentences 
  • Leave plenty of space for adding detail and for easy reading. 

Mind maps 

Mind maps (sometimes called spider diagrams) are on one page and are good for showing structure and organising your ideas. They are good for making connections clear and visual. 

Advantages to using Mind maps:  

  • They keep your notes on one page, so you are less likely to ramble 
  • They show the main points at a glance  
  • They keep points grouped together, which is good for essay structure 
  • They clearly show where there are gaps which need more research 
 
Spidergram or mind map
Example

Creating a mind map: 

  1. Use whole side of paper, A4 at least!
  2. Put the subject in the centre 
  3. Use one branch per main point radiating outwards 
  4. Do not start by making your points too big, you will need more space than you think 
  5. You can add how the points are connected on the joining spokes
  6. Make it large enough to add detail 
  7. Add smaller branches for the detail and examples 
  8. Summarise just enough to remind you of the point, details and definitions can be added as footnotes
  9. Label with the source  

Taking notes in taught sessions 

Trying to listen, think, read from slides, and write notes at the same time is not just difficult it is plain impossible! So cut down the number of notes you take in lectures and do more listening. 

  • Do not copy slides they are available on your Moodle course page 
  • Skim read handouts see if they include things like dates and formulae, you may find it more useful to write notes on the handout rather than having handout and notes to file 
  • If you find it difficult to write notes and listen at the same time, consider listening back to the session at your own pace, most taught sessions are recorded. 

What you do before and after taught sessions can be as important as what you do during them. If you can anticipate the main points, you will find the lecture easier to understand, and you will have a better idea of when something is worth taking a note of. 

Before a taught session 

  • Think about the title and description of the session and how it might connect to the rest of the module 
  • Think about what you know about the topic already, and what you expect or hope to learn from the lecture 
  • If it is a completely new topic, try to get a basic idea of what it is about beforehand, ead an introductory paragraph from a textbook or encyclopaedia, for instance.  

During the session 

Listen for clues to the shape or structure of the lecture to help you to organise your notes, for instance:  

  • Today we shall be looking at 
  • I am going to discuss three main aspects 
  • Now I want to move on to 
  • I do want to emphasise 
  • To sum up 

Identify key words, for instance, notice when words or phrases are being repeated. Underline or circle in your notes any words that seem to be significant. Are there particular words that seem to sum up the overall message 

  • For instance 
  • Oppression 
  • Conflict 
  • Solution 

Be an active listener, not a sponge, try to connect what is being said to what you already know (this is where the preparation bit comes in handy!). Ask yourself,  

  • Do I agree 
  • How does it fit in with what I already knew 
  • Am I surprised 
  • If not, why not 
  • How did they get to that conclusion 

After the taught session 

Put some time aside soon after the session to sit somewhere quiet and consider what you have just learnt. Summarise and write what you think were the main points in a few sentences. Add anything you need or want to find out more about, and any questions it raised in your mind. 

Follow up anything that you think important and research the answers yourself, discuss it with a friend, make a list of questions to raise if you have a seminar on the topic, ask your lecturer if you are confused and cannot find the answers elsewhere. 

Then file your notes away carefully so you can find them when you need them for assignments or revision. 

Quick reference guide – Making Notes, and Mind Maps

The following interactive resource will introduce you to the differences between note taking and note making, and relevant techniques to help you get the most out of learning activities.