Note Taking Skills For Research Papers

Note-Taking Strategies, Note-Taking Methods and Why They Matter

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Recording information through using note-taking strategies and note-taking methods that help you keep information organized facilitate the writing process. The information you need is more accessible. This means doing an outline, writing your first draft and citing sources is made easier. Before you dive headfirst into conducting research and gathering information, prepare by taking the following steps:

Step #1: Develop note-taking strategies

  • How to record information
  • How to record source citation information
  • How to keep notes organized

Step #2: Choose note-taking methods

Develop a plan with note-taking strategies

Having a plan created around note-taking strategies allows you to conduct research in a more organized fashion. Plan ahead, and decide how you intend to approach note-taking in general. Make sure to incorporate the following factors into your note-taking strategies:

  • Recording of information—Do you intend to jot notes or write in full sentences? Jotting down notes might seem faster while you are conducting research, but when it comes time to write your paper, using complete sentences makes the writing process faster. Plus, it makes it less likely that you need to revisit a source to get the whole picture if you are unsure of what your shortened notes mean. There are four different ways to record information:
    • Direct quotation
    • Paraphrase
    • Summary
    • Personal thought
  • Citation information—How can you keep source citation information together? It is a good idea to keep two sets of notes: one with facts and information to write the actual paper and a second set with only bibliographic information for citation purposes. With a second set, make sure to know what information you need to write under a specific style or citation guide, such as MLA, APA or the Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Organization—What system can you put in place to find information quickly? Aim to code all sections of your notes by marking where each piece of information might fall in your outline or paper. It does not need to be exact; your note cards help you write the outline when your research is complete. Also note the source of the information by using something that references the bibliographic notes, so you know where the information is to cite any research information. Try to keep similar pieces of information together and well organized.

Choose note-taking methods to execute your plan

You have two basic options when it comes to note-taking methods: with index cards or on the computer.

Using index cards as a note-taking method—Using blank 3×5 or 5×7 index cards, you can record one piece of information onto one card.

  • Create codes for where the information goes in your paper (or your best guess). Write it on the top right of the card. For example, if it goes in the introduction, write “Intro.”
  • Record the author’s last name, the title (abbreviated form is okay) and a page number, if applicable.
  • Put the each piece of information into your own words unless you intend to use it as a direct quotation.

Using your computer as a note-taking method—Using multiple computer files saved into one folder, you can type notes while you research.

  • Create a new folder for your research paper. Save all files pertaining to your paper within the folder throughout the process of writing your paper.
  • Create a new file to record the bibliographic information for citing sources. Keep only the information about sources as a whole in this document, so when you need to create the documentation for your sources, such as a Works Cited page or a Resource List, you have everything you need in one place.
  • Open a new word processor file, and create the codes for where information is to appear within your paper (or your best guess). These codes serve as bold headings and subheadings to identify areas within your topic. Save one copy as your master research file.
  • Resave the same file as your working research file. Any time you add additional research, make the changes to this file. Keep related information together with the source noted by each piece of information (including the page number). Save it, and then resave it as a new version of your master research file. Complete this process every time you make changes to the file with this note-taking method.
  • When adding information, note the author’s name, the title and the page number (if applicable). Save your file frequently to ensure you do not lose anything. Repeat the process of saving to both your working research file and the master file.

Importance of good note-taking strategies and note-taking methods

Employing note-taking strategies and methods as you read through sources of information is important for several reasons.

  • They help you avoid plagiarism.
  • They make organizing your paper easier.
  • They allow you to record where you obtained information to save time as you write and cite information.
  • They make it easier to go back to an original source for more information when necessary.
  • They help improve the overall quality of your paper.

If you take notes efficiently, you can read with more understanding and also save time and frustration when you come to write your paper. These are three main principles

1. Know what kind of ideas you need to record

Focus your approach to the topic before you start detailed research. Then you will read with a purpose in mind, and you will be able to sort out relevant ideas.

  • First, review the commonly known facts about your topic, and also become aware of the range of thinking and opinions on it. Review your class notes and textbook and browse in an encyclopaedia or other reference work.
  • Try making a preliminary list of the subtopics you would expect to find in your reading. These will guide your attention and may come in handy as labels for notes.
  • Choose a component or angle that interests you, perhaps one on which there is already some controversy. Now formulate your research question. It should allow for reasoning as well as gathering of information—not just what the proto-Iroquoians ate, for instance, but how valid the evidence is for early introduction of corn. You may even want to jot down a tentative thesis statement as a preliminary answer to your question. (See Using Thesis Statements.)
  • Then you will know what to look for in your research reading: facts and theories that help answer your question, and other people’s opinions about whether specific answers are good ones.

2. Don’t write down too much

Your essay must be an expression of your own thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. Plan therefore to invest your research time in understanding your sources and integrating them into your own thinking. Your note cards or note sheets will record only ideas that are relevant to your focus on the topic; and they will mostly summarize rather than quote.

  • Copy out exact words only when the ideas are memorably phrased or surprisingly expressed—when you might use them as actual quotations in your essay.
  • Otherwise, compress ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing word by word is a waste of time. Choose the most important ideas and write them down as labels or headings. Then fill in with a few subpoints that explain or exemplify.
  • Don’t depend on underlining and highlighting. Find your own words for notes in the margin (or on “sticky” notes).

3. Label your notes intelligently

Whether you use cards or pages for note-taking, take notes in a way that allows for later use.

  • Save bother later by developing the habit of recording bibliographic information in a master list when you begin looking at each source (don’t forget to note book and journal information on photocopies). Then you can quickly identify each note by the author’s name and page number; when you refer to sources in the essay you can fill in details of publication easily from your master list. Keep a format guide handy (see Documentation Formats).
  • Try as far as possible to put notes on separate cards or sheets. This will let you label the topic of each note. Not only will that keep your notetaking focussed, but it will also allow for grouping and synthesizing of ideas later. It is especially satisfying to shuffle notes and see how the conjunctions create new ideas—yours.
  • Leave lots of space in your notes for comments of your own—questions and reactions as you read, second thoughts and cross-references when you look back at what you’ve written. These comments can become a virtual first draft of your paper.


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