Note-making

Maria introduces this section on note-making

  • Video transcript

    Maria: Welcome to this section on note-making. At university, you will be required to do lots of research and you'll be attending seminars and lectures throughout your time here. In this section, you'll find techniques to develop your note-making skills for both reading and listening. Over the academic year, we also run workshops specifically targeted at developing your note-making techniques.
    So please look out for those. Remember, we're here to help.

You will be reading, watching and listening to many materials at Sussex and attending many lectures and seminars. The only way to make sense of all the information and remember it later is to make notes. Relying on your memory alone is not a feasible option! Note-making is not simply a process of writing down everything you hear or read, but involves selecting key information and, crucially, going over your notes later.
Since your notes are seen only by you, note-making is a highly individual process. In this section, we suggest common ways of making notes, but always adapt these so that your notes make sense to you.

 

Elena, Alessandro and Saira talk about good reasons for making notes

  • Video transcript

    Elena: So I very much prefer writing my notes. I know it might be faster to type them, but I think that active studying, by actively using your brain and even your hands, the action of writing down the notes I think is very helpful because it actually sticks to you more and even I think diagrams, maybe jotting down a quick diagram instead of writing down word for word what the lecturer is saying is much more helpful, much quicker. And if you're a visual learner, that is actually much more useful to you. And I'm actually a visual learner. So that's why I like jotting down some diagrams. And then, yes, key words, definitely key words - maybe words you want to include in your vocabulary. For example, as a biomedical sciences student, scientific language is something you're not really born with. So, if when a lecturer, or if you see in a lecture slide in a presentation a scientific word which you're not aware of, I would just jot it down. Then later, search it up, write the definition, and it sticks with me so I can develop also my language, scientific language.

    Alessandro: After I took the notes in the main lecture that happens live, I usually take the notes when I rewatch a lecture, I take it by hand because then I have much more time to write. And also, for me, writing down, it helps me memorise much better.

    Saira: For me, I'd say I learn by physically writing. So usually I'll have notes on a computer so that when it comes to my exams, I can easily copy and paste. But I'd say I have a separate book. So in school, something that I remembered that really helped me was, we had notebooks for every single topic, and the idea of having binders and folders in separate sheets really confuses me. So I went on Amazon and I just bought loads of just normal lined paper like notebooks. And then that's for each module, and I just make sure that I write notes in them for each topic in the module, and I just highlight them. And then I have two sets of notes, then, digital and physical, but it really helps when you're consolidating the information.

Why make notes?

There are many reasons why making notes is an important skill for students:

Memory aid: Research has shown that making notes helps your memory in two ways. Firstly, by going over your notes in the days following a lecture or reading a text, you retain much more of the information than if you don'tt look at any notes. Secondly, the very act of writing or typing notes helps to cement knowledge in our long-term memory.

Concentration: Reading long academic texts and attending complex lectures can be heavy going. Being active during this time by making notes helps you concentrate on the material.

Understanding key points: To help you to understand, process, and interact with new ideas, you frequently need to identify the key points or arguments in a text or a lecture. You also need to summarise the points in your own words so you can easily refer back to them later.

Reorganising material: Different writers and lectures impart their knowledge in their own style. This may not match yours. By making notes and later reorganising them in a way that suits you, you'll be able to understand and remember them more easily.

Written assessments: Your notes form the basis of your assessments and are a helpful way of setting out your initial ideas.

Exam revision: Notes form an essential part of preparing for exams.

Future reference: You may need your notes in later years of study if you refer back to the same materials. This will save you a lot of time compared to going through them again!

 

Remember
We also run workshops on academic skills throughout the year.
Find out about academic skills workshops and other support.

