Reading and Note-taking

Reading and making notes are a crucial skill you will develop throughout your degree. By learning how to make notes that are reliable and concise, you will be able to write your essays with relative ease. Copying a book or missing crucial pieces of information, such as a quote or page number, could cost you a lot of time and could result in poorly researched work. Here are some tips and advice on how to read and take notes that will be useful to your learning.

Active reading

When you are reading books, it is very easy to be passive or, in other words, not necessarily absorb or question the information at hand. Active reading is the process of engaging with what you are reading, by asking questions about the text and drawing connections with other work you have come across.

Here are some of the benefits of active reading:

  • You can gain a more in-depth understanding of the topic, which will be beneficial when you engage in discussions at your tutorials. Having a good, baseline understanding of the reading requires active engagement, which will then allow you to build your own ideas and perspectives.
  • You’ll save a lot of time if you can understand the material by reading it once instead of re-reading the text again.
  • By actively reading, you can reinforce ideas and concepts you have already come across, by building connections with other readings.

How to actively read:

1. Scan the text

Look at the chapter title, footnotes, graphs, images and so on to gauge what the chapter is about before dedicating time to reading it.

Think about these questions: What is the purpose of this reading? Who is the audience? What do I know already about the text? Briefly thinking about these questions will help make a judgement about the value of the reading and where it fits in relation to other material you have read.

2. Read the text and jot your ideas down

The first piece of information to seek out is the main idea, argument or thesis driving the text. Note this down or underline it if you have a photocopy of the material.

Ask the following questions: what evidence is the author using to support their arguments? Are the arguments and evidence convincing to you? Where does the work sit in relation to other scholarship you have read? Can you make connections with other readings? What assumptions has the author made and are they convincing to you? Is there a possibility that the author’s argument or analysis could be interpreted in multiple ways?

3. Reread the text.

Go back and re-read any parts of the text that you found difficult and try to summarise these difficult passages in your own words. Is there language you found tricky or concepts you found difficult to understand? If so, make a note of this so you can revisit the text or consult other, relevant material that may explain a concept better.


Notetaking is a very important skill that you will practise time and again at university. Not only is it a way for you to keep a record of information that you can consult for essays and exams, it is also a way in which to process and understand information. Over time, you will find a technique for note-taking that works best for you.

Here are the signs of good notetaking:

  • You have accurately recorded information so that you don’t accidently plagiarise someone else’s work
  • You are not directly copying big chunks of text, rather are attempting to write information in your own words
  • You can revisit your notes in a few months’ time and what you have written makes sense to you
  • You are using notetaking as an opportunity to jot down your own ideas, formulate your own perspectives and draw connections with other materials you have come across
  • You can use your notes to help you structure an essay

Active Notetaking

In order to learn the material you are making notes from, it is important to actively engage with notetaking. That means you are asking questions and organising your notes in a way that is pushing your thinking. It is much easier to passively take notes, which is the process of copying information without thinking about the text. However, by being active, you will develop your own perspectives and will be in a much better position to write convincingly written essays and make meaningful contributions at your tutorials.

Here are tips to make notes actively:

  • Before you start making notes, ask yourself ‘What do I want to get from this text and are there any questions I need answers to?’
  • Write mostly in your own words. In order to do this, you need to be able to understand the text. By writing in your own words, not only are you giving yourself the opportunity to understand the text better, you are also practicing your skills to interpret large volumes of information and synthesise the text so it is easier to ‘digest’. You are also allowing yourself to explain what you think the author means.
  • If you are directly quoting from the text, make this clear in your notes so that you do not inadvertently plagiarise.
  • Use the note-making process as an opportunity to write down your own opinions- note down the argument, evidence used and then (possibly in a different colour pen or on another piece of paper) write down whether you agree or disagree with the author’s interpretation and why. This will be very helpful when you have to write an essay to a strict deadline.
  • Make sure your notes are brief- it may be useful, for example, to summarise a whole subsection in a few sentences. Brief notes are much easier to understand.
  • Use headings or subheadings to organise your notes. Make sure your notes are relatively tidy and stored away so you can find them at a later date.
  • Make sure you note down the author name, title, place of publication, publisher, year and, most importantly, page number so you can accurately reference the material.

Making notes during a lecture

Lectures are an invaluable source of information but being able to keep up with the lecturer and make effective notes can be a difficult skill to master.

Here is some advice to make the process easier:

  • Think about the lecture title- how much do you already know about the topic? Thinking about this may cut down the volume of notes you need to make in the lecture, since you are aware of what doesn’t need to be noted down. If you know nothing about the topic, try reading around it a little before the lecture.
  • In the lecture, try and make minimal notes. Listen and think about what the lecturer is saying and jot down information that directly explains the purpose of the lecture.

After the lecture, take some time to summarise what you just learnt and whether you found the arguments convincing.