3 Making notes
This section develops a useful study skill: making notes. The main scientific story then continues in the next section. Notes can be used for a number of things:
to develop your own understanding of what you are reading
to prepare for a specific task, say, a written assignment
to act as a record for revision.
The first purpose is probably the most important one. After all, it is much easier to write about or revise something that you already understand. Making notes forces you to think about what you are reading and to make sense of it. You have to engage with the text, identify the main points and record them in some way. Good notes pay off in two ways. First, the very process of making and organising your notes improves your understanding of what you have read. Second, your notes will serve as a reminder of the main points long after you have moved on.
The first step is to read the material. Don't worry too much about making notes on the first read through. The important thing is to concentrate on following the line of the argument and making sure that you understand the key points.
Then review the material. Locate the main ideas as well as important points that relate to them. If the book is yours, you can underline or highlight important words or definitions, put a box around important passages, or write notes in the margin.
Alternatively, you can make notes on a separate piece of paper. Remember to leave lots of space so that you can add extra thoughts later on. Learning is a process of changing and developing your understanding. Your notes may take the form of paragraphs, short phrases, bullet points or diagrams (for example, spray diagrams).
The form your notes take will depend on a number of factors:
the techniques that work best for you
the nature of what you are reading
the purpose of your notes
how much time you have.
Remember that the notes you produce are your notes. Experiment to find out what works best for you.
Over time, you will probably develop a range of approaches. So, for example, I tend to use sentences or short paragraphs for material that I find fairly straightforward (see Activity 4). For texts that are more complicated or more difficult to follow I might use a spray diagram. Visual representations often take longer to prepare, but I find the extra investment of time and thought can really help to deepen my understanding. Again, this is a personal preference. Some people find it easier to work with, and to understand, diagrams and pictures. Other people prefer words and lists.
At some point you'll have to give some thought to housekeeping. Where will you keep your notes? In a notebook or a ring binder? I prefer looseleaf notes in a ring binder, as I can add extra pages as necessary, but the choice is up to you. The main thing is to make sure that you can find your notes again when you need them.
Finally, a health warning! Don't put too much time and effort into making notes – and try to avoid writing out the entire text in note form. The trick is to develop an approach that provides the most benefit for the least effort. Always remember that making notes should be a pleasure not a chore. Making notes is an essential part of studying, and if you enjoy the process you'll find you learn a lot more.