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How to make good notes

At College and university you will need to make good notes. This could be notes on some text you are reading, notes while listening to a lecture or notes during a class or seminar. Of course different subjects and different situations may require different approaches. This article cannot go through all of the skills necessary for different types of note taking but it will help you make better notes in general. The advice is organised under the following headings

Why take notes?

Making good notes serves several purposes. One is of course that it provides you with a record to help you remember later on. But just as important, the act of making good notes should help you understand the information better, and finally, good notes provide a framework for future work.

A record  to help you remember

The human brain is brilliant and amazing. There are lots of things only humans can do, for example clap in time with a group of others. However, our memories are not good. Research shows we forget nearly 50% of things we experience within an hour and about two-thirds within a day. If we do not make a record that can remind us of the links between things we will forget them.

Helping you understand.

Making notes should be an active process, involving you in thinking about the material. What is important? What is a sub-point? What's the evidence? Is this relevant? Note taking should be a process of using information and making links, not just copying things down on auto-pilot. Note-making is just as much about showing how information is ordered and connected as it is about just writing down loads of facts. If you are preparing for examinations you need to know some things but most of the marks you can gain are from using information and analysing it. Making good notes helps you develop and understand connections. The brain also remembers information when it uses information. The brain is like a muscle it needs to be used. It does not work like a recording device. If you want to learn things you need to use them.

A framework for future work

We learn best when we can see how the information fits together. Making good notes emphasises relationships: important idea / subsidiary idea, key fact / minor example, cause / effect. It's much easier to remember inter-connected ideas, and having a good framework makes it easier to slot in new information later on.

To help with revision for exams

Good notes really come into their own when you need to revise for a test or exam. Because they cover all you need to know (or they should do!), and reflect the care and thought you put in to understanding the material (they should do this too!), your notes are your most important support when you come to exam preparation.

Finally, always think about why you are making notes, and if you are not sure, ask! Research shows that the more you understand why you are doing something the more you learn from it.

Who are your notes for?

Sometimes you will be asked to make notes to be assessed but usually they are for your own use. So, do what is helpful for you in a way that works for you. With practice you will find an approach that suits you, and do be prepared to experiment Some people find it useful to draw pictures, create diagrams or make up rhymes to remember things. Setting a key idea to a favourite song tune can be very helpful.

What if English is your second language? Some people think that you should always write your notes in English. However, the research shows that this is not always the most helpful thing to do. If you understand something better in your native language write that down. If one word in your native tongue accurately describes the links between ideas better than a word in English use your native tongue. However, remember that you will be assessed in English and, therefore, it will usually be the case that it is best to use English.

Be prepared and be organised

Dictating notes on a recorder or copying someone else's notes isn't effective: the former is hard to find things in and to add things to, the latter hasn't been through the crucial process of your own thought. Research is overwhelmingly in favour of using a pen and paper to make good notes. Have plenty of paper with you. Some people prefer to make notes on one side of A4 paper so that they can arrange them with other materials and easily add revision cards etc. Others prefer to have a bound notebook for all of their notes so that odd sheets do not get lost and that you can really develop a narrative.

If you make notes on loose sheets of paper, put them into a permanent file as soon as you can. Don't just let them pile up - you will forget the order or at worse you lose them. And whatever you do, you should copy your notes (using a camera or scanner) so that if you lose your file / notebook you've got a backup.

Some people like to use a variety of colours of pen so that they can make different links with different colours. This can be helpful as it means that when you are making notes you are immediately analysing the material. The more you are analysing the material the better you will understand it and, thus remember it.

Label all your notes clearly so that you can find relevant information easily.

Leave lots of blank spaces when you make notes so that you can add to material later and make further links.

If you just write everything down as one long string of words, you will find it difficult to learn from later. For most people, making good notes involves short sentences, single words, bullet points and arrows. Use abbreviations that you remember easily and remember that fewer words, linked better will be more useful than lots of words.