Note-making tips

  • Your notes should be brief, informal and in your own words. If you copy material directly, you may not fully understand it and you run the risk of committing plagiarism if you use the copied notes in an assignment.
  • Copy down the main points from the material and the connections between the various elements (main points/sub points, examples, key facts, opposing views etc)
  • If you want to note down a direct quote, write it in quotation marks. Record the source details (date, subject, lecture, title, author, page number etc.)  so that you don't have trouble finding them later and can reference the quote correctly. 
  • It’s easy to feel very productive while making notes. However, sometimes students find they waste time copying out information which they never use again. Review your notes once you complete an essay. Did you use around 85% of your notes? This is an average to aim for – anything less than this and you could be wasting your time making notes on irrelevant material.
  • Make sure you have coloured pens, highlighters, notebooks and digital devices to make your notes easy to make and easy to understand. 
  • Get familiar with the different note-making styles so that you know which one works best for you in different contexts.
  • Decide how you are going to make notes before you start but be ready to adapt them for various situations. A chronological list of dates suits a list format, while thinking up initial ideas may be better in a mind-map style.
  • Use symbols and abbreviations to make your note-making quicker and more concise.
  • Here are some very common symbols and abbreviations that you can use:
    SymbolMeaning
    & and
    + plus, in addition to
    > greater than/more than/better than
    < smaller than/lesser than/worse than
    = is the same as/is equal to
    is not the same as
     ∴ therefore
     ∵ because
    increases/increased/falling
    decreases/decreased/falling
    leads to/produces/causes
    w/ with
    e.g. for example (from the Latin 'exempli gratia')
    id. that, that means (from the Latin 'id est')
    etc. and the rest (from the Latin 'et ceters')
    NB important, note this (from the Latin 'Nota Bene')
    p. page (plural: pp.)
    para. paragraph
    chp. chapter
    ed. edition
    C17 17th century
    no. Number
    vol. Volume
  • Find out if there are any conventional symbols and abbreviations used in your subject. Use these so that you become familiar with them.
  • Make up your own symbols and abbreviations if this feels useful to you. Just be consistent with their use!
  • Consider using digital note-making tools, such as OneNote and Evernote. They allow you to include different types of notes, including multimedia; synchronise content between your devices; easily edit and rearrange your notes; search quickly through your notes; add tags; and share content with others and collaborate. 

 

Reuben talks about support for note making

  • Video transcript

    Reuben: Just let people know you can, if you've got any difficulties or disabilities like or learning stuff that you find hard and you're already struggling to take notes in class, go speak to someone about it. There may be some support for you. Somebody takes notes for all my lectures, which really helps. And when I'm in lectures, if someone else is taking notes, not always, but if I'm feeling like the day for it I will do some drawings or some spider diagrams in the lectures to help me kind of get a grip on it, even if I never go back and look at it. It really does help me structure what they're saying because you're kind of getting a lot of content.

    But then I know that someone else has written down my thorough notes, which is really good. And if they talk about websites to look up and different books to look at, just have your laptop with you or even do it on your phone. And just make sure that you look at those links as they're telling you. And then you've got them there, ready to go back, and just save them in a Google doc somewhere. And like for me, being a very visually interactive learner, like all those little things, those little videos, they do recommend a lot of other ways to get into things.
    Like my most recent essay, I've just looked at a whole set of videos about the person I'm writing about and because I was really struggling in the beginning and that really helped me then think, OK, I finally got the hang of the basics of this person. It was 3 hours of mini video watching and back and looking at the transcripts. And now I'm ready to go back to the academic content and try to fit it all together. So yeah, there's always other ways round, and the tutors will give you more. I find at Sussex they are really good at giving you, like, extra ways to find out about a topic, especially in your first year.

Note-making styles

The test of a good set of notes is that they capture the important information, and they help you understand it when you look back at them. As long as these points are followed, you can choose to make notes in any way that works for you.

Here are three common note-making styles. Experimenting with them and others to see which works best for you.

 

Remember
Note-making is highly personal, and very context-dependent. Your notes may look very different from your friend’s, and very different when you take notes from reading compared to from lectures.

Linear format

The linear format is the most common method of note-making, and it translates very well for digital note-making too. Linear notes are particularly useful when there is a clear structure to the material, for example, a list of dates or a discussion of advantages and disadvantages to a viewpoint.  The notes are written in lines down the page. To present them well:

  • Use sequences of numbers and letters to show the relationship between items
  • Use sequences at different levels of importance so that minor items are not confused with major ones, and items on the same level are linked visually.
  • If useful, use colour to highlight key points of interest. Try to keep the same colour for different things, e.g. green for questions, yellow for key statistics, blue for disadvantages, etc.
  • Use lots of space between sections so that it is easy to see the breaks, and to add extra information later.
  • Don’t repeat what you have already noted down if it is mentioned again.
  • It’s a good idea to reorganise your notes once you have finished to make connections even clearer and the notes more interesting to look at (and so easier to understand).

