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Reading and making notes

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Effective note-making is an important practice to master at university. You have a lot of new knowledge and you need to develop reliable mechanisms for recording and retrieving it when necessary. But note-making is also a learning process in itself, helping you to process and understand the information you receive.

Good note-making...

  • enables you to avoid unintentional plagiarism
  • helps you to focus on what is important in what you are reading or hearing
  • helps you to understand and remember material, and make connections
  • helps you to structure the assignments you're researching
  • provides a personal record of what you've learnt (more useful than your lecturer's or friends' notes) and records your questions and ideas
  • sets you up for exam revision

There can be problems...

  • note-making can distract you from listening to lectures
  • note-making can put additional stress on those who do not write naturally
  • you can end up with so many notes that you have to spend twice the amount of time going through them again to find out the important points!

Developing more effective note-making practices will help you to avoid these problems, and make your studying less stressful and time-consuming.

Making note-making more effective

The two key principles are [1] to be meticulous and accurate, and [2] to be active rather than passive.

Being meticulous and accurate about recording sources and direct quotations is an important part of academic discipline, as well as helping to avoid accidental plagiarism. This means:

- always recording the necessary details for any source you use as soon as you start taking notes. Don't wait till you've finished reading - you may forget, or misplace the text.

- having a clear system so that you know which of your notes are [1] paraphrases of someone else's ideas [2] direct quotes [3] your own ideas.  

Two things to watch out for...

...if you photocopy an article or chapter, make sure you include the page numbers as you will need them for referencing - write them in if they fall off the edge of the photocopy (at least the first page so you can count forward)

...if you are making notes from a website, keep a note of the URL (website address) and the date that you accessed it - you will need these for referencing

The most effective note-taking is active not passive. Active learning helps you to make meaning from what you learn: passive learning is allowing yourself to be an empty vessel into which knowledge is poured with no way of organising or making meaning from it. You are less likely to remember things you learn passively, which means more checking your notes while you're writing assignments, and more repeated effort when you come to revise.

Passive note-taking includes:

  • underlining words
  • cutting and pasting from online documents
  • trying to write everything you hear in a lecture
  • copying slides from the screen
  • copying lots of direct quotes rather than putting the ideas in your own words 
  • writing notes on everything you read, because you're not sure what will turn out to be important 
  • not evaluating or criticising the sources you use, but just accepting them as suitable evidence 

Active note-taking means:

  • thinking about what you want to get out of your research before you start
  • looking for answers to any questions you may have about the topic
  • looking for connections within the topic you're studying, and to other topics on your course
  • writing notes mostly in your own words - your own explanation of what something says or means
  • recording direct quotes only when it's important to have the exact words that someone else has used (i.e. when how they say something is as significant as what they say) 

Making your notes user-friendly

You'll know how good your notes are when you try to use them! Here are some suggestions to make your notes easier to read, easier to understand and easier to find when you need them.

  • Make your notes brief and be selective
  • Keep them well-spaced so you can see individual points and add more details later if necessary
  • Show the relationships between the main points (link with a line along which you write how they relate to each other, for instance)
  • Use your own words to summarise - imagine someone has asked you "so what did x say about this?" and write down your reply
  • Illustrations, examples and diagrams can help to put ideas in a practical context 
  • Make them memorable using: colour, pattern, highlighting and underlining
  • Read through to make sure they're clear - will you still understand them when you come to revise?
  • File with care! - use a logical system so you can find them when you need them, but keep it simple or you won't use it.

Using linear notes and spidergrams

These two forms of note-taking are useful for different things.

Linear notes

Linear notes are what most people are used to doing. They are written down a page with headings and subheadings. They should have plenty of room for detail.

Here are some suggestions for making linear notes more useful.

  • Use loads of HEADINGS for main ideas and concepts
  • Use subheadings for points within those ideas
  • Stick to one point per line
  • Underline key words
  • You can use numbering to keep yourself organised
  • Use abbreviations - and don't worry about using full sentences
  • Leave plenty of SPACE - for adding detail and for easy reading


Spider diagrams are on one page and are good for showing structure and organising your ideas. They are sometimes called mindmaps, which indicates how they are good for making connections clear and visual.

