Lesson 13. Note taking and note making


Note-taking and note-making

The human mind has a particular storage capacity and therefore, it is essential to know how to efficiently make notes of what one wishes to commit to memory. We speak of note-taking with regard to more or less verbatim notes from a book or lecture. We speak of note-making with regard to notes that be, in our personal language, an outline depiction or statement on what we read, heard, or thought about something.


An extract is a factual reproduction of a passage from a given wording. It is useful for afterwards verbatim quotations. It is essential, therefore, to note for each extract the exact bibliographical data (title, author, reference page number, etc.). It will put you in trouble if you do not do this because it will cost you a lot of time to later find the correct data for a quotation of your source! Make it a habit, therefore, to always add such data to your extracts.

An abstract is a condensed but truthful record (summary) of a longer text passage. It is relatively common for articles in journals, for example, to start with an abstract. Depending on the purpose of his reading, however, a reader may want to create his own abstracts because he is interested in a specific part or aspect of a publication only. Abstracts, like extracts, should always contain clear references to their source.

Another way of making notes is to selectively underline or highlight remarkable paragraphs, phrases or keywords in a book or article. You may also want to write some remark on the margin. This presupposes, however, that you own the book or article. Under no circumstances underline or squiggle words in a book that you have on loan from a library! It is most irritating for other readers, and it is a misdemeanour!

Notes are often made under time pressure (in lectures, for example). It is useful, therefore, to develop a regular set of abbreviations.


The structure and contents of notes differ according to their purpose. Before making notes good readers should prepare their notes depending on the aim and perception under which they view a text. It is noteworthy that The purpose of a writer is one thing – the purpose of the reader is another and other questions, other answers!

This does not imply that it is impracticable to view a topic or object from the viewpoint taken by the writer. On the contrary, understanding means viewing things from the perception of another person, and that is necessary for enlarging and recuperating one’s own knowledge. But even the author’s point of view - if we can capture it - does not represent an 'objective or true meaning'.

The purpose of note making is that notes should help you take stock of and process ideas on a specified task and topic. They should not only help you retain information what you read, they also help to critically re-evaluate things from a distance. To serve that purpose they must be a condensed but truthful record of their source, and they must be selective. Focus on the most important issues, therefore, not every detail, unless you have good reason to note down a specific detail. During a lecture, watch for cues from the tutor as to what information is most germane. Notice how s/he has planned the material.

There is little use of notes if you do not use them for reconsideration. And to be useful at the stage of revision they should contain the title of their source and an epigrammatic description of its main parts. They should pick out keywords or key phrases which characterize the line of argument and conclusion. To this you may add your own important remarks, interpretation or questions which seem worth remembering when afterwards reviewing the notes. It is essential, though, to always keep your comments separate from arguments presented by the book or article. This can be achieved, for example, by dividing your notes in two columns: One for extracts and abstracts, and one for comments or other annotations.


There are a number of ways to take notes. However, there are four general ideas that could help you to improve your note taking:

  • Separate major ideas.

  • Try to limit your notes to one conception or section per page.

  • Use abbreviations and/or symbols to avoid long sentences.

  • Write down the information in your own words.

Six Different Note Taking Systems

Types of Notes

Descriptions & Example(s)

When to use (advantages)


Shows spatial relationships (super ordinate, subordinate, and coordinate) between categories.

Describes structures (types, parts).

Describes functions (types, parts,

  leads to).

Describes concepts (attributes, range

  of examples).

Describes phrases and sub phrases

  for procedures.

NOTE: Extremely flexible procedure for showing relationships. Excellent for all procedural knowledge courses.


Shows relationships between topics and subcategories of information about the topics.

Creates parallelism between and within categories, thus making it easy to compare and contrast. Excellent for any subject matter that requires the student to learn the same categories of information about topics.


Shows exact or abstracted representation of a structure, function, or procedure.

Helps in developing an image of a structure, function, or procedure.


Shows numerical relationships.

Useful when numerical comparisons are included in a text.


Major topics in super ordinate—subordinate relationship.

Not recommended as primary note taking technique. Does not allow for rapid comparisons within or between categories. Tendency to reproduce author’s organization. Should use in conjunction with other techniques.


Effective note-taking is an important practice to master at university level. You have a lot of new information and you need to develop dependable mechanisms for recording and retrieving it when required. But note-taking is also a learning process in itself, helping you to process and comprehend the information you receive.

Good note-taking...

- enables you to circumvent unintentional plagiarism

- helps you to focus on what is important in what you are reading or hearing

- helps you to understand and remember material, and make connections

- helps you to make-up the assignments you're researching

- provides a personal record of what you've learnt and records your questions and ideas

- sets you up for exam revision

Making your note-taking more effective

The two key doctrines for note taking are [1] to be scrupulous and accurate, and [2] to be active and not passive.

The most efficient note-taking is active not passive. Active learning helps you to make sense from what you learn. Passive learning  allows you to be an unfilled vessel into which information is poured with no way of making meaning from it. You cannot remember things you learn without interest..

Passive note-taking includes:

  • underlining words

  • copying from online documents

  • to write everything you hear in a lecture

  • copying lots of direct quotes and not putting the ideas in your own words 

  • writing notes on everything you read, as you are not sure of the important points

  • just accepting the available sources as suitable evidence without evaluating them

Active note-taking means:

  • it is related to your thinking regarding what you want as your material 

  • Getting answers to any doubts you may have regarding the topic

  • looking for connections within the topic and outside the topic

  • writing notes mostly in your own words i.e. to make original notes

  • copying direct quotes only when it is required


Trying to listen, think, read from slides, and write notes at the same time is not just difficult - it's plain impossible! So cut down the amount of notes you take in lectures and do more listening:

What you do before and after lectures can be as important as what you do during them. If you can anticipate the main points, you will find the lecture easier to understand, and you will have a better idea of when something is worth taking a note of. So:


  • Think about the title and outline of the lecture and how this is connected to the rest of the part

  • Think about what you know already know about the topic, and what you anticipate to learn from the lecture

  • If it's a entirely novel topic, try to get a basic idea of what it's about beforehand - read an introductory paragraph from a textbook or encyclopaedia, for instance. 


  • Listen for clues during the lecture to help you to systematize your notes.

  • Identify key words - for example, notice when words or phrases are being repetitive. Highlight or circle in your notes any words that look as if to be really noteworthy.

  • Be an active listener - try to connect what is being said to what you already know (this is where the advance preparation is required!). Ask yourself, Am I astounded? If not, why not? How did he/she get to that conclusion?


  • Spare sometime soon after the lecture to sit somewhere quietly and consider what you have just learnt. Recapitulate and write what you think were the key points in a few sentences. Add anything you need or want to find out more about, and any questions it raised in your mind.


Buzan, T. (1995). The mind map book: Radiant thinking (Rev. ed.). London, England: BBC Books. [Massey Library link]

Student Academic Services. (2011). Notetaking systems. California Polytechnic State University. Retrieved from http://www.sas.calpoly.edu/asc/ssl/notetakingsystems.html

Last modified: Thursday, 1 August 2013, 6:04 AM