How can I take effective research notes?
At some point, we all take notes for our research. It might be jotting down the results of experiments, pulling out the key points from a text, or setting out the key points made by a speaker at a conference. You might already have excellent note-taking skills, but it’s easy to miss something important, or end up with notes that make little sense when you return to them months or even years later.
We take notes for a variety of purposes. It might be to help remember material: how to use that new software package, or why I decided to abandon that experiment. It might be to understand and interpret material: what is the author trying to say? Or, it might be to select relevant material: which quote best sums up this position, or is there anything relevant to my research in this text? Better still, it’s a transferrable skill, so if you find yourself working outside academia, there are so many jobs where effective note taking is valuable.
It’s nice to be able to take notes quickly, but it’s more important to be able to take effective notes – ones which fulfil their intended purpose, even if you do come back to them years later. There are a number of specific note-taking systems which some people find useful, and then there are plenty of general tips which might be worth a try.
How can I take notes to help me remember material?
As a taught student, many of the notes you take will have been to help remember material, whether sitting in a lecture or going through a textbook, learning theories and facts which gave you a greater understanding of a topic, and might even have come up on an exam!
But even now, there will be some material you want to remember – perhaps how to carry out a particular research technique, or the names of key works or theories you’ll be mentioning in a presentation.
The key to using notes to help remember material is organisation. What form of organisation is best is something you’ll have learned over time, but if you feel like you could use some help in this area, consider using keywords to represent key points, and headings and sub-headings to divide up a topic. Many people like using different colours, diagrams, or pictures, to help create something which is more easily remembered and brought to mind than a string of text. If this approach works for you, it’s worth trying thought mapping: starting with a key idea in the centre of a piece of paper, and connecting it to keywords, and then branching out from those to subheadings. The University of Leicester has some useful advice on thought mapping.
Once you’ve made the notes, you’ll need to come back to them. It’s best to go over them as soon as possible after you’ve made them, to check you understand them and haven’t missed anything important, and then return to them regularly to help the information stick.
How can I take notes to help me understand and interpret material?
This is a big one for most forms of research. I’ve read a lot of texts, and some require quite an effort to try to understand exactly what the author is saying. One useful technique is to start by highlighting key words and phrases, or even whole sentences which may make useful quotes. Using different coloured highlighters allows you to loosely categorise different themes, though this is nothing so formal as a thematic analysis. If you’re working on a text on a computer, many programmes now offer a highlighting feature, so you can replicate this approach.
Once you’ve gone through, highlighting the material, it’s much easier to summarise the important points in your own words. This rewording helps you to confirm to yourself that you do understand the material and can summarise it fairly, and also makes it easier to incorporate in any future work drawing on the text.
A similar approach can work for video and audio material, though obviously you’ll have to type out the key phrases which you are “highlighting”, before rewriting it in your own words.
A glossary can also help with understanding complex material – you can write your own definitions of terms you encounter and need to recall, and keep it to hand when you undertake future research in the topic.
How can I select which information is likely to be relevant?
Note taking isn’t copying every word from a text, so you’re always going to want to be selective. It’s best to start by ensuring that the material you’re working from is likely to contain something relevant. Simply reading the abstract, introduction and conclusion, or start and end of a chapter, is often enough. If it looks useful, then focus on the sections or chapters which might include relevant material. Don’t waste your time making notes on things which are unlikely to be important, or on important points which you expect to be discussed in more detail later in the text. You can always highlight them, or note the page, and return later if they turn out to be significant.
When you take notes, you’ll need to be very clear what’s in your own words, and what is a direct quote, and where it all comes from. Once you’ve finished going through the text, it’s then good to go over your notes again, immediately, highlighting any key points, adding keywords to help organise them, crossing out anything which turns out not to be relevant, and making sure nothing important is missing or unclear.
What note-taking systems can I use?
They’re your notes, so it’s up to you which system you prefer. Try things out, and if something isn’t working, change it.
For taking notes during a talk, many people recommend the Cornell Method. This is quite a formal approach, and is popular for student note taking, so you might have come across it before. If not, the best introduction is from Cornell itself. In summary, it’s about recording the information, then, as soon as possible afterwards, formulating questions based on it, to help recall, check your understanding and find new relationships between ideas. Next, it suggests looking at the questions alone and trying to answer them, reflecting on the notes, and reviewing them regularly. Even if the approach isn’t for you, there are some valuable ideas there which are transferrable to other note-taking.
How can I keep up with a fast talker?
If you’re taking notes from a live speaker, do you really need every word? If so, you’re best off recording it and looking at my blog on transcription. If not, you’ll keep up by only taking down the most relevant points. You can also save time by abbreviating words and phrases, though it’s important to only use abbreviations which you’ll remember when you return to your notes.
If there is a quote which you want to get word-for-word, then abbreviate as much as possible, and make sure that you get the source of the quote, so that you can look it up later. If you are struggling to keep up with some great material, don’t worry about the formatting, just get it down, and edit it after the session. If you’re a fast typist, it might be quicker to type than to write your notes, but this will limit your ability to easily add diagrams to your notes.
If there’s a word – perhaps the name of an author – that you don’t catch, try writing it down phonetically, and include any other available information, like the title of their article, or the specific topic on which they have worked, to help track it down later, if it proves important. If you’re lucky, maybe it will get repeated later on and save you the effort.
If you realise you’ve missed something, perhaps the session has been recorded and you can check back. If it hasn’t been recorded, perhaps someone else who was in the same session will have noted it down, or you can contact the speaker directly to ask.
The more note taking we do, the quicker we get, and so long as we’re retaining the organisation and accuracy, that’s fantastic. But if your note taking could use work, there are some popular techniques which might work for you. Whether you prefer the formality of Cornell, the freedom of thought mapping, or your own approach, whether it’s working on paper or on a computer, experiment until you find what works best for you.
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