If you take notes efficiently, you can read with more understanding and also save time and frustration when you come to write your paper. These are three main principles
1. Know what kind of ideas you need to record
Focus your approach to the topic before you start detailed research. Then you will read with a purpose in mind, and you will be able to sort out relevant ideas.
- First, review the commonly known facts about your topic, and also become aware of the range of thinking and opinions on it. Review your class notes and textbook and browse in an encyclopaedia or other reference work.
- Try making a preliminary list of the subtopics you would expect to find in your reading. These will guide your attention and may come in handy as labels for notes.
- Choose a component or angle that interests you, perhaps one on which there is already some controversy. Now formulate your research question. It should allow for reasoning as well as gathering of information—not just what the proto-Iroquoians ate, for instance, but how valid the evidence is for early introduction of corn. You may even want to jot down a tentative thesis statement as a preliminary answer to your question. (See Using Thesis Statements.)
- Then you will know what to look for in your research reading: facts and theories that help answer your question, and other people’s opinions about whether specific answers are good ones.
2. Don’t write down too much
Your essay must be an expression of your own thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. Plan therefore to invest your research time in understanding your sources and integrating them into your own thinking. Your note cards or note sheets will record only ideas that are relevant to your focus on the topic; and they will mostly summarize rather than quote.
- Copy out exact words only when the ideas are memorably phrased or surprisingly expressed—when you might use them as actual quotations in your essay.
- Otherwise, compress ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing word by word is a waste of time. Choose the most important ideas and write them down as labels or headings. Then fill in with a few subpoints that explain or exemplify.
- Don’t depend on underlining and highlighting. Find your own words for notes in the margin (or on “sticky” notes).
3. Label your notes intelligently
Whether you use cards or pages for note-taking, take notes in a way that allows for later use.
- Save bother later by developing the habit of recording bibliographic information in a master list when you begin looking at each source (don’t forget to note book and journal information on photocopies). Then you can quickly identify each note by the author’s name and page number; when you refer to sources in the essay you can fill in details of publication easily from your master list. Keep a format guide handy (see Documentation Formats).
- Try as far as possible to put notes on separate cards or sheets. This will let you label the topic of each note. Not only will that keep your notetaking focussed, but it will also allow for grouping and synthesizing of ideas later. It is especially satisfying to shuffle notes and see how the conjunctions create new ideas—yours.
- Leave lots of space in your notes for comments of your own—questions and reactions as you read, second thoughts and cross-references when you look back at what you’ve written. These comments can become a virtual first draft of your paper.
When students write essays requiring research, in the age of Wikipedia and other online resources, I worry a little, not so much about the quality of the sources themselves (that has always varied, even in the day of hardcopy sources), but about the quality or outright dearth of note taking that often accompanies the writing of research papers.
When I was a student, I was taught to take notes when researching by summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting on note cards. Although this process was often tiresome and time-consuming, it did force me to read and, hopefully, process the information that would eventually end up in my essay.
I think maybe that phase in writing in which students allot time to actually take notes on their sources—to, in a sense, “process” and internalize their research—is being lost as students increasingly access their sources from online sites and “cut and paste” together the first draft of their essay.
Now, I’m not advocating a return to taking notes on note cards—a practice I began to abandon even before I was finished with my graduate studies years ago. Although I think it is a form of note taking that still may work for some, the ease with which students can take notes on their computers means that the 3 x 5 note card may well be on its way out as a research method.
What I am advocating, however, is that we as writing instructors (and I don’t only mean English teachers!) talk much more explicitly about the importance of note taking (or, as some texts now call it, “information gathering”) in the writing process. I think this is important because so many students skip this phase and try to write an essay without having completed the research they need to produce a substantive and thoughtful essay. We’ve all read these kinds of essays—slapdash, lacking in depth or analysis, a patch quilt of different sources that don’t go anywhere.
Teaching note taking skills
Here’s how I address the issue with my students. In some of my early assignments, I apportion a whole class or part of a class to simply having students take notes on their sources, which I ask them to bring to class. Of course, you might, as I do, have Internet access in your classroom, but it’s better if you ask the students to print out one or two of their sources beforehand. I recommend letting students take notes for maybe a half hour or forty-five minutes at a stretch. Then, five or ten minutes before the end of class, talk to students about what they have just done.
We need to remember that at least some of these students are now, as freshmen, just discovering how to take notes on sources. Talking about note taking and even devoting class time to practicing this important skill is every bit as important as all the other skills students need to write a college-level essay. Although many writing texts now have sections describing the various ways students can take notes on sources, how many of us are actually teaching or modeling these techniques to students, as opposed to assuming that they are already employing them?
Matt Birkenhauer teaches English at Northern Kentucky University.
Tagged with benefit of note taking, improving student research skills, improving student writing skills, improving writing assignments, note taking benefits, note taking skills, teaching undergraduate research