Many of us struggle to make notes that are meaningful when we need to refer back to them. You need to adapt strategies that work for you to help you take and make effective notes.
To take effective notes, you should prepare for the lecture or reading. You should think about what you want to know, what the lecture or material is about, and how it is relevant to your own work.
If you are preparing for a lecture, you can start by reading your module handbook to find out what the lecture will be about and what the learning outcomes are. Make sure that you familiarise yourself with new ideas, terms or language by consulting recommended texts. Your tutor may have recommended some preparatory reading, and Wikipedia can also be helpful for an overview of unfamiliar topics. Consider how the lecture material relates to your assignments and identify the key points that you need to note down.
It might also help to review your notes from previous lectures so you can make connections between each lecture.
If you are preparing to read texts, ask yourself what you need to get from your reading. Do you need an overview, case studies and examples, definitions, or ideas and evidence to support your own argument?
The purpose of your reading will influence your reading technique as well as the way you take notes.
Tips for making notes from lectures
Be ready to listen actively during a lecture. Pay particular attention at the beginning and end of lectures, as this is where the lecturer will set out and then summarise the main points.
Don't try to write everything that is said. Listen for key words and phrases, like “there are three main causes of…” or “on the other hand…” to help you identify key ideas. Listen out for references to other sources that you may wish to follow up.
Most lectures are recorded using lecture capture technology. Watching the lecture again can help you fill in any gaps in your notes.
Microsoft OneNote is great for annotating lecture materials on your tablet or laptop, with a stylus you can even convert scribbled notes into digital text. OneNote can be downloaded for free as part of the student advantage Office 365 pack.
Tips for making notes from reading
There are three main strategies you can use when reading for university:
- Scan for key information such as statistics, dates, facts and keywords
- Skim the introduction, conclusion, and the beginning and end of paragraphs to get the main idea and a general overview of the text
- Read carefully, slowly and possibly repetitively to interrogate the text and raise questions.
If you are scanning the text, highlight the text and note down the key information and full details of the source.
Only highlight what you need. Highlighting too much is a waste of your time as when you go back you will have no idea why you highlighted those sections.
If you are skimming the text then you should highlight key parts and also annotate the text. A good annotation will include keywords, ask questions, and include related ideas and comparisons with other texts. Use the annotations to help you make more detailed notes that summarise the main ideas.
Spreeder is an online tool for skim reading text, allowing you to adjust the number of words presented and reading speed. It helps to keep your place in the text.
Critical in-depth reading requires detailed notes. You need to concentrate, ask questions of the text and make critical comments to assess and evaluate the ideas and evidence.
When making detailed notes you still need to be selective and ask particular questions to help you think critically. See our critical reading guide for more information.