How I make notes: From a textbook

Jasmin, the author of the blog post by Jasmin Rahman, Cellular and Molecular Medicine student and Bristol Futures Advocate

Textbooks can contain so much more content than the lecturer could ever cover in class, but the process of actually writing notes from textbooks can be mind-numbingly boring. In first and second year I often picked up these massive intimidating textbooks that my lecturers recommend, read pages of text for ages and then realised I didn’t understand any of it.

However textbooks are an invaluable resource and can be so helpful in aiding understanding of topics. To effectively learn from them means making your reading a fairly active process, hopefully these tips that have improved my experience can also be helpful for you in improving your textbook notes and making the most effective use of your time

1. Give yourself time

My main takeaway message is: There’s no ‘perfect’ amount of time or secret formula to work out how much time to spend reading textbooks and each textbook has different requirements.

However I’ve always struggled with either rushing through the recommended readings or spending hours reading just a few pages and realising none of it is particularly helpful.

Which leads me to my first tip of: Learn to skim read before starting any notes.

It’s so tempting to just dive in and start highlighting everything, but writing and highlighting the first time you read a passage isn’t effective as it’s difficult to predict whether the sentence is actually important. Main things to look out for whilst skim reading are key words (usually bolded), diagrams and sub-headings.

Finding the balance between skim reading and actual reading can be difficult at first, what worked well for me at the beginning was setting a timer for around 30 seconds a page that way I wasn’t getting caught up in details and could actively prepare for what was coming up next.

Page indexes are also so helpful in contextualising topics and quickly finding which pages to read. But one of the biggest drawbacks is that sometimes indexes can lead to massive chunks of text where the key topic you’re looking for is a tiny sentence, so I’d really recommend skim reading when doing index searches as it’s definitely saved me so much time!

2. Actively read the textbook

When faced with a big chunk of text, it’s really tempting to ‘log off’ and read passively without really digesting anything. For me, creating a highlighter ‘colour code’ was really useful (see picture) and helped to me engage with notes as you’re forced to actively ‘characterise’ each sentence as you read along.

Reading can also be so monotonous, so having questions in the back of your mind like ‘How does this fit into my lecture/across the course?’ or ‘Could this be an interesting point to include in an essay?’ can be very helpful by keeping the reading focused on the direct benefits.

Writing questions in the margins is one of the cornerstones of active reading, but I’d recommend answering any questions after you’ve finished reading rather than as soon as they pop up. For me it’s so easy going into a googling ‘rabbit-hole’ of questions and it always ends up in procrastination and having only digested about 2 sentences of the reading.

Note: I usually highlight on a tablet, however when using library books I stick a post-it note to the side of the page to note down questions and use index tabs as replacement for highlighting.

On the left hand side, a page from a textbook with sentences highlighted in different colours and questions handwritten in the margins. On the right hand side, a typed page of notes summarising the textbook page.

3. Make personalised notes

A huge part of learning when first trying to understand a topic is being able to recall information. So when it comes to writing notes from a textbook, be cautious that you’re not taking notes after every line by closing the textbook or by moving your eyes away and writing everything you can remember. This enables you to write notes in your own words, with the added benefit that it prevents accidental plagiarism when you’re using notes in open-book exams. For me, being selective in what I wrote has stopped me creating lots of notes directly copied from the textbook that I never actually ended up reading.

The whole purpose of notes is that they’re for you, so write them in a way that makes sense to you and is effective for your learning. As a life sciences student I find the outline method helpful, but there are so many others and if you’re unsure I’d recommend checking out the Study Skills tab on Blackboard to learn more about note-taking methods here.

These are just a few tips that have worked well for me personally and changed the way I make notes, I’d definitely recommend trying out anything that stands out to you. And good luck!

How I make notes: From recorded lectures

Photo of Gloria, the author of this blog postby Gloria Bosi, Mechanical Engineering student and Bristol Futures Advocate

While a lot of us were lucky to make a long-awaited return to campus this year, hybrid learning means that pre-recorded lectures are still a core part of our academic lives. With new videos coming every week, efficient notetaking is an essential skill to have. It’s not always as easy as it seems! You want to write just enough that you can understand your notes when you look back at them, but not so much that you are just copying the slides. You may also want to pause the video occasionally, but without tripling the time it takes for you to watch it. It’s a delicate balance that needs to be mastered. Lucky for you, I am here to help.

