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Taking notes

Your words and their words

When taking notes try to focus on areas that are relevant to your particular assignment. You don’t have to have whole books in note form. Try to strike a balance between summarising what an author is saying in your own words and picking out useful quotations that will contribute to the argument you are making. Wherever possible, summarise in your own words – you’ll find that doing this will help you remember what you’ve read. And always make a note of relevant page numbers. This is particularly useful when summarising another author’s argument.

Summarising books

Make short summaries of books that you may want to refer to again, either for future assignments or for revision. You can do these using index cards or an A-Z index book or by making a word processing document and calling it something like ‘Summaries of useful books’. The summary should include author, title and publication details and may include a list of useful chapters or useful sections identified by keywords.

For example, a summary of Ian Gregson’s book on post-war British poetry Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue & Estrangement might look like this:

Author: Gregson, Ian
Title: Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue & Estrangement
Publication details: Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1996
Useful chapters: Chp 6: ‘Some versions of narrative’; Chp 12: ‘John Ashbery and British postmodernism’; Chp 13: ‘The Estranging of the Mainstream’
“comparisons and contrasts between ‘mainstream’ poetry and kinds of modernist writing which have been regarded, or are still regarded, as outside that pale”

You will see that the summary uses some of the author’s own words although this may not be possible with every book or article you read. The summary in this example might be extended a little further to include the poets that Gregson discusses in detail who feature on a course you are studying. You can also add a brief estimate of how useful the book is – this might be your own or your tutor’s. For example: ‘key text on contemporary British poetry course’ or ‘interesting but too heavily biased towards modernism and postmodernism’. This will save you time later.

The Cornell system

This was developed over forty years ago by Walter Pauk to help students at Cornell University take better lecture notes but you can use it for reading too. It has six steps. Take a clean sheet of A4 paper and rule a two and half inch margin down the left hand side.

  • 1. Record.
    As you read, simply write down as many facts or ideas in large right hand column, either in your own words or using quotations from the book you are reading.
  • 2. Reduce.
    When you have finished making notes in this way, read through your notes and make notes about the key points in the left hand column. You are reducing important facts or ideas to key phrases or cue words. This may seem a little odd at first – you are making notes about a book and then notes about your own notes – but it’s a proven system of taking in information and seeing whether you’ve understood it.
  • 3. Recite.
    This is an excellent way to retain and understand information. You need to say out loud and in your own words the facts or ideas you have just been reading about. To recite, cover up the wide right hand column and leave the key words or phrases in the left hand column uncovered. Then read each key word or phrase aloud and try to say the relevant information out loud in your own words. Repeat the process until you recite all the relevant information without looking at the right hand column.
  • 4. Reflect.
    Now you have learnt the relevant information, you need to reflect on it. Ask yourself questions like: Why are these ideas important? How do they connect with what I already know about the subject?
  • 5. Review.
    The next stage will help you to make sure you don’t forget what you have learnt. To do this you need to repeat the ‘Recite’ stage, perhaps several times a week. Remember: you are not just reading and remembering for a particular essay but to learn more about your subject.
  • 6. Recapitulate.
    When you have reduced, recited and reflected on your notes for the first time, write a summary at the bottom of the page. You do not need to write everything out again word for word. Write it in your words and focus on the key points you want to remember or need to incorporate into your essay.

You can use this system to help you with exam revision too. Cover up the large right hand column leaving only the key phrases or cue words in the left hand column visible. Then say the key phrases or cue words out loud and try and recite as much of the covered up material as possible.


This is a way of organizing information using headings or short phrases that move from the general to the specific. Start taking notes using the left hand side of the page for general points. Then indent each more specific point further to the right. Here’s what an example looks like:

 Extrasensory perception

           definition: perception not using sense organs

                   three main types
                             telepathy: mind reading and transmitting messages
                             clairvoyance: predicting the future
                             psychokinesis: perceiving distant events


This is a way of making notes quickly in a graphic form. So if we reworked the notes on extrasensory perception as a map we would have ‘extrasensory perception’ at the top of the page with a definition written next to it; then a heading saying ‘3 types’; and then three arrows pointing to the different types.


This is particularly useful when taking notes from chronological accounts. Let’s imagine you are taking notes on the history of psychology. Take a sheet of A4 paper and divide it into columns with the following headings: ‘Date’, ‘Important People’, ‘Books’, ‘Significance’. So one of your entries might read:

1900FreudThe Interpretation of Dreamsanalysis of dream mechanisms
Chp seven: fullest account of Freud’s theory of mind

Date Important People Books Significance
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