TAKING USEFUL NOTES
(for research)

P.E. ROWE

 

So, let’s be fair. Taking notes sounds like a pretty boring skill as skills go. But if you want to be an excellent student—and you might as well try to be one as long as you’re studying anyway—then this seemingly boring skill can be one of the most important skills you ever learn. Doing it well can save you hours and hours of work, sharpen the quality of the work you produce, and help you to retain more of the knowledge and skills you’re working so hard to acquire in the first place. Who knows? This brief little lesson could turn out to be the most important ten minutes of your education! We can hope, right?


Students often focus on when they should take notes or more rarely how they take notes, and we’ll talk a little about that, but first, we’re going to ask a more important question that rarely gets asked. Why should I take notes? What is my goal in taking notes? What am I trying to accomplish?


When I say, “Take notes.”


Most people would probably think of that time-tested activity students perform in order to help them absorb the information in a class or a lecture. And if taking notes helps you to remember the lectures, then taking lots of notes will be helpful come exam time. The more notes the better, right?


But when you’re researching, the goal isn’t to remember everything, it’s to remember the right things!


In fact, trying to remember and record too many things while researching will get in the way of focusing your research onto the important ideas you need to share with your project’s audience. Pages and pages of notes can quickly become overwhelming, confusing, or even a big waste of your time, especially if they’re not well ordered.


If you take the same kind of notes while researching that you do during a lecture, it’ll take you much more time to finish a project than it should, because you’ll have too much information to fit into your project. On the other hand, if you don’t take notes at all while you’re researching, or if your notes are lacking, you’ll end up having to repeat the same work you’ve already done, because you won’t have the right information at hand when it’s time to compose your project.


If you take accurate, quality notes during the research phase of you project, though, you can compose papers and projects using your notes instead of having to dive back into five, ten, or even fifty different sources, which will take you forever.


Your goal while taking notes for research should be to hit that sweet spot—to gather the right amount of information for your project and to organize that material in such a way that it’s easily accessible when you’re composing your project or paper. Here are a few techniques you can apply to help you hit that sweet spot while taking notes for research.


And don’t worry about taking notes on these points! All this information is linked in the description via teachingcollegewriting.com, so you can just sit back, relax, and watch the rest of the video.  


First Tip: It helps Know What You’re Looking for Before You Read:


Have a purpose for reading the paper you’re reading (if you need help with this concept, you can check out our video on “How to Read a Scientific Research Paper”). When you’re researching, you should already have a good idea why you’re reading an article before you read it thoroughly enough to take notes on it. You don’t want to waste your time reading articles that aren’t going to be helpful.


For instance, if you’re looking for general background research on your topic, you don’t want to be looking in papers that cover a very narrow aspect of your topic, because their introductions will probably be too narrow to be useful to you. Find a paper that covers the general topic in a broader way instead.


Next, find the sections in the paper where the writer’s goals line up with your goals, and concentrate especially on these parts of the paper. Every section of a research paper has a purpose. The authors convey different kinds of information to their readers in different sections. For instance, in an introduction, the writer is trying to give their reader enough general background information about a topic that the reader understands why the authors did the research the rest of the paper describes. So if your project involves a similar topic, introductions are a great place to be on alert for the background information you’ll need to convey early in your project to your audience. Similar general information can usually be found in Discussion and Conclusion sections as well.


On the other hand, if you need to find detailed information about a topic, focus on the areas of the paper where you’ll find those more specific details, like the methods, results, and discussion sections.


Often, you’ll still need to read the entire paper to understand the context of the information in the sections you’re focusing on, but knowing where to focus to find the information you’re collecting can save you valuable time and effort.


Second: Take notes on MAJOR elements at a frequency that fits the scope of your project


That sounds complex, but let’s put it like this: You don’t want to be collecting enough information to fill a book if you only have a five page paper due, and likewise, if you have a 20 page paper due, you don’t want your research notes to come up so short that you’re scrambling to fill ten pages at the end. If you miss big in either direction, it’s going to cost you a lot of time and result in a project you have to rush to put together.


Don’t stress about being exactly on the mark when you’re taking notes. Researching is a process that should be somewhat recursive, meaning, you’ll usually have to come back and fill a gap or two. So it’s not the end of the world if you miss a few minor points here and there or you collect a handful of extra bits of information that don’t make it into your final project.


So when you’re reading, highlight things that seem important to a broad-scale picture of your topic. Try to consider a listener you might be telling about your research. You wouldn’t want to bog them down in boring details. You’d want to tell them the major points and the most interesting facts and ideas. These are the points you want to be highlighting and taking notes on. And you want to try and select those points so that you get close to the right amount of details in your notes for the size of your project.


Third: Take a little extra time while researching to put things in your own words.