I’m Gloria, a third-year Mechanical Engineering student and Bristol Futures Advocate. With almost 2 years of online university under my belt, I want to share my top tips for taking notes from recorded lectures. I recommend trying the following things:

1. Doing the prep work

Skimming through the lecture slides before watching a recording helps me retain information better. I don’t own a tablet or printer, so there’s no easy way for me to take notes directly on the slides. Peeking in advance allows me to get a better look at any complicated diagrams or words that I need to write down. Once I know what to expect from the slides, I can focus better on what the lecturer is saying in the recording. Most importantly, skimming through the slides helps me build a mental picture of how I want to take notes for the topic.

2. Pausing with caution

Continuously pausing a lecture recording is dangerous business. It can easily double or triple the time it takes to finish watching. If this sounds familiar, try to be pickier about when you choose to pause the video. Ask yourself: did you really miss something that will stop you from understanding the topic as a whole? Another way to save time and avoid pauses is to come up with your own shorthand notations. Remember that your notes are not a textbook, and they don’t need to be written in full sentences. You’re the only one who needs to be able to understand them! If something confuses you or you happen to get stuck, don’t let that stop you from finishing the video. Write a post-it note or mark the sentence that confused you and keep watching. When you finish the lecture recording, you can ask about this on Blackboard discussion forums and return to it when you get a response.

3. Don’t be afraid to use colour!

Try using different coloured pens to distinguish between notes taken directly from the slides and those based off what the lecturer is saying. If you’re a visual learner like me, this can really help with information retention and memory.

4. Writing summaries

After a long note-taking session, don’t forget to write a brief summary of what you learnt. If possible, check this against the intended learning outcomes of the lecture to ensure you didn’t miss anything.

5. Finding what works for you

Don’t be afraid to try new methods. Remember that there’s no single right way of taking notes! In fact, the same method might not work across different modules if the content delivery varies. In this new hybrid learning environment, it’s especially important to diversify your note-taking approaches and find what works for you. Finally, if you’re not sure how to structure your notes by yourself, you can try an existing method, such as Cornell notes. You can read more about this here.

Hope you enjoyed the post, and leave a comment to let us know your best note-taking tips!

How I make notes: A law student’s guide to making revision notes

Photo of Tala, the author of the blog postby Tala Youhana, Law student and Bristol Futures Advocate

If you’re a law student, you’re probably familiar with the ‘IRAC’ method, which is traditionally used to solve legal problem questions, so you’re probably wondering why I’m mentioning it in a post about making revision notes. Surprisingly, IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) can provide a very effective guide beyond the remits we’re familiar with, and this post will seek to walk you through the process of using IRAC to make your revision notes.

Firstly, it’s important to emphasize the individualised nature of making notes, whereby there is no single right or wrong approach, so this post should only be used as a guide to help you find a unique approach which works well for you.

 I- Identify the issues

This is where you ask yourself what has worked well for you in the past and what hasn’t. In this stage, keeping an open mind is essential, and can be your most powerful tool. For instance, do you have a preference between digital and hand-written notes? If so, have you tested out both before coming to your conclusion? You may ask yourself questions like, which is easier to refer to when writing essays, which is easier to store, how easy is it to find what you’re looking for, would a hybrid approach be more effective, etc. Seek to identify obstacles you experienced in previous revision sessions and intervene with an effective solution. For me, I used to have difficulty with revisiting incomplete work, so I created a checklist before each lesson in my notes detailing all the work that I need to get done, so that when I was revising, I could immediately find incomplete work which needed revisiting.

R- Make the rules

Law students are expected to navigate numerous types of sources including cases, statutes, lectures, textbooks and articles, so finding a consistent technique that simplifies this is important. For instance, I generally colour code my notes following the same rules in every module: making case names purple, statutes pink, and articles emboldened, to distinguish them. For digital notes, also aim to familiarise yourself with keyboard functions such as “ctrl + f” to help you locate keywords when browsing a long document. Furthermore, incorporating a system of subheadings can be really effective for revision.

Handwritten notes using colour coding and a checklist of outcomes
Some of the rules in action – Notes on law, equity and trusts of land

A- Apply the rules

Once you have found the technique which works for you, your next hurdle would be to stay consistent in applying it, as this will remove the burden of you having to remember each modification you made over time, unless you feel that your previous approach is no longer working for you.

 C- Conclude

Finally, if you have spare time, formulate summaries for each section of your work or leave some room for this, to make it easier for your future self to remember the key elements in each section.

This was a whistle-stop tour to making revision notes for law, and now the rest is over to you to find what works best for you. Good luck!

How I make notes: For essay planning

Photo of Breanna, the author of the postby Breanna Goff, Psychology student and Bristol Futures Advocate

Hello! My name is Breanna and I am a third year Psychology student at Bristol University. My degree sometimes feels like essay upon essay, so I have a few tips up my sleeve from the past couple of years.

