How to Organize Research Notes

Organizing Your Research With Coded Notes

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When working on a large project, students can sometimes become overwhelmed by all the information they gather in their research. This can happen when a student is working on a research paper with many segments or when several students are working on a large project together.

In group research, each student can come up with a stack of notes, and when the work is all combined, the paperwork creates a confusing mountain of notes! If you struggle with this problem you may find relief in this coding technique.


This organization method involves three main steps:

  1. Sorting research into piles, forming sub-topics
  2. Assigning a letter to each segment or “pile”
  3. Numbering and coding the pieces in each pile

This may sound like a time-consuming process, but you will soon find that organizing your research is time well spent!

Organizing Your Research

First of all, don’t ever hesitate to use your bedroom floor as an important first tool when it comes to getting organized. Many books begin their lives as bedroom floor-piles of paperwork which eventually become chapters.

If you are starting with a mountain of papers or index cards, your first goal is to divide your work into preliminary piles that represent segments or chapters (for smaller projects these would be paragraphs). Don’t worry—you can always add or take away chapters or segments as needed.

It won’t be long before you realize that some of your papers (or note cards) contain information that could fit into one, two, or three different places. That’s normal, and you’ll be pleased to know that there is a good way to deal with the problem. You will assign a number to each piece of research.

Note: Make absolutely certain that each piece of research contains full citation information. Without reference information, each piece of research is worthless.

How to Code Your Research

To illustrate the method that uses numbered research papers, we’ll use a research assignment entitled “Bugs in My Garden.” Under this topic you might decide to start out with the following subtopics which will become your piles:

A) Plants and Bugs Introduction
B) Fear of Bugs
C) Beneficial Bugs
D) Destructive Bugs
E) Bug Summary

Make a sticky note or note card for each pile, labeled A, B, C, D, and E and start sorting your papers accordingly.

Once your piles are complete, start labeling each piece of research with a letter and a number. For example, the papers in your “introduction” pile will be labeled with A-1, A-2, A-3, and so on.

As you sort through your notes, you might find it hard to determine which pile is best for each piece of research. For example, you may have a note card that concerns wasps. This information could go under “fear” but it also fits under “beneficial bugs,” as wasps eat leaf-eating caterpillars!

If you have a hard time assigning a pile, try to put the research into the topic that will come earliest in the writing process. In our example, the wasp piece would go under “fear.”

Put your piles into separate folders labeled A, B, C, D, and E. Staple the appropriate note card to the outside of its matching folder.

Start Writing

Logically, you would start writing your paper using the research in your A (intro) pile. Each time you work with a piece of research, take a moment to consider if it would fit into a later segment. If so, place that paper in the next folder and make a note of it on the index card of that folder.

For example, when you are finished writing about wasps in segment B, place your wasp research in folder C. Make a note of this on the folder C note card to help maintain organization.

As you write your paper you should insert the letter/number code each time you use or refer to a piece of research—instead of putting citations in as you write. Then once you’ve completed your paper you can go back and replace codes with citations.

Note: Some researchers prefer to go ahead and create full citations as they write. This can eliminate a step, but it can become confusing if you are working with footnotes or endnotes and you attempt to re-arrange and edit.

Still Feeling Overwhelmed?

You might experience some anxiety when you read back over your paper and realize that you need to restructure your paragraphs and move information from one segment to another. This is not a problem when it comes to the labels and categories that you’ve assigned to your research. The important thing is making sure that each piece of research and each quote is coded.

With proper coding, you can always find a piece of information when you need it—even if you’ve moved it around several times.

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Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "How to Organize Research Notes." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Fleming, Grace. (2023, April 5). How to Organize Research Notes. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "How to Organize Research Notes." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).