If you merely highlight something or copy and paste it in a document, you’ve barely engaged with that material. All you’ve done cognitively is flagged something you’ve read as important, but you’re not really going to remember that information later. If you forget much of what you’ve highlighted, then you haven’t really saved yourself much time by making the highlight in the first place.


On the other hand, if you engage with the point by paraphrasing the information in the highlight, you’ve done two things: By putting things in your own words, you’ve understood the point in your own way—you’ve taken ownership of that knowledge. Second, you’ve built a stronger memory of this point that’ll far be easier for you to recall later.


By selecting the right important points and engaging with them when you research, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of your topic when it comes time to compose your project. And this deeper understanding is why you’re doing the research in the first place.


Fourth: Take Notes that Fit Your Purpose—Why is this point interesting or useful?


Also take a few seconds to record the reason you think this point will be important or interesting to your audience. This keeps you focused on the purpose of putting the project together in the first place—to share your research with others. It shouldn’t take a long time, just a sentence or two that reminds you why this information might be significant to your intended audience.


“Because this is fact cool!” is a perfectly good reason to take notes on something. It might be the best reason to take notes on something.


Fifth: Record your notes in a way that saves you time and confusion!


It’s all about convenience and saving time here. Your notes shouldn’t be confusing, and they should be easy to look at, so you can quickly gather and retrieve the information you need. Use a notation scheme that you can apply universally to all your research-type projects. That way you’ll have a repeatable system that you’ll get skilled at using quickly. Then, retrieving and using your notes will become almost automatic.


So what kinds of things should you have in your notation scheme? Some of this will depend on your specific project or purpose, but a great place to start would be the following:


  • The title of the source (Place this at the top of the document to help you to identify what you’re looking at quickly—a header and a footer can help you here as well)


  • The name of the Author (In most citation schemes, the author’s name appears in the body of the paper in each in-text citation. It’s useful to have this on hand so you can quickly copy and paste if needed).


  • The citation itself for your works cited section (Keep this so you can quickly copy and paste all your references later when writing your reference page. This a HUGE time-saver, especially if you have a lot of references—this will turn a very long, tedious task into a quick and easy copy and paste job. You will be glad you did this, especially at the end of a long paper when it’s late at night and you just want to be done so you can go to bed).


[Our form also includes a space for a link to the paper in case it’s an online source]


  • Whenever you’re taking notes, highlight the passage on the original document if it’s possible. This will help you to quickly locate each passage you’ve take notes on if you need revisit the source.


(This won’t be an issue if you have a digital copy or you own a hard copy of the article/book; or if it’s a longer web page or blog entry, you can copy and paste the text into a word document so you can keep track of highlighted passages).


  • Copy and Paste important quotes in their entirety onto your note-sheet—don’t be afraid to cut and paste a good chunk of text. It doesn’t cost you anything to take a paragraph or so if you think it’s significant, and, if you take a shorter quote out of context it might not make as much sense when you return to your notes later. Erring on the side of more information in your notation scheme may save you from having to dive back into the paper itself later. Returning to the original paper again to grasp a passage’s meaning from your notes will suck up time you shouldn’t be wasting.


(At this point, as you collect information, you might even consider categorizing the type of information each quote provides at a low resolution, like say three or four categories if those categories are already clear—like background information, Body of the Parts A, B, C, etc.—This way, your notes reflect a general idea of where this information might fit into your finished project. (Our basic form even color codes these categories)


  • Definitely include the page number with each quote, both for citation purposes, and so you can quickly locate the quote in the original paper if you do have to return it for any reason.


  • Then, paraphrase what’s in the quote, so you own the ideas and remember the passage. You want to paraphrase both because it makes identifying longer passages in your notes easier, and as we mentioned before, putting things in your own words helps you to grasp the material much more thoroughly.


  • If you have a specific purpose for your research (which most times you should)—whether it be a project, paper, or presentation—briefly record a reason why this information might be important to your audience. Ask yourself why a potential reader or listener would want to know this point about your topic. This will help you to begin shaping your project as you’re gathering ideas. Doing this now will save you a lot of time later when you begin to organize your research into an outline for your project.


  • When you start to gather research files, Save all the files for the same project in the same folder. Example:


  • Also, name your notes documents identically to their source name in a way you can easily identify and connect both—either by author or keywords—this way they’ll sit next to each other in the same folder. (rename the source file to fit purposes)



Note-taking is about using both skills and tactics to your advantage. Our team developed this notation scheme to fit the purpose of basic researching for composition. You may find that this scheme isn’t perfect for your purposes or for certain projects. Or maybe you have a system that makes more sense to you. The point here is that notetaking should make your life easier and your work better.


The best scholars and scientists tailor their research techniques to fit the type of academic work they’re performing, which is what makes them the best at what they do. If you make useful note-taking a habit from the outset of your college career, you’ll save countless hours, do better work faster, and internalize cognitive pathways that will have you thinking smarter, sharper, and faster.


And that’s why you should bother taking useful notes for research.