A Quick Guide to Reading and Notetaking

Reading and highlighting
Image by Raul Pacheco-Vega

Taking notes as you read helps you:

  • Engage with the material
  • Process your thoughts
  • Gather information and evidence to use in assessments

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of taking too many notes, though, and it can be overwhelming to end up with pages and pages of notes that you don’t quite know what to do with. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to identify your purpose: if you don’t know what you’re reading for, you’ll risk turning into the ‘human photocopier’ and noting everything down.

To begin with, then, think about why you are reading and, relatedly, what you will use the resulting notes for. For instance, are you:

  • Reading for background to prepare for an upcoming lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading to clarify understanding from a lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading for further knowledge for an assignment. 
  • Reading to develop an argument by evaluating existing viewpoints on a topic or synthesising current knowledge and understanding with the viewpoints of other authors
  • Or, another purpose?

If you are reading to gain background knowledge, or to clarify your understanding of a topic, these questions might be useful in helping you stay on track and avoid tangents. They’ll also help identify exactly what you might need to make notes of:

  • Are there any specific questions you’d like your reading to answer for you? Any particular gaps in your knowledge you’re looking to fill?
  • What wider context do you need to understand and why?
  • What knowledge, information or data do you need and why?
  • Do you have any articles/texts in mind that it would be useful to consult? If you are looking to construct an argument, what answers/positions/debates/arguments already exist?

Once you’ve identified your purpose for reading and notetaking, you can think about the type of reading you need to do. For instance, if your main purpose is to get a general sense of somebody’s argument, you probably don’t need to read the entire article to begin with. Reading the introduction, conclusion and first line of each paragraph could well give you what you need (and ensure your accompanying notes are concise and relevant!). If you are working on your dissertation and are looking to adapt an existing method for your own use, then focusing on the methods sections to begin with will give you what you need. Identifying your purpose thus means you can be selective when reading and notetaking, which can also help you save time. If you’d like tailored advice on reading and notetaking, feel free to book a 1-1 session with us.

Revising during a pandemic

Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash

Research has show that we can often recall things better when we are in the same context as we were when we learned them. The features of our environment enrich our memory with more detail (the sounds, scents and sights around us), which act as prompts to cue recall when we try to remember that information in the same situation. 

When sitting an exam in a traditional exam hall, this can work against us, as we will not be in the same surroundings (library, study bedroom etc) that we were when we were studying for the exam. Some people use ‘portable’ cues such as a particular scent they associate with studying, but generally under normal exam conditions, you have to work extra hard to find intrinsic ways to prompt yourself within the material you’re learning rather than relying on external cues.  

This year, most students will be taking exams ‘at home’, in the same environment they have been studying in, and you can use this to your advantage. However, over the last year, you may have had to live in lockdown conditions or isolate yourself, or been unwell. Many people have found that this has impacted on their memory, concentration span and motivation. They’ve found that they are forgetful, their minds are prone to wandering, it’s harder to think straight or get organised and they have ‘brain fog’.

This is happening as it’s likely that your environment hasn’t changed much and days seemed very similar. There is very little variation to distinguish one memory from another, or novelty to make anything stand out as worthy of attention. Chronic boredom and monotony do not make good memories, or make you want to take notice of your surroundings. Social interaction can be stimulating, but much of our socialising has been online, which is known to be more tiring, requiring greater concentration and resulting in overload and overwhelm. We have all been living in stressful circumstances to one degree or another for a long time, and this too can wear away at our ability to focus.  

This all means that material you learned during lectures and other teaching might be less easy to remember and all blurs together, and also that your revision becomes more difficult as your circumstances don’t vary enough to aid your memory or concentration.  

Try to deliberately vary your surroundings as much as possible – change room or position in your room as much as possible, change something about your room by moving things around every so often, or change up the things you’re using to revise – your notepad, font or ink colour. Be a little cautious about changing the sounds around you by using music or radio – listening to music splits your attention, adds an extra load on your mental processes and means you have less awareness to focus on what you’re learning.  

If you’re finding that learning really is becoming a struggle and you’re concerned at the impact on your results, do speak to your Personal Tutor or contact Student Wellbeing.   

New video – online academic communication!

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

“Should I say something?”

“What am I expected to say?”

 “Is that the ‘right’ answer?”

 “Does this sound clever enough?”

Academic discussions can be tricky to navigate at the best of times. Add to that unfamiliar environments like webinars or discussion boards and figuring out the best way to communicate with coursemates and teaching staff can become a real headache!

If this sounds familiar, then you might want to check out the WDC’s latest video ‘Communicating Online in an Academic Context’ where we talk through some of these difficulties and offer possible strategies for dealing with them.

Communicating in the online academic environment

Typing on a laptop

With the sudden move to online learning, you may find yourself having a lot more academic discussions online. This might cause some uncertainty about how to communicate appropriately in this strange new space – the ‘online academic environment’.

Listen to Nicky, one of our WDC tutors, talk about some of the potential difficulties associated with communicating online in an academic context and offer some strategies for addressing them. You can also find this information and more in text form on the Academic Skills Kit

Dr Nicky Gardiner, one of the WDC tutors
Dr Nicky Gardiner

Active Independent Learning

Learning remotely and online can present new challenges, or just put a strain on your existing learning strategies. You might be finding that you’re being provided with a lot of learning materials such as powerpoint slides, video, readings or handouts. What do you do with all this material, and how can you make sure you’re learning effectively rather than just staring at your screen, with nothing really going in?

Listen to Helen, one of our tutors, suggesting a few strategies to ensure that you’re actively engaging with learning materials and getting the most out of them.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC