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  2. Core skills
  3. Critical reading techniques
  4. How to take notes

How to take notes

You are probably thinking 'Why talk about taking notes when this section's called "Critical reading techniques"?' Well, it's because making notes is an essential part of the reading process. It helps you internalise difficult ideas by putting them into your own words and can help you be more focused during exam revision. You are more likely to remember material you have thought about and made notes on than material you have read passively.

Taking notes is a skill that you develop with practice. There is no right or wrong way, just find a method that suits you (for example, bullet points, mind maps and diagrams, highlighting, annotating or underlining significant words).

OU student, Cynthia, explains how she uses visual methods of notetaking to help her understand her subject.

Many people find it effective to take notes in two stages.

  • First writing down the main points.
  • Then summarising, condensing and organising the notes so that they can be used when writing assignments or revising for exams.

In general, your notes should be brief and to the point. Take time to think about

  • what is expected of you, by reviewing the learning outcomes listed in your module materials
  • what each assignment requires you to do
  • how you learn best, so you can choose the most effective some techniques.

If you are given a handout before or during a face-to-face session, use this as the framework for taking notes.

OU student, Mel, explains her approach to note taking.

Revisiting your notes helps you learn the material and prepare for assignments. It helps you 'pull together' all the different ideas you have recorded, so you can make cross-links with earlier study.

What to avoid when taking notes

  • Don't attempt to write everything down, just reflect the main themes. Aim to get the gist of the topic or the main points.
  • Try not to get flustered if you miss something out or come across something you don't understand. Use a question mark to highlight the point in your notes and come back to it later.
  • Don't lose track of your purpose in making the notes in the first place - keep focused.
  • Don't be concerned about whether anyone else could make sense of your notes, you are the only person who needs to read them.
  • Don't try to remember everything you read or heard in a tutorial session, it can't be done.
  • Don't forget to revisit and organise your notes and get them systematically arranged so that you can find the information you need when you want it.
  • Don't forget to check you have complete references when you revisit your notes, this will save you a lot of time later on if you want to cite particular sources of evidence.
  • Don't be afraid of trying different ways of taking notes - try lists, colours, bullet points, underlining, highlighting and mind-mapping. Experimenting with various methods helps you discover the technique that suits you.
  • Don't take notes all the time - spend some time at tutorials engaging with the tutor and other students or just thinking about what you're doing.