Key words: lecture, podcast, skeleton, keywords, Cornell, classifying, mind mapping, highlighting, abbreviations

So much reading and listening – but what to note? This workshop will assist you to efficiently and effectively take notes from your readings and from lectures/podcasts. 

Why take notes?

We make notes during the course of our study for a variety of reasons:

  • To focus our attention – making notes forces us to pick out the main ideas and key elements.
  • To help us understand what we’re reading/hearing. Writing in our own words what we’ve read or heard helps with understanding.
  • To aid memorisation – writing down what we have read/heard helps us to remember. Reviewing our notes at regular intervals will also help us to retain the information. With no reviews, we will have forgotten the information within a month.
  • To prepare for an assignment/essay.
  • To pull a course together – to show the whole picture.

What is MY purpose?

Before notetaking, be clear about your reason for taking notes because your reason will generally determine your strategy. There are three main purposes for taking notes.

Three purposes for taking notes

Click on the following purposes for more information and suggestions:

To be an ACTIVE reader for assignment/essay writing

Becoming an active reader will enhance your understanding and memorisation of a text.

What should you do?

  • Do more than just read: think about it; write notes; draw diagrams/mind maps; talk about it.
  • Try to link the new material with your past experience. Ask yourself ‘What do I already know about this topic?‘
  • Notetaking is not simply recording a summary of a text. It is about picking the ‘bones’ out of a text – picking out that which is relevant to your studies/assignment/essay.
  • Read for a specific purpose. Ask yourself ‘What do I want to find out from this reading?‘
  • Record the full bibliographic details of every text (including page numbers).
  • Be careful not to overquote. It is better to paraphrase the ideas of an author.
  • Clearly indicate any quotations you note – this way you’ll avoid plagiarising when you come to write your assignment.
  • Work through the academic reading workshop on this site.

To be an ACTIVE listener during lectures/podcasts

As with reading, listening actively will enhance your understanding and memorisation.

What should you do?

  • Prepare yourself to listen – read all relevant chapters/material before the lecture/podcast.
  • Prime yourself to listen – ask yourself ‘What do I already know about this topic?‘
  • Listen for transition words that indicate stages in the lecturer’s argument:
    • First; second; now let’s move on to; finally
    • But and however – indicate a qualification
    • Because – indicates a reason
    • Therefore – indicates a conclusion
    • On the other hand – indicates a contrast
  • Listen/watch for important points: material written on whiteboard; repetition; emphasis; body language (e.g. a raised finger or a change in tone of voice); summaries at the end of a lecture; reviews at the beginning of the next lecture.
  • Note the main ideas (as main headings); supporting ideas (as sub headings); and examples (as dot points).
  • Write key words only – don’t use full sentences.
  • Use abbreviations.
  • Leave plenty of white space – for noting ideas, explanations, clarifications and examples after the lecture/podcast.

To prepare for exams (preparing study notes)

Notetaking for exams involves pulling together your text, notes, PowerPoint slides, hand outs, etc. for each unit. It’s about bringing the material into a cohesive, understandable format so that you understand the ‘big picture’. By reorganising and summarising your material, you will be better focused on what’s important and you will understand and remember it better.

What should you do?

  • Prepare study notes at the end of each topic while the information is still fresh in your mind.
  • Assemble all the relevant materials (text, notes, PowerPoint slides, hand outs, etc.); spread them out on a table or on the floor; and arrange them under headings.
  • In your note taking:
    • Aim to understand, not just remember. Therefore, think more, write less!
    • Show the big picture using headings.
    • Under each heading, summarise your notes from lectures and readings, constantly considering how it all fits together.

Handy hints

Adopt some basic, practical suggestions to make your notetaking more effective.

Click the boxes beside each suggestion below to find out more.

Write on one side of the paper only.

The advantage of this is that you can spread out your notes on a table and see what is there, without having to turn over pages. You can also use the blank side for extra details, comments etc.

Head your notes with the title of the lecture/text and the date.

Be sure to number and identify subsequent pages.

If you are notetaking from a lecture, show:
– date
– topic
– lecturer’s name
– number in the lecture series.

If you are notetaking from a text, show:
– the title of the book
– author
– publisher
– date of publication
– place of publication
– page number/s.

If you are notetaking from a journal article, show:
– the title of the article
– author
– name of the journal
– date and number of the journal
– page number/s.

Rule a wide margin down the right hand side of each page.

Use the wide margin for noting corrections, comments, questions, references.

Assemble notes in a loose-leaf folder (ring-binder) with separators for each unit; or have a separate folder for each unit.

Using ring-binder folders allows easy insertion/ removal of notes and supporting materials. For example, handouts or photocopies associated with a particular lecture can be inserted behind your notes for that lecture.

Write with a pen, not a pencil.

Notes in pencil will fade over time; and they are often difficult to read at night.

Do not use capital letters, except for headings or highlighting key words/terms.

A whole text of all capitals is actually more difficult to read than lower case characters.

Take notes selectively.

– main ideas and key elements
– things you don’t understand (check them out later)
– useful quotes and examples
– sources and details of further information.

Use abbreviations and symbols.

See Abbreviations and symbols below.

Use colour, diagrams, mind maps, etc.

Remember: Your notes are a tool for understanding and for jogging your memory. Therefore, ‘customise’ your notes according to your preferred learning style.

Notemaking strategies

The strategy you choose for notemaking will depend on your purpose for taking notes and your preferred learning style.

Read about the following notetaking strategies, study the examples and consider which strategies might work well for you.

  • Skeleton
    (Also known as Linear OR Outline method.)
    Many of us have learned to take notes using the skeleton system. This system is useful for lecture notes, summaries of texts, and essay plans. See an example.
  • Keywords
    This system uses three columns: the first for writing keywords; the second for further details; the third for supporting material. See an example.
  • The Cornell system
    This system supports the 5 R’s of notetaking: Record; Recall; Recite; Reflect; Review. It is appropriate for taking notes from reading or lectures/podcasts. See an example.
  • Classifying
    This method of allocating one THEME per page is useful when researching and reading for assignment/essay writing. See an example.
  • Mind maps
    (Also known as Concept or Branching notes.)
    These are great for visual learners as they show the big picture in graphic form. Additional information can easily be inserted. See the mindmap demonstration below.
  • Vocabulary list
    When you are studying a new topic, you will encounter new words/terms/phrases. You will find it helpful to write these in the form of a vocabulary list. Write a definition, an explanation in your own words and an example of its usage.
  • Marking the text
    Most of us are familiar with highlighting or underlining words/terms in a text. Be sure to highlight only key words or phrases; and follow up with some written notes or summary. By making notes, you are more likely to remember what you’ve read.

Mind map demonstration

Mind maps are often used for notetaking or as a brainstorming exercise. A ‘map’ is created with headings, key words and ideas that interlink, showing the ‘big picture’ of a topic.

Exercise 1: Mind map demonstration

To see the steps and a demonstration of building a mind map, click the steps (in green) below:

Abbreviations and symbols in notetaking

When taking notes, save time by using abbreviations and shorthand symbols. There are many commonly used forms that can be used, including mathematical symbols. You can also create your own abbreviations and symbols because you are the only person who needs to be able to understand them.

Abbreviations & symbols

Print a copy of this list of common abbreviations and symbols and add some of your own to the list.