6: Taking notes and getting sorted

While it may seem that reflection on the essay title and essay research come first followed by notes, you need to think about the idea of notes as a more fluid action that may actually happen before the essay is even assigned or while sifting through all that reading material and online research. After all, we are all always taking notes about what we hear, observe, and think. Notes are an absolute must when it comes to university work because you are inundated with so much information that you are sure not to remember it all!

This chapter will cover everything you would ever need to know about note-taking (also known by the fancy academic word, annotating). While you might have taken notes during your lectures, it is entirely different when your notes have to come from your reading and your research for your essay. The chapter also delves into how create a note-taking system that works for you and how to know when it is time to go from note-taking to essay organising and writing.

Chapter 6 contents:

6.1: All about taking notes

Note taking offers a lot of benefits to what you are trying to accomplish as a university student. First, it helps keep you focused on what you are reading. It also sets certain brain functions into motion, including recognition and retention, understanding, and, most importantly, memory. Essentially, it is a way to help you get prepared for your exams and assignments like essays. These notes may actually even help you on all assignments and exams throughout the year.

What we suggest here in terms of what you need as well as how to mark and create notes is simply a framework. After all, just as not everyone learns in the same way, not everyone will take notes exactly the same way. Once you have a general understanding of how to take notes, you can customise it to your liking and what works for you and your essay or exam. Your system of notes may not make any sense to anyone else but as long as it helps you get your essay written and even results in the grade you want.

There are many benefits to notes that will help motivate you to do your best when you do take them for your essay writing and exams:

  • Provides confidence because you know you are prepared and in control of the essay writing and exam preparation;
  • Develops a foundation and framework for research and essay points because it helps to make connections and identify patterns between the concepts and ideas found in your reading;
  • Helps you focus on the reading in a new way because you are looking at the material in a more intent way to identify what is most important and what is there that can help you respond to the essay prompt or essay question; and
  • Facilitates the development of your reference list or bibliography because you are tracking the key data that goes into each reference item, including author's name, title of book or journal article, date of publication and page number where the idea or quote came from.

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6.1.1: What do you need for note taking?

A big part of success in note taking is determined by your preparation strategies, including your supplies. There are tools for note taking, including traditional ones and even some cool new digital tools that change the world of notes. First, there are the traditional tools that you may be used to for note taking. These include:

  • Highlighters or markers
  • Pens or pencils
  • Sticky notes in different colours
  • Paper clips
  • File folders or binder
  • Index cards
  • Paper

Then, there are also some great new digital tools available that take note taking high tech:

  • A tablet PC
  • Smart pens that can be used as a highlighter but transfer the text onto the computer into a text or Word document
  • Digital voice recorders for those that like to verbalise their notes
  • Software programs and apps that help capture notes and make data available in different formats

What you decide to use is up to what you feel comfortable with and what your budget might allow for. These high-tech note taking tools are pretty cool, but they also can cost quite a bit.

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6.1.2: How to organise your notes

Once you have the tools in place, the next step is to think about how you will file your notes and organise them in a way where you can find what you need quickly on a particular subject matter. Here are some filing systems you might want to consider if you are using traditional note taking tools:

  • File folders by subject, topic, or source material
  • A loose-leaf binder with tabs to separate the information by topic
  • A colour coded system of sticky notes and highlighter colours
  • A box with tabs if you opt to use index cards

Your notes system can be divided by subject area, type of reference, or the area of the essay that you think it will best fit, such as the introduction, a certain body paragraph, or even the conclusion. However, you choose to organise your notes, more of which is discussed later on in this chapter, be sure that you are consistent in how you do it, including clear labelling or numbering for quick and accurate identification of specific notes you need to access.

And, if you are going the digital route with your note taking, organisation is still vital. You will have to name your files on your computer or label and even transcribe your audio recordings. And, because it is digital and things do go wrong in terms of accidental file deletes or file corruption from viruses and the like, you also need to have some type of back-up plan or set of files.

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6.1.3: Are index cards still relevant?

For years, the recommended approach to note taking always involved the use of index cards because these were easier to take with you to study on the go versus big notebooks and big sheets of paper. They also made it easy to create some type of catalogue or coding system not to mention the small amount of information on each one helped the mind quickly retain what it was being given.

Often, one side is used for the concept, idea, or quote while the other side can hold the references or link information for the reference list or bibliography. Each card should really only hold one key idea or main idea so you can keep your thoughts organised for when it comes time to write your essay.

Whether they are still relevant though depends on you and whether or not you feel this is the best note taking method for you in terms of your time, resources, and ability to retain information through this note taking strategy. It has been used for so long because such a wide range of students have found it useful. However, as more digital tools have appeared, you may want to migrate to a new method.

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6.2: Marking research

With your supplies in hand and some idea of how you want to organise the information, it is now time to mark the reading material and begin the process of note taking. There will be many sources and materials that you will use to create your notes so you may need to consider slightly different strategies for each source. Here are some ideas for books and articles as well as lecture notes followed by some more thoughts about coding systems once you have marked your sources.

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6.2.1: Lecture note marking

During lectures or in conjunction with those sessions, you may have notes, handouts, and printouts of presentation slides that are also important to your note taking sessions. Here's how you can incorporate these materials as part of your note taking strategy:

  • Use them as a foundation because they usually contain outlines or summaries of the content studied to date. On these, you can add other notes and information that expand on those points.
  • Do not rely on these notes to write your essay or take your exam. These are starting points because your tutor or lecturer wants you to do your own research, and they expect information above and beyond what can be found in the lecture notes.

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6.2.2: Coding systems

The next thing you need to figure out is some type of system for how you mark up the information you are reading or reviewing. Even just having one type of writing utensil can still lead to a system where you differentiate certain ideas and information with different shapes or even numbers.

Although it can be said that whatever system you choose for coding your notes is right for you, we still want to put some advice out there for you to consider and to help you avoid doing too much work with little return for your efforts. Check out these suggestions for your mark-up system for notes:

  • If you find yourself underlining or highlighting virtually everything in a book or journal article, stop! You are not taking notes; you are using up your precious highlighters or pens but not doing yourself any good.
  • Use colour to add meaning to your notes where one colour is for a concept, another for specific data, and still another for any contradictions or key sources you want to remember to check. Another colour could then be strictly for highlighting quotations you will want to include in your essay. This will help you organise the information so you can find it quickly when you go back to pull it altogether for writing the essay.

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