Making notes from reading

One of the most important skills you can acquire as a student is to resist the temptation to read every word of every text – otherwise reading lists will drive you to despair! You will need to learn to discriminate quickly between helpful and unhelpful sources by using the following techniques:

This is where you get an overview of what a specific text can offer and whether some or all of it is it is relevant for your current purposes – that is why it’s so important to do some thinking and planning before you start your research. Use the contents page/abstract, the introduction and the conclusion to get a sense of the overall scope and approach of what the Journal is about. Any sub-headings and illustrations may also give you some clues about the content but the choice and quality may have been dictated by economics rather than the intellectual content of the text. This stage should only take a few minutes.

Like surveying, but with a sharper focus, once you have decided the text is worth further attention. If you are looking for something specific, use the index, chapter headings or subheadings to help you narrow down your search, and resist the temptation to get side-tracked, however interesting other passages may seem.

More frequently, you will be skimming to get a general sense of the contents. Your initial survey should have told you how these are organised. Now you need to move down to the level of chapters and subsections. For each section, read quickly to grasp the outline. Try to summarise this in your own words.

See how the sequence of paragraphs relates to the development of the narrative or the argument. Each paragraph should have one main theme, usually signalled in the first sentence and then developed or illustrated in some way. The final sentence of each paragraph may also offer clues. Train your eyes to keep moving forward and down the page rather than stopping at every word, using signposts or topic sentences to help you identify the theme of each paragraph. At first, this seems impossible, but it does improve and it will make a difference.

Reading for the underlying structure (rather than the detail) in this way will also help to develop the organisation of your own writing.

By the time you’ve identified the overall structure, you will know what sections (if any) you wish to focus on in more detail. Your close reading should still be active and critical, and informed by what you want to know. Does the text include all the facts you need? What evidence is being used in support of what is being said?

This is shorthand for a routine (similar to the stages described above) that some people use when they need to absorb and remember the bulk of a text. It stands for:

SURVEY – check for relevance and general outline

QUESTION- what do you want to know, what do you think of it so far?

READ – a chapter or section at a time – general outline first, then the detail

RECALL – after each section, summarise – write outline notes from memory

REVIEW- look back over the section; check whether your recall was accurate; note any points you missed or misunderstood the first time around.

 Open a word document and make notes whilst searching different sources then organise as you go on.

Samantha Baunbridge, student

Downloadable resources