Why do we need to take notes?

Note-taking can help to focus your attention on what you are reading, watching or listening to and stop your mind from wandering. It can also help you make sense of what you are learning and when working on a piece of writing, such as an essay or a report, notes are a good way of getting all your ideas and your evidence together.

What type of notes should I make?

The type of notes you make will often depend on the subject matter. For example if you are studying a maths or science subject then short, concise notes may be all that is needed – perhaps on index cards. However notes for a literature or psychology subject, for example, could require more detail and references to theories may be needed.

Written notes are not always needed and sometimes using highlighter pens on a handout or text book can work well instead. Visual notes, such as diagrams and mind maps, work well for some people. Or a mixture of written and visual notes could be used.

Top tips for note taking:

  • Decide on the style of notes. Ask yourself why you are taking notes and decide which type are best for that purpose. Will you use your notes at the end of your course for revision? Do you feel that summarising what you have read as you go along will help with your understanding and retention of the material?
  • Is a glossary needed? A glossary of technical terms can be useful, though not if you have to switch on the computer each time you need to refer to it. Consider writing a glossary on a bookmark so that it is close at hand as you read.
  • Possible problems. Don’t let your notes become a chore or result in you losing interest or getting behind in your studies. Try to summarise in your own words, rather than copy chunks out of the book. If you do need to quote from the book, or other course materials, then remember to insert a page number for reference.
  • Remember they are your notes. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your note-taking system and change it if you think it isn’t working for you.
  • Make use of technology. Investigate apps, such as Evernote, and note taking software such as Microsoft’s OneNote. Experiment until you find something that works for you.

Find out more

Open University: Note-taking techniques

OpenLearn: Reading and note-taking – preparation for study


How To Study: Note-taking