How to take quick and effective notes

Taking good notes will be a make a huge difference in your research experience. A good note-taker absorbs more information from the material, and knows where to find that information for future use. There is a connection between taking notes and thinking about your research – many people perform note-taking as a separate “task,” forgetting that it will affect your thesis in the long run.

Remember that you have to be your own research assistant – you are taking notes for your future self. That self is likely to be tired, stressed and confused. How can you make life easier for yourself?

For starters, personalize the study advice to fit your own needs and working style. The same method of taking notes will not work for everyone, and you don’t want it to end up being a pointless exercise. Time is precious when you are working on your thesis, and note taking shouldn’t seem like an extra chore. If it does, you are doing something wrong. Try out a few different note taking techniques to produce thesis ready text.

Different methods work for different stages of the process or types of writing task. If your article is electronic, search inside it for ‘sign-post’ language and highlight it first. Look for key phrases like “This paper argues that”; “In this paper we explore”; “the main question is.” Verbs that lead to an argument are show, argue, proven, challenge, purpose, query, question. Words that modify arguments are may, might, probably, perhaps.

There are tons of new note taking technology that you can take advantage of to help you organize and record your notes. Instead of a paper journal, try databases like Microsoft One Note, Evernote or Devon Think. You can also look into word processors with note storage, like Scrivener, and to help organize everything a reference manager like Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote or Papers2 come in handy.

If you prefer pen and paper, you can still try different approaches. Don’t write walls of text, or note down whole articles. Make charts, diagrams, or draw pictures to organize the information in a way that will make sense to you.

The point of good notes is that certain information becomes salient, easy to remember, and concepts are clearer. If you are not achieving this currently, take a break and try some of the tips mentioned here. It’s better to spend more time figuring out a strategy that works for you, rather than spending all your time taking notes that will not be helpful later on.


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