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Note-taking when reading

In this article find advice on how to be efficient with your note-taking while you are reading in an academic context.
Person writing in a notepad with one hand hovering over a mousepad on a laptio
© British Council

In Step 1.15, you read an article about note-taking and lectures. It was pointed out that taking notes is very personal, and so it’s important to choose the style which suits you. The notes you take need to be useful for your purpose. Your purpose may determine whether mind maps or linear notes are better.

As with listening, taking notes when reading will help your concentration, and also serve the purpose of being a record of what you have read.

Be very clear about your purpose, about why you’re making notes from a particular text.

Are you trying to understand the text?

If you’re reading about a subject which is new to you, your reading may be very slow, and it can help your understanding if you note down the main points as you read each section. At the end of your note-taking session, you should be able to look back on your notes, and identify the key ideas from the text you read.

Are you looking for specific information to support an idea?

Often when students read, it’s in preparation for an essay report or presentation they need to deliver. For example, you might be writing an essay on why people are eating less meat, and you need some evidence about how much less they’re eating, so you read to find this evidence, which may be a statistic, or a piece of information.

Remember when looking for appropriate texts or article to start with the list of books recommended by your lecturer.

Leave space to annotate your notes

If you’re reading around a topic, you’ll have to read a number of articles/chapters/books. The more you read, the more likely it is you’ll find either information to support what you have already read, or counter arguments. You may start to make connections between ideas, and it’s useful to be able to record these, by adding them to your original notes. This means you’re applying your critical reading skills, and it will also be useful when you write your essay.

Referencing your notes

If you’re using information from different sources in your writing, it’s essential that each source is referenced clearly. It’s very important to make a note of full reference details showing the source of your notes, at the time of taking the notes. This would include the name of the author, date, and title of the publication, and where relevant the publishing company and place of publication. For a journal article you’ll need the volume and issue numbers, as well as the name of the journal, or the DOI number if an online resource. Many students have found themselves looking for references for ideas they want to use, on the night before their essay is due. If you can’t find the reference, the idea can’t be used.

This diagram summarises the key stages in the process of note-taking while reading.

We would now like to hear your preferred technique for taking and storing notes.

  • Do you use a pen and paper or your mobile or tablet to record your notes?

  • How do you keep your notes?

Share your responses in the comment area below.

© British Council
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