Though some people don't like this style of note-taking, there are a number of advantages to using spidergrams:

  • They keep your notes on one page - so you're less likely to ramble
  • They show the main points at a glance
  • They keep points grouped together - good for essay structure
  • They clearly show where there are gaps which need more research

To make a spidergram:

  • Use whole side of paper - A4 at least!
  • Put the subject in the centre
  • Use one branch per main point - radiating outwards
  • Don't start by making your points too big - you will need more space than you think
  • You can add how the points are connected on the joining spokes 
  • Make it large enough - enough space to add detail
  • Add smaller branches for detail & examples
  • Summarise just enough to remind you of point - details and definitions can be added as footnotes
  • Label with the source

Try the interactive resource, Notemaker, below to practice your notemaking

Taking notes in lectures

Trying to listen, think, read from slides, and write notes at the same time is not just difficult - it's plain impossible! So cut down the amount of notes you take in lectures and do more listening:

- don't copy slides if they're going to be available on Blackboard or in a handout

- skim read any handouts so you know if they include things like dates and formulae

- you may find it more useful to write notes on the handout rather than having handout + notes to file

- if you find it especially difficult to write notes and listen at the same time (for instance, if you are dyslexic), consider using a mini-recorder so you can listen at your own pace after the lecture

What you do before and after lectures can be as important as what you do during them. If you can anticipate the main points, you will find the lecture easier to understand, and you will have a better idea of when something is worth taking a note of. So:

Before the lecture...

  • Think about the title and outline description of the lecture and how this connects to the rest of the module
  • Think about what you know about the topic already, and what you expect or hope to learn from the lecture
  • If it's a completely new topic, try to get a basic idea of what it's about beforehand - read an introductory paragraph from a textbook or encyclopaedia, for instance. 

During the lecture...

  • Listen for clues to the shape or structure of the lecture to help you to organise your notes, for instance: "Today we shall be looking at…" "I am going to discuss three main aspects…" "Now I want to move on to…" "I do want to emphasise…"  "To sum up…"
  • Identify key words - for instance, notice when words or phrases are being repeated. Underline or circle in your notes any words that seem to be really significant. Are there particular words that seem to sum up the overall message? (For instance, 'oppression' or 'conflict' or 'solution'.)
  • Be an active listener - not a sponge - try to connect what is being said to what you already know (this is where the preparation bit comes in handy!). Ask yourself, do I agree? How does it fit in with what I already knew? Am I surprised ? If not, why not? How did she get to that conclusion?

After the lecture...

  • Put some time aside soon after the lecture to sit somewhere quiet and consider what you have just learnt. Summarise and write what you think were the main points in a few sentences. Add anything you need or want to find out more about, and any questions it raised in your mind.
  • Follow up anything that you think really important - research the answers yourself, discuss it with a friend, make a list of questions to raise if you have a seminar on the topic, ask your lecturer if you're really confused and can't find the answers elsewhere.
  • Then file your notes away carefully so you can find them when you need them for assignments or revision.

Annotating PDFs on-screen

Online journal articles, eBooks and documents often open as PDFs. You can annotate these directly on-screen, and save your annotated version.

The easiest way to do this uses Adobe Acrobat. This offers two basic annotating tools, found in the task bar at the top of the screen: highlighting and the ability to add comments.

You will need to ensure you have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your device; it is free to download.

When you have opened the PDF in your browser, click on the 'Download' icon on the top right-hand side of the document, then 'Open with', making sure Adobe Reader is selected. When you have finished reading and annotating, choose 'Save as' from the File menu to save it to your home-drive or another location.

Evernote also offers the capacity to annotate PDFs, as well as providing other useful note-making and record-keeping functions.  

Tip: if you find that PDFs are not opening automatically in Adobe, you may need to change the settings on your browser.  Look in Settings for options when you open a certain document type.