Notes exist to:

Notes are summaries through short sentences and keywords, either prepared in rough form or revised neater, in some sort of meaningful layout.

Notes are made either through active reading or active listening.

Active reading means reading according to an order determined by the reader and not by the book and reading selectively according to what is wanted. This translates into notes.

Active reading means:

Active listening means being prepared for what is going to be heard before the lecture or tutorial. Some things said have more impact than others: perhaps an original point is made, perhaps the syllabus is being addressed well; sometimes, however, less important points are made and these seem less relevant. Active selective listening translates into good note taking. The act of note taking in turn assists active listening. Key concepts register better, and in time the whole syllabus begins to take shape in the mind in a reasoned sense. Essays become more focussed. The notes prompt the memory of active listening.

Active listening means:

Arrive at a lecture on time to hear the introduction, which will frame everything else. A few notes may be made at this point, but it will assist how other notes are done. The nature of the introduction, or its absence, will indicate how much extra work there will need to be in the note taking process (in rough, and neater afterwards) to turn a mediocre lecture into something that prompts good reading and good writing in future. Didactic (logical, point by point) lectures are the easiest and laziest to note down, discursive lectures (relating concepts backwards and forwards) need an extra organising organisation of notes to bring out those relationships, other relationships and concepts. This is also necessary where lectures veer between the didactic and discursive.

Many people accept notes made by a lecturer or tutor and think they will do. However, they take away the process of absorption of what was being said. It is therefore useful to make one's own notes even where notes have been handed out. Making one's own notes reinforces what has been said, and they also capture the lecturer's ad-libbing and further thoughts or examples. Simply limiting note taking to the acetates on overhead projectors is not enough. Try to get the essence of a diagram, not all of it if time is short.

Write notes with gaps (lines, white space if no lines) left in for later additions perhaps in the lecture or from written sources. Highlighters are actually a good idea for one's own notes, especially if there is a hierarchy of important points. Use numbering, or letters, or triangles/ arrows and other symbols


One strategy for taking notes from written material is underlining and highlighting. This should only be done with own notes and books, if wanted. I never do with books.

Underlining highlights the basic thrust of a paragraph through selection of keywords. The danger is, of course, highlighting too many words. A further danger is that highlighting too few words hardly gives enough information. In any case, highlighting someone else's words continuously is to be trapped within their narrative/ argument stream, and may not be the best way to acquire the understanding of the knowledge for work purposes being transmitted. Highlighting perhaps works best as a reinforcer to active listening during a lecture with handed out notes, memory prompter or stimulus on returning to the source, and also a reminder that an area has been read.

So, underlining and highlighting is for:

Underlining/ highlighting is bad regarding:

Notes really should contain own thinking. Whilst keywords are indeed useful, they are nothing without some development according to one's thinking and application to the topic. Notes are a bridgehead between the way the material is received and the way it gets applied, freeing the user from plagiarism and over dependency on sources. The extent of the

Notes reflect:

The extent of such notes can be for, say, comprehensive a whole chapter of a book, or virtually verbatim recording of a lecture, but these would be extreme coverage. Shorthand skills could be a disadvantage! This extent of writing would be an inefficient use of time. Notes should always try to bring out salient points.

All these notes are continuous or virtual in nature. It may be more relevant to produce notes diagrammatically. This can be done in several ways, or at several levels.

Lowest level: try as an exercise going into a lecturer or tutorial with plain paper (not lined) and do the notes on the paper landscape fashion (longest edges top and bottom). See how the notes change, how more visual they become, bubbles and highlighting methods used, lines drawn to make connections.

Middle level: deliberately use landscape or portrait pages, again plain paper, and be deliberate in diagrammatic representation. Use bubbles and lines, making the connections. The important thing is to listen and chart the relationships between points. Connections not spoke about by the lecturer but in the mind can be added. This is certainly a good way to make notes about a book or source, because it starts to pictorialise the argument and narrative.

Top level: Use a mind map or more. This is a strict, hierarchical progression from a central single idea down through logical subordinate levels towards detail. Connections are shown. See link one and link two for more on mind maps.

Notes need storing, and finding. Therefore notes themselves need some sort of cataloguing. Notes carried out on cards can be logged alphabetically, or by subject, or topic, or boxes, or indeed held on computer by various forms of links (eg personal website).

So don't forget where notes are, or fail to look at them until exam time. See if two weeks after making them whether they still prompt the subject well. What about, though, two months later? Perhaps it is a good idea to revise notes on a weekly basis. As the notes rise in volume, this needs management, but old notes need looking at as well as recent notes. Difficulty in understanding them, or changes in the relevance of points made, will prompt rewrites of notes.

Notes from notes can be made. There is no point just doing the same notes again, even to make them neater. Notes should always serve a function, for example notes done again are for an examination or dissertation, rearranged and made more logical, or perhaps into a diagram or mind map second time around. Exam revision is a process of notes made from notes.

Look at notes:

Notes for exams need to be of the sort that can be learned. This does not mean learned off by heart, verbatim. It means that they should prompt the logical argument, and they should provide essentials of information. Exams are not memory tests, but notes assist capabilities of recall and connections between subject areas.

A good exercise I have done is to make exam revision notes from existing notes. These should be neat, rigid, and logical. They should suit reading into a microphone. Revise them several times by listening through headphones, and also read them while listening to them. It is amazing what this process does for the power of recall. Then in an exam situation answering the question is made so much easier.


Stagg, G. (1995), Reading and Notetaking from Written Sources, Leicester: De Montford University Library, Student Learning Development Centre.