Proper Note Taking Techniques

Proper Note Taking Techniques

Taking notes may not seem like much fun, especially in a world where a person can just Google whatever he or she wants to know. Still, note taking is very important, and there are ways to do it right. Some instructors will request that you take notes and turn them in, just to make sure you understand how to do this correctly. Even if you're not asked to take notes, doing so can really help you determine what you want to write in your paper and how to organize your thoughts. Overall, it's one of the most important things you'll do when you create a paper or other document in your academic career. You don't want to just jot down a bunch of thoughts or information from the book or article you're reading, though. Instead, you'll need to keep things organized. You can do that with notepaper, or with note cards, depending on which you like best. Unless your instructor has a specific requirement, either option is acceptable. Use these steps and tips to help you take notes properly.

Steps to Proper Note Taking

1.  Decide on a Topic You Can Work With

The first thing you need to do is pick a topic. It might be one your instructor has assigned to you, or it could be something you've decided to choose on your own. Either way, it's very important that the topic is something you can write about and can find enough information on. If you choose a topic that doesn't have good, credible information available on it, you can end up with a paper that doesn't meet the qualification of the assignment. That could earn you a bad grade, and could also leave you frustrated and procrastinating when it comes to trying to complete the paper. Fortunately, a good topic will help you avoid all that and lend itself to note taking, as well. That's good news for anyone who has chosen a good topic for his or her paper and is preparing to take notes.

2.  Find the Material You Need Information From

No matter what topic you've selected to write about, you need to find books, articles, websites, and other materials to collect information from. That's the only way to learn about the topic and provide a good paper. Locating that material can take some time, so it's important that you focus your efforts on doing that early in the process. In other words, don't wait until a day or two before the paper is due to start looking for sources of information to use. If you do that you'll be a lot less likely to find good sources, and the notes you take won't be as thought out as they would be if you found information earlier. As soon as you've been assigned a paper, it's time to start finding information about the topic. You can look online or visit your library to gain information. It's also possible to interview or talk with people in a particular field, depending on the exact topic of your paper.

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3.  Read What You've Located

Locating the material you need is only the first part of the note taking battle. After you've found it, you'll need to read it thoroughly. Don't take any notes at that point, though. Just read what you've found and consider it in light of your paper's topic and what you intend to write about. There's a big reason for doing this, in that not everything you read is going to be something you'll want to put into your final paper. Some of it may be much more appropriate than other parts of it, and you may also reject some of the sources because they were not as much about your topic as they appeared to be at first. A careful reading of any information you find that you think will be related to your topic will help you quickly determine what has value for your assignment and what does not. You don't want to waste of lot of time taking notes about something that you're not going to use in your final paper, because that's not an effective use of your time.

4.  Determine Which Material You're Going to Use

After you've read through everything you've found, you can much more easily accept or reject things. That lets you determine which information you'll be using for your paper and put everything else away so you don't waste any time on it. Focus on the material that has a lot of value and that is most closely related to your topic. That is the best choice, and will save you the most time. Once you've narrowed everything down to only the material you're going to use, it's time to start taking notes. You can do that on a piece of paper or you can use note cards. Many people like note cards because they're easier to organize. They have separate thoughts on them, which helps when you're going through your notes and determining what you're going to put into your paper in what order. As you use each note card, put only one thought onto it. Then you won't be looking back through them later, trying to find where you combined something you're having trouble finding.

5.  Be Sure to Cite Each Source Correctly

Among the most valuable things to remember when you're taking notes is to cite your sources properly. At the top of the first note card (or piece of paper) for that particular source, write down the full citation, as you would use it in your bibliography. The chances are high that your instructor told you what citation style he or she wants you to use for your paper. If that's not the case, then it's very important for you to ask for clarification. Assuming you can use any style you want, choose something common like APA or MLA so you avoid confusion. Make sure you understand how to cite correctly in that style, and keep all of your citations for your information consistent. That will protect you from a lower grade over simple mistakes you could have easily avoided. It will also help you write your paper faster, because you'll have all of your citations available to put right into the bibliography.

6.  Keep Your Notes Organized

If you get your note cards or papers out of order, will you be able to straighten them out again? Do you know where they go when compared with other notes? One of the best way to keep things organized is to use the full citation for that source on the first card and a modified citation on every other card you use for that source. You can use the author's name and then number the cards, or you can choose something else. As long as it's clear and direct, it works for you, and it won't lead to confusion, you shouldn't have any problems with the system. If you have note cards, get a couple of good rubber bands and bind them together when you're not actively using them. That way if you drop them or they fall out of a folder or backpack, they aren't going to scatter everywhere. Even if you've numbered them so they're easy to sort out, you'll still have to take the time to put them all back in order. That's something that's better avoided.

7.  Use Your Notes to Create Your Paper

If you've taken good notes from sources that are highly focused on your topic, you should be able to write a great paper fairly easily. You'll have all the information you need, along with the proper citations for that information. As you write your paper, you may find that not all of your notes get used. That's okay, as long as you're not filling your paper with a lot of fluff instead of solid facts. Also avoid personal opinion unless it has been specifically asked for by your instructor. Most research and term papers are fact-based and don't include personal opinion, but it will be up to your instructor. When you write your paper, you can go through your notes one card at a time, and condense what the author of the work you're citing had to say about a particular topic. Naturally, some topics are much more difficult than others, but having proper notes can make a significant difference.


  • Remember that note taking is very formulaic. It may feel like you're doing the same thing over and over again, but you don't want to change things around too much. That can make your notes very confusing, which could result in more difficulties when writing your paper and a potentially lower grade.
  • Organization is the key. You have to stay focused on how you want to organize your note cards or the papers you use to take notes. By doing that, you'll be saving yourself a lot of time and effort later. When everything is easily organized, you'll be able to use the information to write your paper quickly and professionally.
  • Citations are vital when it comes to taking good notes. Don't assume you'll remember where something came from, and don't assume you can just put a number in the corner of the note cards. It's not just about what order they go in. It's also about what source they come from. Make sure the author's name or some other way of identifying the source is on the top of every card, and then you can number them to keep them in order.
  • Tutoring can help you with note taking. It's not always that easy to take good notes. Determining what you should write down and what you don't really need can be difficult. If you find you're having trouble getting it right, don't be afraid to get a tutor to help you. Tutors aren't just for papers or math. You can find one to help you with just about anything, which can make a big difference in your grade.
  • It's better to take too many notes that not enough. If you've gone through all your sources and only have a dozen note cards, you probably left out a lot of important things. Of course, that also depends on how long your paper has to be. Still, when in doubt, err on the side of two many notes instead of not enough.

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