Note Taking Skills For Research Papers

Note taking is an essential skill for university students, but taking notes and integrating information from many sources, including textbooks, labs, online discussions, lectures, and/or seminars, can be challenging. Take time to explore different note-taking methods in order to determine which method works best for you and your course requirements.  

Carefully reviewing your course outline, booking a consultation with us, speaking to someone who has already taken the course, or speaking to your professor or TA about course expectations can help you decide the best note-taking approach for you.

Tip: Different disciplines and courses require different note-taking styles. Consider these questions when determining the note-taking method to choose:

  • Will you be tested primarily on material from the lectures or the textbook?
  • Does the course focus on facts and details, problem solving, or conceptual understanding?
  • What exam format will be used – multiple choice, short answer, bell ringer, or essay?

Why take notes?

Taking notes and reviewing them later positively affects your learning and success. Research shows that students who take notes remember more material and can perform better on tests (Stutts, Beverly, & Kelley, 2013).  If you take notes, you’re condensing information from your lectures and texts into a more easy-to-read format that will help make exam preparation easier and more efficient.  Studies also show that note-taking begins the memorization process (Kauffman, Zhoa & Yang, 2011).

Lecture Notes

  • Come to lecture alert and prepared, have all of your notes and materials ready, and sit where you can focus
  • Even if the professor provides you with detailed notes or slides, you should only use them as a guide and take your own notes in class. You are more likely to remember the material if you create your own notes (Stutts, Beverly, & Kelley, 2013)
  • When possible, read the assigned textbook material before class and take notes. You’ll be able to listen better in lecture because you won’t have to write down information that’s already in your notes
  • Look for verbal and visual cues from the professor. Phrases such as “in conclusion” or “write this down,” repetition, lists, reviews, summaries, time spent on a subject, and writing on the board should give you clues to important information
  • As soon as you can after the lecture, review your notes and add any information you may have missed

Popular Note-Taking Methods

Concept Mapping

Concept Mapping is a technique used to organize information, facts, concepts, equations, theories, etc.  Concept mapping can be used to make connections between key concepts, even when those connections were not made during lectures. Mapping can also help you identify less familiar concepts. Begin by writing the main idea in the center of a page, and from there, place related ideas on branches radiating from the center.   After your initial brainstorm of information, look at ways to reorganize and group related concepts, and consider integrating other visual cues, such as diagrams, arrows, or colours, to emphasize concepts and connections. There are also apps and software to facilitate concept mapping. 

The Cornell Method

The Cornell Method is an organizational framework to take notes, either in class or from textbooks. Designed to save time and be efficient, the method emphasizes three aspects of note taking:  recording information (from the lecture or text); recording extra comments, questions, or thoughts that you had about the information; and summarizing the main ideas of the notes.

Matrix note-taking

Matrix note taking converts linear notes into a chart format. To create matrix notes, take your notes from lectures and readings and simplify them into topics and categories. For example, a course on human development may include readings on three major theories about stages of development. Place the three theories in columns at the top of your chart, and place questions, such as “Who are the major theorists?” or “What are the stages?” in the left hand column.  Non-linear note-taking encourages you to be concise in your note-taking, emphasizes relationships and patterns among concepts, and enables you to identify gaps and integrate information in your notes (Kauffman, Zhao, & Yang, 2011).

Paper or Laptop?

Research has shown that taking notes with laptops may not be as effective as paper and pen note-taking (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Writing by hand helps encode information, offers fewer distractions than a laptop, and enables you to customize your notes. Although you may write more notes with a laptop than by hand, you are more likely to directly copy what the professor has stated without thinking fully about what you’re writing. Pen and paper note-takers are more selective in what they write down and process the information from the lecture more fully (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

If you prefer electronic note-taking, consider these suggestions:

  • Be selective about what you record, as if you were writing by hand
  • Using a tablet can reduce the distractions associated with laptops but are less comfortable to type on
  • Consider using a note-taking organizer or template such as the Cornell note-taking method on your laptop to help focus your notes
  • Some courses require writing many equations and diagrams that can be time consuming and difficult in word processing programs. To avoid missing key lecture points, draw these by hand and incorporate them later. Some apps for tablets and laptops also allow you to draw by hand/mouse on existing notes
  • Resist the urge to copy and paste from online PDFs, notes or textbooks. Copying and pasting does not have the same benefits as creating your own notes because you are not actively sifting and processing information. 

Note-Taking from Readings

  • Use abbreviations, symbols, and key words
  • Develop symbols to help you record your thoughts or reactions.  For example, an exclamation point could mean “I disagree”
  • Organize your notes with headings, numbers, etc.
  • Leave blank spaces on your page so you can incorporate lecture notes later
  • Circle, highlight or underline concepts you don't understand that you want to look up later
  • Your notes should be accurate and complete, including all necessary diagrams, key points, theories, definitions, formulas, and facts, so that you could study from your notes without rereading the textbook
  • Record textbook page numbers on your notes so if you don't understand you can quickly find the textbook page for reference

Integration

Combining notes from lectures, readings, labs and assignments into one location helps to reduce repeated information and improve study efficiency.  

