This time last year my youngest sister was mid-Dissertation and I was texting her advice on taking notes. Key point: summarise the information in your own words and make it your own. As it happens she had been doing this, making my texts a source of encouragement rather than additional stress.
Thinking back to my own studies, I wish someone had said something similar to me, as I wasted a lot of time during my Undergraduate degree making unusable notes. It wasn’t until my final semester that I really got to grips with the skill.
Around the same time that I started my PGDip I had the privilege of working as a manual note-taker for a University Disability Service, which was note-taking on a whole new level – other people had to be able to read them. More than ever, I became aware that note-taking is not as simple as just writing stuff down. No doubt things have changed since then with the ubiquity of tablets and smartphones, but some things are key whatever format your notes are in, so allow me to share my wisdom.
In Lecture / Seminar Notes:
- Put the date, lecture title and lecturers name at the top of each page. This increases the chances of you finding the right notes while revising.
- Number the pages.
- Don’t use both sides of the paper. This allows you to add in info you missed or make additional notes later.
- Don’t try and write down everything the lecturer says. Listen and note down the important things. And don’t worry, they usually repeat the important things to make sure you got them.
Some people prefer to record their lectures, especially if they’re slow writers / typists, and that’s fine, but I recommend you transcribe the recording promptly; with the lecture fresh in your mind you’ll find it much easier to note down the important points.
As a Humanities student, very little of my note-taking happened in lectures or classes. Instead it was just me and the books for about 20 hours a week. The skills required are much the same; you’re still listening to someone else, but at a pace you can handle, and you can get them to repeat themselves or skip ahead. The danger lies in the temptation to copy huge chunks of text directly into your notes. Don’t! You won’t remember the point being made when you come to use it in your work. Yes, you need quotations, but these are merely illustrations; the key is to be able to explain the argument you’re using, and why it’s relevant to your thesis, in your own words.
A few other things to consider when taking notes from books or articles:
- Note-taking is as much about reading as writing. Look at the chapter headings and index, and read the first and last paragraph of a chapter. This should give you a good indication of whether it’s relevant to your work.
- Don’t leave your Bibliography to the end. Start when you start your reading, and use the required referencing format from the beginning. This will save you so much time when deadlines are looming.
- Resist the lure of the photocopier. Fair enough if you urgently need to return a book to the library, or are only able to see a reference copy, but I would still urge you to make proper notes, for the same reason I suggested that you don’t copy huge chunks of text: you simply won’t remember why it seemed so important.
Perhaps you feel that I’m being a little autocratic? Trust me, these things I’m telling you not to do? I’ve done them all. The stress of not being able to remember why you have random photocopies, or not knowing how to explain something without falling into plagiarism because you copied it out verbatim, is not conducive to a productive writing session or a good grade.
If you’re currently studying I highly recommend the Open University Good Study Guide. If you’re at University at the moment you may also want to track down your Study Skills department. It’s worth taking the time to get this right.
Oh, and if you were wondering about my sister – she graduated with First Class Honours. All down to my advice I’m sure!