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Using Written Resources

Using Libraries

Using Libraries in Person

Reading Skills

Different Methods of Reading

Finding out your Reading Speed

Researching and Writing Assignments

Writing a Research Report










The Learning Game

Note Taking

Distance learning students do not usually attend lectures, except possibly for special additional courses lasting a day or two. The study guides that you receive take the place (in so far as this is possible) of your lecturer. In some ways study guides are better than lectures because they are permanent records of what a lecturer wants to communicate to the student. But you still need to make notes as you read your study guides.

It is very important to realize that note taking follows careful reading - reading for understanding (See Reading Skills).

What Can Taking Notes Do?

One of the most valuable things about taking notes is that when you do you are forced to articulate the ideas that you are hearing/reading. In putting ideas into your own words you begin to understand them. After understanding comes memory. The brain likes to code, group and link. It is much easier to remember something which has meaning for you and which you understand. Therefore, when working through your study guides you should be making notes to begin understanding, which will lead later to remembering the material.

Interaction with material is another way of helping your brain remember because you make mental connections all the time. Do this by making notes in the margin of your study guides as well. To be effective, note taking must have a purpose and be organized.

Five Steps

Use the following steps for taking good notes:

1. Wait

Be clear about your purpose for taking notes. Do you need to read the whole book/article, or perhaps only certain sections are relevant to the task at hand? Get an overview of the material by flipping through it. Check contents, index, diagrams, etc.
Are you taking notes for research for an assignment, or in preparation for exams? Don't start making notes immediately. First try to understand what is being used, and then try to simplify it in your own words. Use the same size paper for all your notes. They're much easier to file and manage that way.

2. Identify

At the top of your page write down the date, the name of the book, the author and the publishing information so that you can always refer back to the same book. Besides, if you want to use a quotation or refer to an idea or theory in an assignment, you will have to acknowledge where you got it from (see referencing).

3. Space

Give yourself plenty of space in your notes so that when you revise you can make additional notes. The column system is a useful way of making notes with space. Don't write too small because it will be hard to read later. If you are creating Mind Maps you might like to use A3 paper to give yourself plenty of space for pictures.

4. Key Points

Except for taking down quotations (which must be written in full and absolutely accurately, including punctuation) you should not take down word for word what you read. Many students make the mistake of overwriting; they write too much.
Try to understand a point first and then select key words to write down. A well constructed paragraph contain the sense of the paragraph in the first sentence. Try always to extract the main sense of a passage and then rewrite it in your words. It is also a good idea to have scanned the book first so that you know what it contains.
Look out for names, dates, concepts, definitions, examples and the pros and cons of a particular argument. On their own these individual things are nearly useless; you need to interact with your notes.

5. Interact

Your own notes are the best place to write your opinions and what you think of what you are reading. Apart from helping the brain remember, you will be forming your own opinions which is what most assignments expect you to do. Make observations and not down comparisons between references or interesting points.
Develop trigger words or mnemonics to help you remember key points. Interacting with key ideas that you are trying to learn is the best way of remembering that information. We remember much more information if we see it, hear it and have some interaction with it.

Different Approaches To Taking Notes

The three different methods of note taking described here are: the Linear (or logical outline) system, the Princeton method and mind mapping. It is up to you to decide which of these is best suited to your individual style. You may find it useful to adapt them or use all of them in different situations.

1. The Linear System is probably the most commonly used of all note taking methods and is the best fro certain types of information, e.g. detailed facts. A common error is that people take down too much information, rather than simple key words. To follow this method subdivide your notes into paragraphs and sections, using indentations of varying depth. Indicate the subdivisions with headings, numbers and other symbols.

For example:

Study Skills

1. Note taking

1.1. Linear system


1.2. Princeton Method


1.3. Mind Mapping


The limitation with this method is that it may be difficult to organize or connect concepts in the notes, depending on the complexity of the subjects. Perhaps you might like to take notes like this and then later organize the ideas into a mind map.

2. The Princeton Method is very simple and gives you space for re-reading and responding to notes. Divide your page into three columns. The first column is used for the heading and main points and the second for the summary. The third column, really useful when you review your notes, can also be used to note things you didn't recall, examples, your own personal comments or a summary of the middle column.

Headings, main points


Blank column to use for ideas that come into your head when reading, for examples or for making a briefer summary at exam time.

3. Mind Mapping - If you know how to use this method you will find that it has unexpected advantages. Firstly, you have to organize your thoughts as you draw the mind map, which is the excellent aid to memory. Secondly, mind maps are visual and the chances of you being able to remember the visual elements (and the information) are greatly enhanced.

How To Draw A Mind Map

Even if you don't want to take your initial notes using this method, there are several other ways to use it. You can use mind maps to plan tasks, read and research, plan and write assignments, and to revise and plan for exams.

  • Select a phrase and/or a picture which describes the topic, e.g. Study Skills. Write this phrase or picture in the center of a blank page.
  • Draw branches out from the topic which represent main ideas. Use only key words, not whole sentences.
  • Add further branches to these to break the idea down into the finer detail.
  • Indicate associations between separate branches by connecting lines.
  • Use as much color and as many symbols or pictures as possible.
  • Give yourself plenty of space. Use A3 sheets of paper for very complex mind maps.

Whichever of these note taking methods you use will depend on you and your subject area, but this skill is an invaluable one for tertiary study.

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Using Skeletal Structures

When beginning study in any field, one of the best things to have is an overview. You may ask, "How do I get an overview of a subject I don't know anything about?"

As you begin your learning, it may not be clear to you what to include in a skeletal structure. Once you begin to gain knowledge, you should be asking yourself how the information you are learning connects and relates. This is how real understanding begins. Mind maps can be used very effectively to help you set up a skeletal structure. As you learn new theories, ideas or approaches these should be fitted into your broad overview.

There is not a right or a wrong way to create an overview but it should make sense to you.

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The page was designed and edited in May 1998 by Karl Mair.