8 Tips for Taking Notes from Your Reading

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8 Tips for Taking Notes from Your Reading

Expect a lot of reading in grad school

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 8 tips for taking notes from your reading that you'll actually use.

02
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Understand the nature of scholarly reading.

Time Flies With A Good Book
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The first step in learning how to read and retain information from scholarly works is to understand how they are organized. Each field has specific conventions regarding the composition of peer reviewed articles and books. 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 research literature and draws overall conclusions. Books contain structured argument, generally leading from an introduction to chapters that make and support specific points, and concluding with a discussion that draws conclusions. Learn the conventions of your discipline.

03
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Record the big picture.

Be strategic to get the most out of your reading time.
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If you plan on keeping records of your reading, whether, for papers, comprehensive exams, or a thesis or dissertation, you should record, at a minimum, the big picture. Provide a brief overall summary of a few sentences or bullet points. What did the authors study? How? What did they find? What did they conclude? Many students find it useful to note how they might apply the article. Is it useful in making a particular argument? As a source for comprehensive exams? Will it be useful in supporting a section of your dissertation?   

04
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You don't have to read it all.

Young woman reading book in library
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Before you spend the time taking notes on the big picture, ask yourself if the article or book is worth your time. Not all you will read is worth taking notes on - and not all of it is worth finishing. Skilled researchers will encounter many more sources than they need and many will not be useful for their projects.  When you find that an article or book is not relevant to your work (or only tangentially related) and you feel that it won’t contribute to your argument, don’t hesitate to stop reading. You might record the reference and make a note explaining why it isn’t useful as you may encounter the reference again and forget that you’ve already evaluated it.  

05
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Wait to take notes.

Pause and think before writing
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Sometimes when we begin reading a new source it’s hard to determine what information is important. Frequently it is only after reading a bit and pausing that we begin to distinguish the important details.  If you begin your notes too early, you might find yourself recording all of the details and writing everything down.  Be choosy and stingy in your note taking. Instead of recording notes the moment you begin a source, mark the margins, underline phrases, and then return to take notes after reading the entire article or chapter. Then you’ll have the perspective to take notes on the material that's truly useful. Wait until it feels right – in some cases, you might begin after a just few pages. With experience, you’ll determine what’s right for you.

06
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Avoid using a highlighter.

Highlight sparingly, if at all
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Highlighters can be dangerous. A highlighter is not an evil tool, but it is often misused. Many students highlight the entire page, defeating the purpose. Highlighting is not a substitute for taking notes. Sometimes students highlight material as a way of studying – and then reread their highlighted sections (often most of each page). That’s not studying. Highlighting readings often feels like you’re accomplishing something and working with the material, but it only seems that way. If you find that highlighting is essential, make as few marks as possible. More important, return to your highlights to take proper notes. You’re more likely to remember material that you’ve taken notes on than that you have highlighted.

07
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Consider taking notes by hand

Try writing your notes by hand
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Research suggests that handwritten notes promote learning and retention of material. The process of thinking about what you’ll record and then recording it leads to learning. This is especially true when it comes to taking notes in class. It may be less true for taking notes from reading. The challenge of handwritten notes is that some academics, myself included, have poor handwriting that is quickly illegible. The other challenge is that it may be difficult to organize handwritten notes from several sources into one document. One alternative is to use index cards, writing one main point on each (include the citation). Organize by shuffling.

08
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Type your notes with care.

Typing is an efficient way of keeping notes
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Handwritten notes often aren’t practical. Many of us can type more efficiently than write by hand. The resulting notes are legible and can be sorted and reorganized with a few clicks. Similar to index cards, be sure to label and cite each paragraph if you merge notes across references (as you should in writing a paper). The danger of typing notes is that it is easy to quote directly from sources without realizing it. Many of us type faster than we are able to paraphrase, potentially leading to inadvertent plagiarism. While there is nothing wrong with quoting from a source, especially if the specific wording is meaningful to you, take great care to ensure that quotations are clearly marked as such (with page numbers, if applicable). Even students with the best of intentions can find themselves inadvertently plagiarizing material as a result of sloppy referencing and note taking. Don’t fall prey to carelessness.

09
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Use information management apps and software

Your phone is an important study tool
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There are lots of ways to keep track of your information.  Many students resort to keeping a series of word processing files. There are better ways of organizing your notes. Apps like Evernote and OneNote permit students to store, organize, and search notes from a variety of media -- word processing files, handwritten notes, voice notes, photos, and more. Store pdfs of articles, photos of book covers and citation info, and voice notes of your thoughts.  Add tags, organize notes into folders, and – the best feature -  search through your notes and pdfs 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.

Grad school entails a ton of reading. Keep track of what you’ve read and what you take away from each source. Take time to explore different note-taking tools and processes to find what works for you.