How to Read And Take Really Good Notes

“I didn’t know that I would have to read so much!”
“Sam, I have to read too much on my course. I don’t know what’s important.”

Does this sound familiar?

One thing that many of my students find surprising is the amount of reading that they have to do for their degree courses.

If you’re doing a Masters or a PhD, you will need to read a lot. And you can’t avoid it.

The first mistake many students make is treating reading at university as a passive skill. (It’s not a passive skill)

The second mistake is that many students don’t have a note-taking system. (You need a good note-taking system)

I’m going to help you to correct both of these mistakes.

In this article, you’re going to learn how to read effectively and easily take notes that help you to write essays. This is the same system that I used to complete my Master’s dissertation as well as write this article.

And as a really significant by-product, you’ll also start becoming an active reader.

Just so there’s no surprises, we don’t actually start taking notes until step 6. The good news is the first 5 steps shouldn’t take very long to complete, and they’re really useful.

Materials you’ll need:

  • Articles or textbooks to read
  • Notebook
  • Highlighters
  • Pen

How to take effective notes

1.     Know Your Purpose: 5 minutes

We’ve all gone into a shop, started looking around, and then 30 minutes later we forget what we’re looking for.

And then we spend the next 10 minutes trying to remember what we were looking for.

This results in a 45 minute shopping trip, which really should have only lasted 10 minutes.

The truth is reading is like shopping.

It’s much quicker to read if you know what you’re looking for and you focus on finding it.

So before you go to the next step, answer these three questions:

  • What are you looking for? (ex. Results? Definitions? Research methods? Opinions?)
  • What does the information that you’re looking for look like? (ex. Statistics? Quotes? Numbers? Key words?)
  • Where will you find what you’re looking for? (Ex. Abstract? Results? Discussion?)

2.     Choose Your Reader: 2 minutes

Computers, tablets and iPads make life so much more convenient. You can download a few dozen research articles, use Dropbox to sync them over to your iPad, and then read the articles wherever you are.

Technology really is making it easier to work. Or is it?

This study done by the Microsoft Research team found that there were a few advantages to using computer-based reading methods, such as tablets and PCs). Their findings suggested that it was easier to copy and paste, and write summaries when using a computer-based reading system.

However, the problem here is that copy and pasting is much easier than paraphrasing. So, you’re more likely to use copy and paste rather than your own words.

What’s wrong with this?

Copy and pasting without citations = plagiarism. And plagiarism is wrong.

So, my advice would be to print out your articles and work on paper. You’re more likely to use your own words, take more notes (according to the above research), and understand much more according to research conducted in Norway.

Quick tip: The above research suggests that reading from paper is better, but if you prefer using a computer, then do that.

Taking notes

3.     Skim to Win: 5-7 minutes

You know what skimming is, right? Skimming is when you read a text to get the main ideas and the overall big picture.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Look at the images, first sentences, last sentences, titles only.
  • Try to get the main idea of each section or paragraph.
  • If you don’t understand something, skip it.
  • Be quick – don’t spend ages on the text.

You’re looking for the sections which contain the information that you are looking for.

Quick tip 1: If know you that the information you want is in the Methodology, then go straight there.

Quick tip 2: If you’re using a text book, use the index/contents to see which pages and chapters will be useful for you. 

4.     Highlighters Ready! (Optional): 5-10 minutes

If you took my advice from earlier, you’ll be using paper articles. In this step you’re going to highlight the useful information:

  1. Go to the sections you’ve already chosen
  2. Read them a bit more closely
  3. Highlight the parts which seem important to your goal (ex. statistics, quotes, key sentences)
  4. Make notes of anything interesting in the margin of the paper.

You can skip this step, but doing it will make your life easier.

Quick tip: Use different coloured highlighters for different things. For example, looking at the benefits and drawbacks of something? Use one colour for the benefits and another for the drawbacks.

Photo 10-06-2016 02 24 44_compressed

5.     Important Information First: 2 minutes

Before you write anything in your notebook, you need to make a note of the text credentials. This will make it much easier when you come to use these texts as references in your work.

At the top of your page, write the following:

  • Author(s) name(s)
  • the year
  • the title of the book, chapter, article or journal
  • page numbers

Quick tip: Most students don’t actually plagiarise on purpose. Usually, they just forget to reference the sources they used. By making a note of the sources, you won’t forget!

6.     Take Notes! 10-15 minutes+

In this step, you can finally start writing notes (woohoo!)

Here’s what you want to focus on:

  • Your highlighted sections
  • Your margin notes
  • Key words/vocabulary
  • Summaries of findings/research methods/ implications

After you’ve taken notes, take a short break (you’ve earned it!)

7.     Record a Summary (Optional)

Most degree courses now require students to give oral presentations. Unfortunately, there aren’t usually many chances to practice giving presentations.

This means that you should try to create your own chances to practice.

One really great way to practice presenting is to record yourself giving a summary of a text that you’ve read. It’s not just good for speaking practice though.

By doing a recorded summary, you’re also making it easier to paraphrase in the future. This is because when you’re speaking, you’re more likely to use your own words.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • your notes
  • a computer or phone with a voice recorder
  • Don’t read from the article when you’re recording

In your recorded summary, try to include:

  • The essential information: names, dates, places, topic
  • The research methods and participants
  • The main findings

Keep your summary around 1-2 minutes, any longer and it’s not a summary.

Quick tip 1: I don’t do this for every article, just the most useful ones.

Quick tip 2: The recordings don’t need to be perfect. One recording is usually enough.

8.     Organise Your Notes

So you’ve made notes, and you’ve done a recorded summary. Well done! You’re work is almost done.

This final step is all about organising your notes, so that they make sense in the future.

I use Microsoft OneNote to organise my notes. Here’s what I do:

  • A section (or tab) for each theme/topic/idea
  • A title so it’s easy to identify
  • Links to the PDF online (in case I lose the physical PDF)
  • In-text citation information (Name and year)
  • Information in note-form (this relates to your purpose in step 1)

Organising notes in onenote

Why do I do this?

  1. My handwriting is really bad
  2. I can back up my notes easily
  3. I have all of my notes in one place

If you don’t have OneNote, you can find some free alternatives here.

What Next?

Reading at university is an active skill, and you need to practice it to get better. I advise creating a research schedule and aiming to start with two articles or chapters a day, and building up from there.

So here’s what you should do next:

  1. Prepare for your next research session by getting highlighters, a voice recorder and OneNote (or an alternative)
  2. Plan your next research session using the steps I outlined above.
  3. Help your friends by sharing this article with them. You might just make their lives easier.
Oh, and if you haven’t downloaded the free Essential Grammar Mistakes Guide yet, then click here and download it!

About the Author Sam

Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.

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