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Notetaking: Notes from reading

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“Active reading and note making means that instead of passively reading and noting down, you engage your brain and think about the information before, during and after reading and making notes.”

Jeanne Godfrey,  Reading and Making Notes

All students, researchers and academics spend a lot of time reading. It is an essential component of both study and academic practice. While there is little doubt over the value of reading, every minute (or hour) you spend reading is time wasted if you are not creating notes to represent your understanding of what you have read. This is a really important point as reading alone is not enough to learn. You must engage with the material further.

Reasons to make notes when reading

Using notes to support your reading is important for several reasons:

Don't forget stuff

We rapidly forget nearly everything we have read unless we do something else with that information. Creating notes from your reading will help you further engage with the material through active learning and increase recall significantly. Remembering what you read is the first step to being able to formulate arguments for your written assignments.

Keep focused

Making notes helps you to focus on your reading. Our minds tend to wander when we read long texts. By making notes you force yourself to concentrate on your reading rather than letting the words wash over you.

Don't waste time later

If you don’t create notes and need to revisit an idea you have read about, you will waste time searching for and re-reading the same material again. Note making means you create more easily-searchable documents as you will have picked out the important stuff already.

Engage actively with you reading

Reading can be a passive process requiring little active thought – unless you do something with that information. Recording your questions or thoughts, analysing what you have read, joining together the ideas from several sources and representing your critical thinking are all essential components of creating notes.

Avoid working directly from sources as you write

If you are not creating notes, you may develop the habit of reading and writing for assessments concurrently. While this may feel like it saves time, it is a poor practice that does not allow you to develop your thinking and understanding. It can also lead to serious issues as you are more likely to paraphrase poorly when you have the book/journal open in front of you - this can lead to issues of plagiarism.

Cornell notes - for reading actively

We often recommend the Cornell note taking method as an excellent way of making notes during lectures. It can be just as useful when making notes on your reading - you just use the different parts of your page for different functions.

Divide your page up as shown below/opposite and use each section as indicated:

  • At the top of the page include the full reference (or at least all the bibliographic information you would need to reference the source).
  • Left column - for active reading. These notes means you are really thinking about the text. Use this area to note connections, inconsistencies, questions you need to answer and your personal reactions.
  • Right column - for passive reading. These are more straightforward, traditional notes. Use this area to paraphrase important passages and make a note of memorable quotes (noting the page number for your citation).
  • Bottom section - summary. Write up to 3 bullet points that pull out the main topics, findings and how it may be useful.

You will usually start to create passive reading notes initially and then add to the active reading notes when things occur to you as you go along. As with lecture notes it can be useful (though not essential) to have a break before filling in the summary section (for example the following day). Looking at it with fresh eyes can help, and returning to it will aid long-term recall.

Page divided up - full reference at top; left column for active reading, right column for passive reading and summary space at the bottom