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Effective note taking

Classroom studyingWhy do we need to take notes?

Note taking can help to focus your attention on what you are reading, watching or listening to and stop your mind from wandering. They can also help you make sense of what you are learning and when working on a piece of writing, such as an essay or a report, they are a good way of getting all your ideas and your evidence together.

What type of notes should I make?

The type of notes you make will often depend on the subject matter. For example if you are studying a maths or science subject then short, concise notes may be all that is needed – perhaps on index cards. However notes for a literature or psychology subject, for example, could require more detail and references to theories may be needed.

Written notes are not always needed and sometimes using highlighter pens on a hand out or text book can work well instead. Visual notes, such as diagrams and mind maps work well for some people or a mixture of written and visual notes could be used.

Top tips for note taking:

  • Decide on the style of notes. Ask yourself why you are taking notes and decide which type are best for that purpose. Will you use your notes at the end of your course for revision? Do you feel that summarising what you have read as you go along will help with your understanding and retention of the material?
  • Is a glossary needed? A glossary of technical terms can be useful, though not if you have to switch on the computer each time you need to refer to it. Consider writing a glossary on a bookmark so that it is close at hand as you read.
  • Possible problems Don’t let your notes become a chore or result in you losing interest or getting behind in your studies. Try to summarise in your own words, rather than copy chunks out of the book. If you do need to quote from the book, or other course materials, then remember to insert a page number for reference.
  • Remember they are your notes. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your note taking system and change it if you think it isn’t working for you.
  • Make use of technology. With the advent of new technologies such as iPads and Smart phones note taking can be even easier than before. Investigate apps, such as Evernote, and note taking software such as Microsoft’s OneNote. 

Learn more about effective note taking

For tips on different note taking techniques use The Open University Skills for study section on Notetaking techniques.

Take the unit on note taking and writing skills on the OU OpenLearn website Reading and note taking – preparation for study

Further information on effective note taking

If you have a tablet or smart phone, download Evernote, which is a free note taking app that will also install on your desktop meaning that you can make and access your notes anywhere.

Read the helpful guides on HowToStudy.

The University of New South Wales also has a step by step guide to note taking involving reading and listening. Useful for those with a variety of learning styles. See Notetaking skills: an introduction

The University of Leicester provides study skills in Note-making.