If you know that you are going to have to make good notes in a lecture or on a text try and do some background reading first. This will mean that you will know what some of the key ideas and vocabulary are. Particularly if English is not your first language it might be useful to look up the meaning of key terms and create your glossary before the lecture or you make the notes.

If you have a special need, for example you are dyslexic, hearing impaired etc, remind the lecturer or teacher. They should remember – but they are human too and may forget to do the basic things

Think while you make notes

Use the "question, answer, evidence" method. This is a very effective method of taking notes, as it forces you to engage with the material as you write and allows you to describe the topic in your own words.

Instead of copying down line after line of information, listen carefully to what the speaker / text is saying and make an effort to understand the material. Once you have done that, formulate your notes as a series of questions raised by the material, then fill in your own answers.

As well as making notes of what others have said and done, you will have your own ideas as you read. Sometimes these ideas can flash quickly into your mind, then disappear just as quickly. If you don’t write them down when you think of them, you may lose them. It can be useful, therefore, to build some space into your note-making templates, where you can make a note of your own reactions and ideas as you read.

Examples of the kinds of thoughts and ideas you may want to record are:

  • a query about something, that you want to check out
  • an idea about a possible link
  • a different interpretation from the one you have just read
  • an additional example you have thought of to illustrate an idea
  • a useful order in which you could incorporate some material into your argument
  • a reference to follow up
  • an idea for some research to suggest
  • some limitations that you want to point out
  • some questions that your reading is raising in your mind
  • particular statistics that you need to look up
  • an idea about how to structure your writing

Review your notes regularly – this is vital!

Check through your notes within a day of making them. This does two things: it helps you build up long term memory, and it ensures that the notes you made are complete. Look through them to find any gaps, check you understand key terms, try to make more links between the ideas in the notes. Make sure that your notes are very clear. Some people find it helpful to use a different coloured pen to do this.

Within a couple of days of making the notes revisit them again. Make links between them and the last topic you studied. Write down any questions you still have and discuss these with your teachers and classmates. Make your notes visually appealing. If you like the look of the notes you will continue to visit them.

A week after you have made the notes try and make links between this content and what came next. Keep revisiting and making links. The more you review and use the notes the more you will learn.

If you find your notes difficult to understand or learn from when you review them, make it a priority to develop a better way of making good notes. Ask for help if you can't develop a way that works for you!

Notes and Research

If you are undertaking research or writing a long project you will find that you have to do a lot of background reading. Making good notes on what you read is of course important, but be aware that researching has some specific challenges, described in more detail in our article on research. You need to be very conscious of the problem of bias, particularly if you are reasearching online: don't just accept everything you read as true, and you need to avoid just copying chunks of other people's writing - that's plagiarism.

In making notes on what you read, do make sure you write down full details of the source of the information - it's really annoying if you want to re-read that online article and can't remember the address. And do bear in mind the need to stay relevant. It's very easy to get hooked on reading more and more articles, and it can be a way of avoiding starting to write the project report. Keep asking yourself 'is this really relevant to my project?' and if the answer is 'I'm not sure', pause before investing more time in reading. Only put into your notes points which you are sure are relevant to the project.

Notes and exam revision

Making good notes can really help you when it comes to revising for exams. Even if you have a good course text book, the notes you have thought so carefully about will be easier to revise from. In fact most people go through their notes again and write a second set of 'condensed notes' just for revision. Our article on active revision explains in more detail.

Be positive

The attitude you go into note taking with makes an enormous difference. If you believe that you can make links between ideas, that you are well prepared and that you are able to understand the key vocabulary it will help you do so.

If you miss something, or don’t understand something, stay positive. If appropriate ask the person speaking to explain it. If you are unsure about something then it is very likely that someone else is too. Be positive and take control of your learning. If in doubt always ask! Asking questions will also help you stay focussed.

This article was written by George Casley, Key Professions co-ordinator at CATS College London

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