Note taking in relation to the Social Sciences
Note taking in relation to the Social Sciences

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Note taking in relation to the Social Sciences

1 Social Policy

1.1 Note taking in this context

Although the audio file included in this course was designed to compliment the D218 Social Policy: Welfare, Power and Diversity Open University course its contents are still relevant to anyone wishing to improve their understanding of note taking. The audio file, however, uses specific examples associated with the Social Sciences.

The audio file was recorded in 1998. John Clarke discusses the value and best ways of note taking with OU colleagues Esther Saraga and Gerry Mooney.

Participants in the discussion were:

  • John Clarke Professor of Social Policy at The Open University;

  • Esther Saraga Social Sciences Staff Tutor in The Open University's London region;

  • Gerry Mooney Staff Tutor in The Open University’s Scotland region.

Activity 1

Listen to the audio file. You may find it helpful to listen to the recording a second time and take some notes using the techniques that are described by the OU tutors.

Note: You will hear references to TMAs. This is an acronym for Tutor Marked Assignments. These are formal assessments associated with Open University courses.

Note taking part 1 (10 minutes 4.7 MB)

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Transcript: Note taking part 1

John Clarke
In this programme we are going to be talking about one of the most useful skills for studying D218, and any other course for that matter. The subject is note taking. To talk about why it’s important and to suggest some ways of going about it, I’m joined by Gerry Mooney and Esther Saraga, both members of the D218 course team, and experienced Open University tutors. Esther if I can start with you with what’s probably the most basic question, what do we mean by note taking?
Esther Saraga
Note taking is a very central part of the process of studying. It’s a way of making sense of what you’re studying and keeping a record for yourself, a record that you can go back to later on whether it’s for writing TMAs, revising for exams, or for making links with later parts of the course. As students you will be using a variety of course materials and you will make notes in a variety of ways probably. You will be using course books, which you may be reading, or listening to on tape, course cassettes like this one you will be listening to, watching TV programmes and reading newspaper articles that you have been collecting for your resource file. And when you make notes you may make notes on the course texts themselves in the margins, you may make notes on cards or in a notebook or you may record notes for yourself onto a cassette tape. But however you do it, what you are doing is keeping a record, but crucially it is not a minute or a verbatim record or a shorthand version of what you have been reading, it is a selection and it needs to be organised and it will include the most important or interesting parts of the material that you have been studying.
John
OK Gerry, why is it such an important part of studying?
Gerry Mooney
Yes I think note taking is a crucial skill and one which we would encourage you to develop as early as possible in your studies. It is very much about studying actively as opposed to passively and by that we mean making sense of what you are working on at that particular point in time. I would also say that effective note taking helps to avoid the problems of plagiarism where you simply reproduce what others have written down in a way that is not reflective or doesn’t involve much thinking.
John
So plagiarism is one of the key failings in writing essays and assignments and that part of what note taking can do for you is make you translate the material into your own words at the time. What else does it help you with Gerry?
Gerry
I think it helps in a number of different tasks, for example it is helpful in preparing for TMAs, it is obviously helpful for revision towards the end of the course and I would also say that it is helpful partly as a basis for future study and reflecting on previous parts of the course.
John
OK so it is a way of beginning to pull things together for yourself. Esther is there anything that you would want to add to what Gerry is saying there?
Esther
Well I’d really want to agree with him and emphasise making it an active process. It’s very easy to kind of want to get through things very quickly, I mean that is very understandable. There’s a lot of course material to get through, you may feel you haven’t got a lot of time, but you need to balance the desire to get through things quickly with the need to do it in a way that involves thinking about the material, reflecting on it and so that your notes are sort of the end product of that thinking process rather than simply taking things down more or less word for word as it is in the original text. So balance off the desire to get through the material with the need to think about it as you do it.
John
OK so that identifies a sort of note taking as a focus for some tensions between speed and grasping the material. But you have both emphasized the importance of it as a process of making sense of the course material as you work on it. That’s fine but Gerry how do we go about doing that in practice?
Gerry
Well let me say first of all that there is no one single way of going about taking down notes and I would always say that the best way is the way that works for you and suits your own needs at that particular point in time. But clearly there are certain techniques, which we would encourage you to try and develop during the course of the studies this year. In particular I think you should go about note taking initially by dividing up your work task into manageable sections. From that it is important to be selective and one of the ways you would do that is by picking out important words, topics, issues, arguments, what about the key debates in a particular part of a chapter, or key debates that have come across in a television programme, what are the theories, what are the themes. These are all highlighting the kind of important material you should be reflecting on through your note taking.