  • Integrating notes from the beginning saves time because you won’t have to write down the same information from multiple sources. Later you won’t have to combine multiple notes and you’ll have more time for studying
  • Based on your course requirements, decide if you should take lecture or reading notes first. If you do your readings before class, take these notes with you to lecture. If you take notes in lecture before reading, keep the notes nearby when you’re reading the text
  • Write your lecture and reading notes on the same page if possible, or put lecture notes on one side of the page, and reading notes on the other.  Keep all your notes in the same binder. You can use different colours of ink or highlighter to distinguish between sources
  • If your professor puts an outline or a pdf of the lecture online, print it and make your lecture and textbook notes directly on your professor’s handout. Comparing your textbook material to the professor’s notes can help you learn what your professor thinks is important information
  • Combine lecture and textbook notes in a concept map
  • Make study notes in a format that’s easy to review. Flashcards can be a very effective study method but can be time consuming to create. Making flashcards as you read the text will save you time before the exam and provide a portable tool for regular review
  • Note-taking apps available on your phone, tablet, and computer can be great for storing all of your notes in one place. 

Review

  • Integrated notes are easier to review
  • Reviewing your notes regularly is more effective than cramming before a midterm or final. Set aside some time at the end of each day to review and fill in any gaps or organizational details such as saving the notes in an appropriate file. At the end of the week set aside more time to reread, summarize and formulate possible exam questions about your notes
  • If you’re not sure if your notes are complete or accurate enough, compare notes with a classmate or study group
  • Check out our resources on exam preparation and studying for more information

References

Kauffman, D., Zhao, R., & Yang, Y. (2011). Effects of online note taking formats and self-monitoring prompts on learning from online text: Using technology to enhance self-regulated learning. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36, 313-322. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2011.04.001

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 1-10. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

Stutts, K. J., Beverly, M. M., & Kelley, S. F. (2013). Evaluation of note taking method on academic performance in undergraduate animal science courses. NACTA Journal,57(3), 38-39.

If you take notes efficiently, you can read with more understanding and also save time and frustration when you come to write your paper. These are three main principles

1. Know what kind of ideas you need to record

Focus your approach to the topic before you start detailed research. Then you will read with a purpose in mind, and you will be able to sort out relevant ideas.

  • First, review the commonly known facts about your topic, and also become aware of the range of thinking and opinions on it. Review your class notes and textbook and browse in an encyclopaedia or other reference work.
  • Try making a preliminary list of the subtopics you would expect to find in your reading. These will guide your attention and may come in handy as labels for notes.
  • Choose a component or angle that interests you, perhaps one on which there is already some controversy. Now formulate your research question. It should allow for reasoning as well as gathering of information—not just what the proto-Iroquoians ate, for instance, but how valid the evidence is for early introduction of corn. You may even want to jot down a tentative thesis statement as a preliminary answer to your question. (See Using Thesis Statements.)
  • Then you will know what to look for in your research reading: facts and theories that help answer your question, and other people’s opinions about whether specific answers are good ones.

2. Don’t write down too much

Your essay must be an expression of your own thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. Plan therefore to invest your research time in understanding your sources and integrating them into your own thinking. Your note cards or note sheets will record only ideas that are relevant to your focus on the topic; and they will mostly summarize rather than quote.

  • Copy out exact words only when the ideas are memorably phrased or surprisingly expressed—when you might use them as actual quotations in your essay.
  • Otherwise, compress ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing word by word is a waste of time. Choose the most important ideas and write them down as labels or headings. Then fill in with a few subpoints that explain or exemplify.
  • Don’t depend on underlining and highlighting. Find your own words for notes in the margin (or on “sticky” notes).

3. Label your notes intelligently

Whether you use cards or pages for note-taking, take notes in a way that allows for later use.

  • Save bother later by developing the habit of recording bibliographic information in a master list when you begin looking at each source (don’t forget to note book and journal information on photocopies). Then you can quickly identify each note by the author’s name and page number; when you refer to sources in the essay you can fill in details of publication easily from your master list. Keep a format guide handy (see Documentation Formats).
  • Try as far as possible to put notes on separate cards or sheets. This will let you label the topic of each note. Not only will that keep your notetaking focussed, but it will also allow for grouping and synthesizing of ideas later. It is especially satisfying to shuffle notes and see how the conjunctions create new ideas—yours.
  • Leave lots of space in your notes for comments of your own—questions and reactions as you read, second thoughts and cross-references when you look back at what you’ve written. These comments can become a virtual first draft of your paper.

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