 

 

 

When faced with a challenging and complex essay question, it feels like the final product is so far out of reach. Where do I start? What will it look like? And how long will it take? I like to remind myself that every student (and probably every professor) knows this feeling well. So how would I start?

All good essays begin with good notes.

Understanding the foundations.

When starting to think about an essay, it’s crucial that I fully understand the foundation of the topic. I take time to fill in the gaps of my learning- adding to my lecture notes by reading topic overviews and recommended starter papers provided. I usually annotate my lecture slides to ensure I am aligning my understanding with the learning objectives set by my lecturer. By doing this, I not only consolidate my knowledge of the area, but I am creating a strong set of notes which can easily be referred to and utilized in the introduction of my essay.

Time to explore.

Now I have developed some solid notes about the topic’s foundation, its time to explore the field. I usually look over my notes and highlight areas which interest me the most regarding my essay question. Here, I create a word document with several colour coded headings of areas I want to explore. I read several papers into each option and make short notes on each. For example, I will summarise the findings of each paper and jot down how this finding relates to the essay question, adding points for critical analysis where I can. Now, the most important lesson I have learned in my experience of essay note taking is to always make note of the source I have obtained my information from. I do this by pasting the article title next to my summary notes. Trust me, when you have read 50+ articles for your essay, it becomes difficult to remember which paper stated which fact.

Finding my focus.

It’s time to narrow my choices down. I look over the notes of areas I have explored and review what addresses my essay question most effectively. After deciding on a rough narrative, I assess which specific papers I can utilize in my essay. This may take a bit of time and some extra reading; I usually focus on 3-5 key papers in the main body of my essay. When I have selected these, I make more extensive notes by answering the 5 following bullet points for each:

  • What is the aim of the paper?
  • How did the researcher study this area?
  • What did they find out?
  • How does this relate to my essay question?
  • Are there any points for critical analysis?

I have found using these prompts is highly useful when note taking as, when I come to write my essay, I have already outlined the structure of each paragraph effectively.

5 bullet points answering the 5 questions above about a paper on the links between overeating and sleep deprivation
Notes on a psychology research paper answering the 5 bullet points

Now, as I begin to write up my essay, I can be confident in the extensive notes I have taken. My detailed lecture notes help me write my introduction by giving me a solid foundational understanding. My exploration notes have helped me determine the most effective narrative for my question. And finally, my detailed notes of key studies will allow me to write my essay with ease and direction. The final product is within arm’s reach!

 

 

Student Advocate tips for… making the most of lectures

Students in a banked lecture theatre

Our Bristol Futures Student Advocates come from every faculty in the university, and are here to support you to grow your skills and become an even better student.

We asked them to share their top tips for making the most of lectures. Here’s what they said…

Don’t copy everything!

If you just copy what the lecturer wrote down, you are not going to absorb and digest what the lecturer’s main point is. Even worse, you wouldn’t know if the lecturer makes a mistake. Instead, pay full attention to listening to what the lecturer is saying first. After a few sentences, think about what is the main point conveyed in what is written down on the board (or presented on the slide). And then, use your own words to jot down any key points. If you can’t catch them, need not to worry! Simply watch the recorded lecture later and pause as you go. If the lecture is not recorded, it would be nice if you can email the lecturer asking for clarification on such topics. They would be happy to help!

You will be panicked by the fact that while everyone in the hall is ferociously writing, while you are sitting there, only listening. But remember, you are also paying your full attention to the lecture, and you have done nothing less than your classmates did! Ryan, 2nd year Mathematics

Use questions for learning

As you watch the lecture clearly flag any concepts/areas that you don’t fully understand and formulate (and write down) specific questions that you think could get you the answers you need.

This habit helps provide structure and direction to your reflection/revision process after the lecture, as you know exactly what you need to follow up on talking to the lecturer or extra research/reading. I have found this makes my learning more efficient (by saving you from repeatedly covering content you know/understand in order to locate what you are less clear on) and more effective (as your learning becomes targeted to any weak points).  Emily, 3rd year Biomedical Sciences

 

Bristol Futures Student Advocates run peer support sessions for students in their faculty. Check out the Study Skills Blackboard page to see what’s coming up.

 

 

How I make notes: On paper

Photo of Carys, the author of the blog post

by Carys James, Veterinary Sciences student and Bristol Futures Advocate

The majority of note-taking by students is done digitally in today’s society, but for those of you who are more traditional and prefer a classic pen and paper style like me, please indulge yourself into my personal experience and tips.