John
I have a slightly sneaking feeling about that point that it gets ahead of where some of us might be with note taking which is you have said about picking important words and debates and arguments. How do we know what is important?
Gerry
I think very much it’s looking for the clues that are contained within the various parts of the course. Obviously TMA questions is an obvious point to start with, but there are often key words highlighted in various sections of chapters, there are a variety of summary sections, areas within chapters in other parts of the course where activities are focused where certain questions are raised, end of chapter conclusions and overviews. Basically where you are being encouraged to pause and reflect on what you have read, that has encouraged you to think about – well there is something important here which I might have to take notes on.
John
So even if it is not like reading a novel, there are ways of reading that involve you structuring your reading with sets of questions to start with?
Esther
Yes that’s right and I think some of the ways in which people make notes in an organised way that is useful for them is for example to try to identify for yourself a list of key points, probably no more than five or six, that is what I would imagine from a section, say one section of one of the chapters in D218. Having decided what are the six key points, which you may get out of the introduction to the chapter or the introduction to that section. Then under each of those you might put some subsidiary points or examples that illustrate what these main points are and so in that way you are organising your notes as you make them and when you come back to them they are much easier to understand and they are also much easier to remember later on, and if you are making notes on tape you could do something very similar – again sort of key points and then subsidiary points.
Another way that some people like to do it is to do it diagrammatically, they might have a piece of paper on which they would draw circles or boxes and put some of the central questions or themes into those and then make links between ideas in one box and another big idea that is in another box and again you could have little subsidiary boxes or circles that make cross links. Again the emphasis is on some sort of pattern or organisation, there is a good example of this in the good study guide if that is a resource that you are using as well.
Another way of making notes is to make notes on the actual text itself when you are reading it, you may do this by underlying key words or phrases, but I think one of the most useful things to do is to make little notes for yourself in the margin, you might make a note which says this paragraph deals with a particularly key point or it defines a term that you have been finding difficult. You might also write in the margin, I don’t really understand this, and note it for yourself as something that you will come back to and maybe later on when you have read more in that chapter or in the next chapter you can come back and you realise, oh I do understand it now and you can put a little explanation for yourself next to it. So sort of annotated notes in the margin is another way of doing it.
But I think however you do it I would really like to suggest its useful to switch off the tape, close the book and think for yourself, what was that paragraph about, what was that section about? Make a few notes for yourself, you can always open it again and check have I got it right, it is a way of doing what Gerry was saying earlier of you know doing it in your own words. There are a lot of students who say, I know I am supposed to do it in my own words, but how do I do that? And as I say I think you know switching off the tape, closing the book is one way of trying it and perhaps imagine telling a friend who is not studying the course, who says, what is that chapter about and then you tell them in your own words what the main points are because they won’t want all the detail and you won’t remember all the detail anyway and then you can make notes in that kind of way.
John
OK and that’s very helpful, certainly I mean one of the things that I found useful when I am reading things is precisely the bit about making notes in the margin because it is a way of feeling engaged with the argument that the person writing it is presenting to me, I do write, well yes that’s important, or I am not sure about that, or I can’t even understand how this works, or something, but it feels like participating in some sort of discussion with the person who has written it. But that is what works for me and it may not work for other people. Gerry is there anything you want to add to what Esther has just said?
Gerry
I would also like to re-emphasise that it is important to take notes using your own words, using your own thoughts in that process, but it is also important that you keep reflecting on how you go about taking notes. We have emphasized thus far that note taking is a very individualized study skill, but once you have developed a system to suit your own needs, it will save you considerable time and effort in the long run. I think it is important that you develop good habits, develop a formula, which works for you, but also you should keep trying to rework and refine that process and it could be that the notes that you are taking towards the end of this course are rather different from the notes that you are taking now. Now what that is illustrating is your own development and your own confidence about what you are doing within the course.
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Note taking part 2 (13 minutes 6 MB)

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Transcript: Note taking part 2