 

You can access this excellent YouTube video on 'Digital Note Taking Tips | OneNote + Handwriting'

Pattern notes

Pattern notes (also known as mind maps) are more visual. This is a good style of notes to make when a new topic is being introduced, and there is no set order to the ideas. This style can also be great if you learn visually because connections are displayed with lines and groupings. Pattern notes start with the main topic in the centre of the page, and related ideas are linked all around it. To present them well:

  • Use as many colours, pictures and diagrams as possible to make interesting to look at and clear to understand.
  • Each idea related to the main topic can have it's own sub-topics.
  • Make links between the sub-topics where needed.
  • Use all of the space that you have! This makes your notes clearer and easier to understand. Be aware that you may need to add a new page once the space is filled. In this case, make sure to tidy up your notes afterwards.
  • You can use mind-mapping software such as MindView so you can adapt and develop your notes when you have new ideas. MindView allows you to export your notes as a Word document and automatically transfers the mind map structure into your new document.
  • Tony Buzan, inventor of the mind map, suggests that each line that comes out of the main topic or subtopics should be labelled. He also advises that all the lines should be curved. Experiment with the different styles to see what works best for your understanding and memory of the material. Click on this link to access 'How To Mind Map With Tony Buzan (Using 3 Simple Rules)'

 

You can access this excellent YouTube video on 'How to Mindmap: Going deeper into the 5 Basics'


The Cornell format

This format was invented by a professor in Cornell University in the 1950s and is designed primarily for note-making during lectures. The page is divided into three sections, and each section is used for a different purpose. The Cornell format encourages you to be more effective and active during the note-making process, which should therefore help you absorb the material. To present your notes well:

  • Draw a line down the left-hand side of the page, making a slightly wider-than-normal margin. In the large section on the right, you take notes during the lecture in any way that you want (most likely following the linear notes format).
  • After the lecture, pull out the central points, the most important facts, the key dates etc., and write them in the left-hand margin. This will help you organise and understand your notes.
  • Draw a horizontal line near the bottom of the page. In this section, you will write a one or two sentence summary of the lecture at the end, capturing the main idea.
  • Make sure you add to all three sections during/straight after the lecture. This helps to take in the material. You can also use highlighting to make the main points stand out.
  • Writing a good summary at the end makes revision much easier later in the semester.
  • Since you need to be active during the lecture, it can take practice. Don’t be concerned if your first few attempts at Cornell notes aren’t as thorough as you’d like. You’ll get it!

 

You can access this excellent YouTube video on 'How to take Cornell notes properly'

 

Making notes from reading

Before reading

  • Note the source. You will need this information to complete your footnotes and references.
  • Get an overview of the text if possible. If there are introductions, abstracts or chapter summaries, read these first. Briefly examine any lists of key points, dates or events.
  • Note down any questions about the text that come to mind. Ask yourself what you expect to be answered in the reading.

While you are reading

  • Narrow down the most useful sections of the text to read.
  • For each paragraph, find the key point. This is typically near the beginning. The bulk of the paragraph generally takes the point, explains, develops and illustrates it. The concluding sentence often returns to the idea in the first sentence and explains how the middle of the paragraph modified or developed it. (These are guidelines rather than hard rules!)
  • Ask yourself if the key point of the paragraph is useful to you. Are you going to include it in an essay? Does it confirm a main idea that you already have? Does it give an interesting counterpoint? Is it a cornerstone argument of the subject? If so, make notes, in your own words. If there are a few paragraphs making the same point, can you summarise these in one or two sentences?
  • Will you use any part of the paragraph as a quote? If so, note it down exactly as it is written, in inverted commas and with the source.
  • Be selective! Imagine that you are spending money every time you note something from a text. You only want to spend your cash on the most interesting, the most important and the most useful parts of the text. Do not note everything as this is a waste of your (imaginary) money and (real) time. Don’t note down something unimportant ‘just in case’ you need it later.

After reading

  • Review and reflect on your notes. Revisit your questions from the beginning. Are they still important? If so, have you got the answer down in your notes? Check you have noted all the important points. Are there points that need expanding? Annotate your notes with any new thoughts or questions.
  • If needed, reorganise your notes so that they are more visual and memorable to you. You may have been doing this as you made your notes from the text anyway, so don’t waste time rewriting them just to make them neater. It can be useful to type up handwritten notes to make them easier to read, while also reorganising them.
  • Finally, file your notes so that you can easily find them later. You could use a ring-binder for handwritten notes or create a system of folders on your computer.

 

Rodrigo and Sara talk about good making notes from literature

  • Video transcript

    Rodrigo: When I first started, I was taking so many notes. I was writing every single phrase, every single sentence. I read, I would write, I would rewrite that sentence. And it doesn't make any sense. And right now, what I usually do is I read a page. I write what a page was about. Or I read the intro and the conclusion. If it is interesting for the module I'm studying or for the essay I'm writing, OK, I'm going to read everything. I'll try to see what the argument is, what they are arguing and what is the counterargument. But one technique I do is definitely read the intro and the conclusion first and then see if it is useful or not for what I'm looking for.

    Sara: So when I'm reading, I always make sure before I read to keep in mind why I'm reading this paper. Is it to find a certain point? Is it to support my argument in an essay? I always make sure to keep that in mind. And then as I'm reading, I highlight all the important bits and then I note down why I highlighted it and why I think it's important to my argument, why I think it was important for me to remember this fact later on, and then after I'm done, I skim read it again, and then I make sure that I can understand what I wrote and why I wrote it.

