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How to Take Notes from Your Reading


Graduate study entails a great deal of reading. This is true across all disciplines. How do you remember what you've read? Without a system for recording and recalling the information you've obtained, the time you spend reading will be wasted. Here are some tips for taking useful notes from your reading.

1. Get the lay of the land

Student studying in coffee shop.
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Understand the general organization of scholarly articles and books. Each field has its own practices. For example, most scientific articles include an introduction which sets the stage for the research study, a methods section which describes how the research was conducted, including samples and measures, a results section discussing the statistical analyses conducted and whether the hypothesis was supported or refuted, and a discussion section that considers the study's findings in light of the researcher literature and draws overall conclusions. Learn the conventions of your discipline.

2. Give yourself permission to stop

Before you take notes, remember that not all you'll read is worth taking notes on - and not all of it is worth finishing. Give yourself permission to stop reading an article or book that is not relevant to your work.

3. Don't rewrite the book

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Do not record all the details. Students often make the mistake of writing down everything - and essentially duplicating the reading itself. Be choosy.

4. Record the big picture

What did the authors study? How? What did they find? What did they conclude. Summarize their work by writing a only few sentences or bullet points to capture each of these questions.

5. Take notes later

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Some students mark the margins of an article, underline phrases, and then return to take notes after reading the entire article. After reading the entire article you'll have the perspective to take notes on the material that's truly important.

6. Avoid using a highlighter

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Many students end up highlighting the entire page, defeating the purpose. A highlighter is not evil, but it is often misused. If you find that highlighting is essential, make as few marks as possible.

7. Consider handwritten notes

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The benefit of handwritten notes is that you can take your notes anywhere. However if your handwriting is poor, this is not the best option for you. Many students find it difficult to organize handwritten notes from several sources into one document.

8. Consider using 3x5 cards

Like handwritten notes, index cards travel well. Unlike handwritten notes, you can organize index cars simply by shuffling. The challenge is that you must ensure that each card has citation on it so that you can appropriately cite it in your paper (and avoid inadvertent plagiarism). Poor penmanship can make notes taken on index cards illegible.

9. Consider typing it all

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Some scholars, like myself, take notes in a word processing app or program on a computer, laptop, or tablet. Typing notes avoids difficulties with poor penmanship. The information can be sorted and reorganized. It is important to clearly label each paragraph and section so that each is appropriately cited. Inadvertent plagiarism is a real danger of taking notes with word processor. Take care not to quote directly from the article and when you do to clearly indicate it is a quotation.

10. Use information management software

Information management software like Evernote permits students to organize notes from a variety of media -- word processing files, handwritten notes, and index cards. Add tags, organize into folders, and search through your notes with ease. Even students who use old-school handwritten notes can benefit from posting their notes to the cloud as they're always available - even when their notebook isn't.

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