John
I think that is a very useful point to remember Gerry. Esther I think it might be useful just to try and think through an example of how one might go about note taking.
Esther
OK if I was studying chapter two in book one on disability and just starting the chapter, I would always start with the course guide because that would tell me what the whole chapter was about, what the key issues were, what I should be looking out for. It would also suggest for me what chunks to read it in, so that would be helpful, you know, when perhaps to stop and take notes and in fact I might start my notes on this chapter by saying, well from the course guide the impression I have got is that this is what the chapter is going to be about, so I would already have a framework in my head and I’d…be useful to write that down. I would then read the introduction to the chapter, which I imagine would give me more detail about what the chapter was going to be about and it would tell me what it was going to cover and I am one of these people who likes to go to the end as well.
I know not everybody does and I would probably also kind of flick through to the conclusion and think, ah where am I going to get to when I get to the end of this chapter, and I would read the conclusion and realise I don’t understand all this now, but it would give me a sense of perhaps what to look for when I was going through the chapter and I would probably make one or two notes as I say about just what the main points of this chapter seemed to be, it would help me perhaps to distinguish between those points and the detailed illustrations that I am going to come across and I think the main thing I would get out of that would be, it would show me that disability is being used as an example to develop the idea of social constructionism, the social constructionist approach that I have been reading about in chapter one.
So I know that is how disability is being approached. In the introduction there are two ideas that might be quite new to me, one is it uses the phrase the medical discourse on disability and although I have come across the term discourse in chapter one, perhaps it is quite a difficult one. It also talks about the social model of disability and I don’t at this stage have any idea what that is. So I would make a note of those. I would perhaps on the course text just asterisk them and think, put a question mark – I think I don’t know what these are. So I am going to keep a particular eye out for being able to sort out what they are.
I would then start section two which is on popular representations of disabled people which sounds quite nice because I think I know what that means, seems quite straightforward and I would probably flick through to see how long this section is and its fairly long it is about eight pages, but most of it seems to be activities, reading extracts about different kinds of views of disabled people. So I would work on that chunk and I think probably my way of doing it would be to skim read the whole section, see what kinds of extracts they are, look at the summary of the sections so I have got a sense of what is coming up and perhaps make a few notes on what the outcome is going to be, and then I would study the section much more carefully and slowly and the notes I would take would be ones that fitted in with these general points that I had identified. I don’t need all the detail, I can always go back to the detail and the illustrations, but it is telling me about different kinds of popular representations of disability and it would be the different kinds that I would be trying to identify.
So every time I felt I came across another point, I would note that one down. And then I would try to put the book aside as I said earlier and just list for myself having read that section, well what are the main things I have got out of it, what questions are left for me and what examples did I pick up from the activity. So that would be how I would start and then I would probably stop and have a pause and have a drink and think, well I have done a good bit of studying and then I would come back to the next one.
John
Sounds a very nice approach. I mean I was very taken by the idea that you gave there of turning to the end first as a way of giving you a sense of what the chapter might be about. I mean it is one that I can’t cope with personally because I need to have the sense of working through it in the sequence that somebody has set it out for me and I don’t want to know who did it before I get to the end of the chapter, so part of it for me is discovering the points as I work through it. But in other respects it seems to be that what you were talking about there is an absolutely sort of ideal example of the process of actively engaging with the material and being selective about pulling out, what we talked about, about the important points and you know, noting illustrations, examples, and things as sort of lower order matters that we don’t need full notes on. That’s been useful I think but one of the things that we might talk about briefly is whether there are things to avoid in this process of note taking, things that might make things go wrong. What about you Esther, have you got things that you think are worth avoiding?
Esther
The thing that is a real danger for me and that I have to avoid is too much use of highlighters. I think they can be very helpful for picking up particular points on a text and obviously your eye goes to them very quickly when you come back to it, but I also think they are quite dangerous because they are a very passive way of making notes and I can find that I read something and I am highlighting and I think I am working very hard, but actually I am not thinking very much at all and when I look back at it I might have highlighted half the text, or even more sometimes because it feels like every word is important. The trouble with highlighting is that you are not reworking the material in the way we have been talking about and it is a very passive way of doing it. So I don’t want to say never use a highlighter. Sometimes I use it for things like when a text says, there are three main points here and I might highlight the bit that says firstly, secondly and finally or something like that, but I’d still feel I’ve got to, if I’m going to do it properly, I have got to make notes in my own words and reflect on it in the way we have been describing.
John
