8 Golden rules for note-making

I’d like to think that the skill of making notes (actually putting pen to paper) hasn’t died with the development of new technology.  But, I may be rather naïve.  The last time I was in the classroom, 23 adult students took out their Smartphones to take a photo of the homework tasks that I had written on the board.  Not one actually wrote anything in their books or put a note in their calendar (not even their iCal!).  Taking and making notes in English is an important academic skill that, like any other, needs to be developed through practice.  Clarifying your purpose, selecting important information, identifying main and supporting points, representing ideas in your own words, questioning/evaluating ideas and relating these to your own and others', using short forms, abbreviations and symbols, and finding and citing bibliographical information are all part and parcel of interacting with reading texts, which is a fundamental precursor to any essay you’ll have to produce.  Not only that, but making notes is a good way to help consolidate information in your memory. With all this in mind, here are some top tips for making notes from your reading.

Golden Rule 1:  Clarify your purpose

Before you begin, ask yourself:

  • Why am I making notes?
  • Do I need to make notes on the whole text, e.g. on what I already know, or just part of the text?

Golden Rule 2:  Write all your notes on the same sized paper

  • Any size of paper or even cue cards – just make sure they are all the same size so they’re easier to store and retrieve
  • If your notes are neat, you will be more likely to use them later

Golden Rule 3:  Record your sources

Make a full record of the original source at the top of the first page.  You will need:

  • Name of author
  • Date of publication
  • Title
  • Name of publisher / place published (volume, issue, pages if journal article)
  • Page numbers
  • URL address (if website)
  • Date you accessed the site

Golden Rule 4: Divide your page

  • Do not write in the left-hand margin (or create a left-hand margin with a ruler)
  • Use this space to record page numbers or if an edited book, chapter title, author and page numbers
  • Number your pages at the bottom in case they get mixed up

Golden Rule 5: Use your own words

  • Identify and summarise main ideas in your own words
  • A good idea is to put your pen down while you read and only summarise information when you get to the end of a section
  • Another idea is to summarise the information orally first before you make your notes

Golden Rule 6: Identify clearly which ideas are yours and which are not

  • Use a different coloured pen to indicate a quotation or write a big ‘Q’ beside quotations and use quotation marks
  • Note down quotations exactly as they are written, along with the page number
  • Use a different coloured pen to indicate your own ideas or write ‘ME’ beside your own ideas

Golden Rule 7:  Make connections and draw comparisons

  • Whenever you read a new source, think about how it relates to your own knowledge and to what you’ve read before
  • Cross-reference information from different sources (e.g. ‘Similar to X’, ‘Opposed to X’)
  • Note down your own agreement ✓, disagreement ✗ and questions ?

Golden Rule 8:  Store all of your notes from one source together

  • Staple your notes from the same source together or file in a folder together.  This way you are less likely to misplace pages.

Now you should be ready to use your notes to write your essay.  Essay writing will be the subject of our next blog post, so if you need help with producing an academic essay in English, watch this space!