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Referencing and Plagiarism: Effective Note-taking

Effective Note-taking

Notes are an aid to memory and a reconstruction of the arguments and evidence encountered. Brevity here is a virtue. The information you gather will be largely abstract, specialist and essentially in the form of an argument or debate. Therefore, you need to focus on the links, the concepts, the theories, the arguments and a few good examples. Long notes are often too unwieldy to be useful. Excessive note-taking can be a thoughtless and indiscriminate activity. It can distract from active engagement with the significant ideas of your subject and may diminish the quality of understanding derived from lectures and reading.

There is no single correct method for making notes and different people adopt different methods. You could:

  1. Make notes in the margins of your texts or highlight key words and phrases.
  2. Write a short summary on each section of the text – this can help you express the topic in your own words.
  3. Use ‘mind-maps’, i.e. diagrammatic ways of representing a lot of information in a very concise way, as you show the links between different parts of the material.
  4. Make notes on paper and file these in a ring binder or folder.

Whatever you do, we suggest that you make this as active as possible. Break the text up into sections and make sure that you have thought about each before you continue. As you read, it is vital that you note down the full references of all the works and any quotations you wish to use, so that you can cite them in your text.

It is vital that your notes reflect these priorities. Always create a clear structure for your notes, leaving space for future comment and indications of significance as your thinking progresses. Most importantly, make sure that your notes are relevant, selective, clearly labelled and legible. Used in this way, note-taking provides a powerful memory aid for thorough and long-term learning.

Avoid reading when you are tired because you will not take in what you read. Try and make sure that you have some ‘quality time’ for studying when your mind is fresh and when you have two or three hours at a stretch.

Remember, when making notes you should:

  • Listen/read actively
  • Record main arguments/ideas
  • Record interesting/significant examples or detail
  • Record connections and links within the material
  • Record connections and links with previous material
  • Identify questions/contrary views
  • Identify misunderstood areas

After completing your notes, you should:

  • Think about your notes
  • Test your understanding by attempting to reconstruct the main ideas
  • Identify any new insights you may have gained
  • Actively reorder and use material

The Effective Learning Service provides a guide to effective note-taking and other helpful resources on their guides and resources web page.