OK I think that is a very useful warning. I mean precisely about the passivity of it, I mean my own experience of using highlighters is that I start very judicially so the first page may only have a quick flash of yellow once or twice, but by the sort of last page of the chapter it is very difficult to see anything that is not covered in yellow highlighter and that just sort of grows on me as I go through. I start thinking more and more things are important and that is about I think about the passivity of it, that I have stopped thinking and I have just started underlying or highlighting practically everything. That is one version then. Gerry is there anything that you would want to add about things to avoid?
Gerry
Yes I think if you take a passive approach to taking down notes you will end up writing too much and basically if we remember what the key aim here is for you to develop usable notes which help you to reflect on what you have read, then notes that are just as long as the original chapter are certainly not going to work in that particular way, nor are they going to help when it comes to revision towards the end of the course. When you read back your notes on chapter whatever it is, from book whatever it is, you find out that they are longer than the original chapter, then you have also got a little problem there. What I would also emphasize however is that it is important to be flexible and adaptable. Some chapters, some sources of material may lend themselves to the use of more highlighters, or more notes than others and you have to vary your approach accordingly, but it is important whatever you do you look at your material in an active rigorous way as opposed to sitting back and thinking that it is all going to come out simply by looking at it.
John
That seems to me yet again to have emphasized I think the point that this tape is really all about, which is it is about the active use of taking notes as a way of being engaged with this sort of material. OK lets assume happily that we have all made good notes on the course material, what do you do with the notes when you have got them – Gerry?
Gerry
Well we have already highlighted that it is important that you would use the notes for TMAs, for revision purposes, but I think also notes are important in terms of giving you a sense of the course as a whole and in that sense it is a useful place where you can cross reference the ways in which different concepts, or themes, or arguments recur – it is allowing you to basically pick out the threads of the course and subsequently when you come to do your studying in later parts of the course, you may find yourself saying, oh I have come across that before and you can go back and add in to your earlier notes where things are coming up time and time again. So the course is coherent and I think that an active and rigorous way of note taking helps you gain a sense of that which I think is obviously very very useful in terms of revision.
John
Gerry that’s helpful. Esther is there anything that you would want to add to that?
Esther
A couple of things. One of the things your notes will also do is help you identify what you haven’t understood or what is very difficult and this might be something you want to contact your tutor about. It may not be the best time to contact your tutor, you may be studying late at night, but you can note it down, I didn’t understand this. If you feel you still don’t understand it when you have reflected on it later, you might want to ring your tutor up or you might be going to a tutorial in which it will be a question you can take along. So note taking can also be useful in that way.
The other thing that occurred to me while Gerry was describing using notes, is an important aspect of note taking if they are going to be very useful is that you reference them as you go along and that as you are making them you are very clear for yourself that - which chapter they are from, which section of the chapter, perhaps sometimes you will put page numbers next to it. There is nothing more infuriating than coming back to notes some months later and you can’t remember where they are from and you have to spend ages looking back through the course book. Or you might have written down a short quote that you thought was particularly interesting you would like to use in your TMA, but you did not reference it in the notes, you didn’t put down who was being quoted, the date on which they had said it and again you can’t make use of it until you have gone, you know, right back through the book and found it again.
So if your notes are going to be useful be a bit over pedantic about it I always think. I mean I am very careful when I start making notes and I write down exactly where it is from, and the date, and during the notes I kind of if I’m writing down the views of a particular person, write down their name as well, who it is that you are referring to, and then when you come to use them for TMA and revision, your notes are particularly helpful to you.
John
OK you have just depressingly described the stack of index cards that sits at the side of my desk, which are imperfectly referenced and therefore deeply unusable. So I hope everybody else learns the lesson from that. Lets finally review what we have been talking about here, lets imagine that somebody had been taking notes from this tape, what would you hope that they had identified as the key points, Esther let me start with you?
Esther
Well I think three main points – firstly that note taking must be an active process involving thinking about what you are doing while you are doing it. Secondly develop your own technique, have a look at the ideas that are suggested to you in the course guide, in the good study guide, perhaps from your own tutor because as we have said people have worked on these techniques and developed good ideas, but develop one that works for you. And thirdly keep your notes in an organised form so that they are useful for you when you come back to them.
John
OK that’s three. Gerry would you like to add one further main point to this?
Gerry
Yes there is one thing I would like to emphasize and that’s that note taking is not about trying to write down everything in case you forget it, the name of the game is not about remembering, but it is about understanding and good note taking is a means by which your understanding of a particular issue or part of the course can be enhanced, and I would say finally that it is important that you keep reflecting on how you go about taking notes.
John
OK that’s good, and I think if I am allowed one as well, mine would be about the importance of turning the material that you are reading into your own words, both as a way of understanding and as we’ve said earlier as a way of avoiding just plonking undigested bits of course material into your TMAs. Thanks to both of you and good luck with your note taking!
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