- Taking notes is a key part of the research process because it helps you learn, and allows you to see your information in a useful visual way.
Once you’ve gotten a group of high-class sources, the next thing to do is go through them in detail. When reading through your sources, it’s important to be taking notes. Not only does the note-taking process help you learn the information, the notes themselves are an important visual aid in your paper-writing process.
There are as many ways to take notes as there are people. Everyone has a slightly different method. Some prefer to type notes on a computer, some choose to use notecards, and others like a good ‘ol pen and paper. The specific tool you use to take your notes isn’t as important as the notes themselves. Choose the method that’s the most comfortable for you.
Here are the things that all good notes systems will allow you to have:
- Information about the source so you can find it again – You’ll want to write down the author, title, date published, publisher, and URL (if it’s a website).
- A way to group notes – You’ll want to be able to organize your notes in a visual way so you can arrange them in an order that makes sense.
- Spaces for you to write down quotes (direct text straight from the source), comments (your thoughts and questions), and paraphrasing (information from the text in your own words).
When taking notes, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Skim your entire source before you read it in detail. Skimming will help you understand how the document is laid out and what the main ideas are.
- Search for the subject headings in the material you’re reading and write them in your notes. They’ll help you find relevant information faster, and they’ll provide you with reference points when you review your notes later.
- Write down every fact or note that may be of use to you in your paper. Don’t write down things you already know or would never include in your finished work.
- Break down the text into small groups of paragraphs. Read each group one-by-one, taking notes between groups. Breaking up the text into smaller, bite-sized pieces will help you process the information.
- Don’t write down information from the text word-for-word. This takes too much time and prevents you from using your higher brain functions to filter out and process important information.
- If a source is too dense or has too many dates, don’t feel like you need to write every bit of information down. Make a note of where the dense parts are and move on.
In the following sections, we’ll cover some specific note-taking tools. Remember to choose the one that matches your style the best.
1) Using notecards
- Using notecards is a great way to arrange research information visually.
- Have a “bibliography card” for each source.
- Have notecards for every major idea that the source discusses.
Within the method of using notecards, there are many different formats to take notes. Again, the keys are to have a system that 1. works for you, and 2. includes all of the information you need.
Here’s a note-taking system that we like:
- Create a bibliography notecard for each source you use. It will serve as the “title notecard” for each stack of notecards dedicated to a particular source. On the bibliography notecard, you’ll want to include every piece of information you’ll need to cite your source. Here’s an example of a great title notecard for a book:
- Using the general principles of note-taking outlined in the earlier section, write note cards (one for each main idea) with bullet points. Here’s an example:
2) The Cornell note-taking method
- The Cornell note-taking method is a great way to manage notes for a lecture or any type of source.
- The Cornell system helps you commit information to memory.
The Cornell note-taking method can be applied to taking notes for research. The method helps you retain information.
The Cornell system is done on regular notebook paper that’s divided up into four sections:
Here’s an example of a notebook page:
3) Other note-taking tools
- There are a variety of electronic note-taking tools out there.
- If you like taking notes electronically, check out some of these tools.
|Evernote||Multi-platform (computer, mobile, and web) note taker for to-do lists, image archiving, and more.|
|Springpad||Multi-platform note taker for the busy person to edit, tag, and view notes.|
|Microsoft OneNote||Software with ability to create organized to-do lists, tag notes, bring in images; works well with Windows|
|Springnote||Cloud tool where you can generate text documents and share them with people.|
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.