Making notes in lectures and seminars

Before the lecture or seminar

  • Do any background reading that you have been asked to do. This means that you will understand the main ideas or context of the lecture or seminar and have fewer unknowns when you make notes.
  • Look at  the handouts. Your lecturer may have uploaded notes and slides to Canvas for you to read before the lecture. They can be useful as a basis for your own notes. You can annotate them with your own thoughts.
  • If you have questions, bring them and see if they are answered in the lecture. Alternatively, ask them in the seminar.
  • Many lecturers record their lectures and make them available to you. If your lecturer doesn't do this, ask them if they could.

During the lecture or seminar

  • Arrive early. Don't miss the beginning of a session since that is often the most valuable part. The teacher may review previous sessions or outline objectives and the lecture structure, which will help you in identifying key points for your notes. If you get distracted easily, sit near the front.
  • Label your notes with the date of the seminar or the date and title of the lecture. This will help you find information later on.
  • Make your own notes. Don't rely on your lecturer's notes or notes written by friends. Writing your own notes will improve your understanding.
  • You could use a digital note-making tool like OneNote or Evernote. These tools allow you to tag your notes with key terms, making them easily searchable.
  • Do not attempt to write everything down. Your notes should be an interpretation of the material. Try to capture the logic of the argument or key points of information. Use headings and sub-headings in your notes to make this clear. Lecturers often provide guidance about the structure and format of their lecture. Listen for phrases such as 'there are three key reasons for x' or 'it is essential to note that y'.
  • Include details so that your notes will make sense to you when you read them. Write specific examples that will help you remember key points and label graphs, tables or charts.
  • Note down terms and points that you do not understand. Follow these up through individual research, later in the seminar or during your tutor's office hours.
  • Stay until the end. At the close of the session, your tutor may helpfully repeat points, draw conclusions and summarise material.

After the lecture or seminar

  • Look up new terms so that you understand them and try to find the answers to any points that you didn’t understand.
  • Don’t be tempted to rewrite your notes exactly, just in a neater format. This is a waste of time and a rather passive form of learning. Instead, reorganise your notes, so that they make more sense to you. Make them more visual – use highlighters to emphasise key points; draw arrows between ideas that connect to each other in some way; put opposing theories in boxes next to each other, etc. It can be useful to type up handwritten notes to make them easier to read, while also reorganising them.
  • Reflect on your notes. What were the key points? Did you agree? Could you summarise the lecture or the seminar discussion in one or two sentences? How did this lecture relate to what you have already learned? You can do this type of reflection yourself, or perhaps with other students who were in the same session.
  • Finally, file your notes so that you can easily find them later. You could use a ring-binder for handwritten notes or create a system of folders on your computer.

 

Saira, Alessandro and Ann Marie talk about making notes during lectures

  • Video transcript

    Saira: Usually if lecturers release slides beforehand, it's a good idea to download it or print it out. And then when you're actually there, you can just, either on your laptop, you can just change the Word document or the PowerPoint to say 'note form'. And I just write notes as you go along. And really for me, that helped because I'm not repeating what's already on the slides. So I'm just listening to what the lecturer is saying and if there's anything extra they're saying, I can just add that in. And a lot of the time lecturers would you know, a lot of the time the key information that they give is verbal, so they don't want to just have loads of text on the screen anyway. So I would say make sure you have the slides there so that you're not repeating it, but then make sure you're able to take notes.

    Alessandro: I try to take notes on everything. When I'm in the lecture hall, when I'm in the lecture in person, I take the notes on my computer. But I find it a little bit hard because there's so much information that the lecturer is talking about that it's not possible to have everything she is saying or he is saying. What I do in that case is I re-watch the lectures. There's a great feature on Canvas where you can re-watch all the lectures even if you missed them, and then you can pause it, you can make really good notes. You can also fast forward, you can slow it down. So if your lecturer talks too fast or too slow, then you can always use those features.

    Ann Marie: But then, so what I do is when I hear lectures, and if the professor is talking about certain examples or if they're talking about topics, that's not exactly in the presentation, but there is an elaboration to it, also certain things which I find interesting that I want to go back and read, I make a note of it in class. So I maintain a separate, I always carry my laptop, I have separate Word documents for every lecture, and I keep making notes on it as and when the professor is conducting the module. So that when I come back and if there are certain topics which I find has very less description on the presentation, then I try and make an elaborate note of that on my Word document so that if I'm revising later or if I'm referring to it later, I can come back and understand it better.