When it comes to taking notes for lectures, I always find it best to print the lecture slides out at the beginning of each week, as this motivates me and makes me feel well-prepared. In my opinion, the best way to print lecture notes out is either 6 power point slides per A4 sheet, or 3 power point slides with lines next to each slide for you to make notes/annotations. Whichever style you choose will be a combination of personal preference based on the size of your handwriting and also dependent on how much individual lecturers add to the content of each of their lecture slides. The latter is something in which you will become more familiar with as you get to know your lecturers individually.

Now that you have printed your notes and organised them neatly into your bag ready to head to the lecture, you now need to consider the most effective way to actually write down the lecture content. I find that this is best approached with a ‘chunk and check’ method. This involves actively listening to the lecturer, making note of anything they are simply reading from their slides and differentiating it from anything extra they add which isn’t on the power point. The next step is to summarise anything they have added into shorter, paraphrased sentences or even abbreviations, for example, abbreviating gastro-intestinal tract into ‘GIT’. Finally, write these short sentences onto the printed lecture slides to complement and aid your understanding of what is written already.

When it comes to taking paper notes home, they can become easily jumbled or lost, so good organisational skills are key here. I find it best to split each of my units into different topics based on the ‘intended learning outcomes’ from my specific programme handbook and when I have attended/watched a specific lecture, I will place it into the correct topic which will be in a ring-binder folder. I also keep a list of each of the lectures for the year from the programme handbook and tick each lecture off as I place them into the folders. This makes it much easier to come back to and find specific topics you may want to focus on when it comes to revising for exams or making flash cards, etc.

One of my favourite things about taking paper notes is the fact that I don’t need to carry a heavy laptop around with me all day, what’s yours?

How I make notes: The 5Rs

Photo of Molly, the author of this blog post By Molly Jackson, Translational Health Sciences student and Bristol Futures Advocate

The way we take notes is a big influence on how well we learn, and this differs greatly between individuals. As students we are often told to make notes throughout our lectures and use them to answer exam questions and provide essays with references to both literature written by experts in the field and our own opinions. This is often overwhelming, especially when we are provided with a high volume of information in a lecture and do not know where to start with how to record this information into notes.

After struggling in my first and second years of university with extensive pages of long notes piled on my desk never to be revisited, I began to wonder if there was a method out there to make use of notes as well as just making them. Following some extensive googling and asking fellow students on their approach to notetaking, I decided to try the Cornell method which breaks down notetaking into 5 easy stages…

An overview of the 5Rs of note taking, adapted from the Cornell Method (Pauk 2001). Record. Make note of the key facts you learn throughout your lecture. Reduce. Summarise key facts into short bullet points. Recite. Write out your short bullet points into a resource that can be revisited. Reflect. Use the bullet points as a starting point to develop your own opinions. How does it relate to other topics you’ve learned? How is this relevant to literature currently published in the field? How can you apply your critical thinking to this topic? Review. Regularly review the resources you develop in the lead up to exams or as part of essay preparation.
An overview of the 5 Rs of note taking, adapted from the Cornell method (Pauk 2001)

I found that using this approach breaks down complicated topics into bitesize pieces that can be used to build back into a bigger picture with wider reading and your own opinions. The best thing about using this method is that, as we all learn in different ways, this approach can be tailored to the individual and gives you a chance to be creative. For example, for the visual learners, the recite and review stage could be carried out in the form of a diagram or mind map, and for auditory learners, in the form of a song. It has also been scientifically proven that this technique is highly effective in a range of disciplines!*

Page split into 5 sections titled record, reduce/ recite, review, reflect - relevant literature, and reflect - own opinion. There are notes in each section on the subject of Parkinson's Disease.
Notes for a final year essay

The only question left to ask is what is what kind of learner are you and how can you build this into the 5Rs approach to develop achieve note taking success?

 

*Some examples of the evidence:
  • Evans B and Shively C. Using the Cornell Note-Taking System Can Help Eighth Grade Students Alleviate the Impact of Interruptions While Reading at Home. Journal of Inquiry and Action in Education. 2019;10:1-35.
  • Donohoo J. Learning How to Learn: Cornell Notes as an Example. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 2010;54:224-227.
  • Hayati A and Jalilifar A. The Impact of Note-taking Strategies on Listening Comprehension of EFL Learners. English Language Teaching. 2009;2.
  • Quintus L, Borr M, Duffield S, Napoleon L and Welch A. The impact of the Cornell note-taking method on students’ performance in a high school family and consumer sciences class. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. 2012;30:27-38.