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!

Student Advocate tips for… time management

 

Statue of Gromit (from Wallace and Gromit) decorated with clocks

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 time management. Here’s what they said…

Pretend that you’re working a 9 to 5 Job

My top tip on how to manage time is to  always work from 9-5 on your studies (if you don’t already have a 9-5 job!). How this works is that from Monday to Friday, you should do your uni work, attend classes, make notes, or revise between 9am and 5pm. This is a great tactic as if you find that you’re only in uni in the morning, then you can come home and work till 5pm and still enjoy the rest of your day! On the contrast, if you’ve been in uni straight from 9am till 5pm, then odds are that it was a pretty long and tiresome day and so you can rest assured that you’ve worked your 9-5 already and deserve to rest for the remainder of your day and recharge! I used this studying tactic for 5 years in dental school and it’s meant that all of my evenings are free, I don’t have to cram to catch-up on revision and I can spend my weekends however I like 🥳. Sina, 5th year Dental student

I agree with Sina, I started trying to pretend it’s a 9 to 5 job recently and it’s really been helping me. I still often go over time because there’s just so much to do but I still try and it’s really helpful. At least to try and work a “normal” amount of hours and not cut back on sleep. Martina, 2nd year Medical Biochemistry 

Schedule everything

I schedule societies’ activities, the time I spend with friends, work out, etc I still have a lot of online lectures so what I find useful is listing down all the ones I need to do for the week and also writing down how long they will take me (it’s even more useful if your professors give you a rough indication of how long they think it’s going to take). I then schedule it on my calendar (I like using Google Calendar because it syncs across devices really quickly) and try to stick to the plan. For example, for the readings, if my professor suggested it should take 10 minutes I try to stick to that because it probably means I don’t need to be spending more time than that on it. This way I know I don’t need to be studying it in a lot of details but just read through it to get an overall idea.
When planning I like to leave some extra time, so I either schedule online lectures as longer than planned or actually schedule in a two/three-hour slot on a Friday afternoon that I’m leaving free, this way if I fall behind I know I have some extra time without having to work on weekends and if I don’t fall behind it just means I have more free time! Martina, 2nd year Medical Biochemistry 

Make sure you are aware of all your deadlines and what to do for each one. Then make a plan based on that. Try to finish your task a few days before the hard deadline just to give yourself some extra time for any unexpected situations. Manshika, 3rd year Economics and Finance 

Take advantage of all the moments in your day

There are many brief periods over the course of your day where you are waiting around e.g. on a commute, for an event to begin, for meeting up with a friend, etc.. By adding all these up, it can result in a substantial amount of time. You can turn all these periods where you are usually just waiting around into a useful source of time if you make your work mobile and accessible at all times. I personally always have some work available offline on my phone to read, or quiz myself on, so I make the most of my time. Emma, 4th year Veterinary Science

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: 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… starting uni

Student wearing bright orange hoodie that reads: here to help

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.

With a few years’ experience under their belts, we asked them to share their top tips for starting uni. Here’s what they said…

Get organised

Check your emails regularly, they often have opportunities and helpful information that is easy to miss. It’s a great way to find out what is going on at the university and to stay in the loop. Natasha, 2nd year History

It is quite daunting to have so many course materials at the start of the term, one thing that I usually do is to download all of the lecture notes, slides, homework, and other important document to the university OneDrive, and then organize it. That way, when you are starting to work on a project / homework, you will have the required material at the tip of your hands! Ryan, 2nd Year Mathematics

Find what works for you

Try and find out what time of the day you have the most energy and motivation to do your work. For example, I know I am most productive in the morning and I am awful at working past 8pm, so I make sure to get up early in the morning to get started on work so I can have my evening off. Others however prefer to work later in the evening and get a rush of energy. Find out what works for you and use it! Breanna, 3rd year Psychology 

When starting uni, especially first year, it’s a great time to experiment with different organization and note-taking methods, different ways to approach your learning. It’s a time to try new things and then picking what you like best. This way you’ll build habits that suit you that will stick with you throughout your studies.  Martina, 2nd year Biochemistry with Medical Biochemistry

Get to grips with reading and taking notes

When tackling readings, don’t expect to immediately understand it after skim reading it. I’d recommend waiting a while and then writing out the key points you remember the most to find out what stood out to you.

Don’t expect to be able to remember everything from lectures or even understand. Reading around the subject (just bits you don’t know) is normal and don’t spend millions of hours doing.
Give yourself a few weeks (& different methods) of taking lectures/seminars information! But remember different lecturers give information in different ways. I would highly recommend a tablet to take notes on- lighter in weight and I was forever losing notes!

Look after yourself

Eat well, try to get enough sleep, make sure you schedule in time for rest and maybe even exercise. You will be better off for it later in the term! Emily, 3rd year Biomedical Sciences 

Whether it is a night out, or watching a film with a friend, make you sure you treat yourself at least once a day by doing something that makes you excited for the next day. Emma, 4th year Veterinary Science

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, whether it’s about your wellbeing or academics (your Study Skills peers and tutors!) are always there to help. Remember, you are not alone. There are a lot of resources available waiting for you to explore. Anaya, 2nd year Law 

Try new things… and have fun!

Try getting involved with as much stuff as possible, whether that is societies, sports, extracurricular classes – say yes to as much as possible and make the most of the opportunities on offer! Jago, 3rd year Maths and Computer Science

Feeling pressured to do well and get good grades come hand-in-hand with starting university for a lot of people, but I can promise you that studying isn’t everything. University is all about learning and experiencing new things, and of course, studying is still important – there’s a lot to learn from books! But lift your head out of those books from time to time, there’s so much more you can learn when you explore and try new things outside of the classroom. Become a volunteer to teach young students, try out that new salsa dancing class, go cycling by the harbourside, these experiences will stay with you for a lifetime so don’t let them go to waste. Since university is all about learning, learn to have fun too! Sabrina, 3rd year Biochemistry

The student experience goes way beyond what is taught in the classroom and in your textbooks, and whilst that should/could be a priority, make sure you are taking advantage of everything else the student life has got to offer whether it’s volunteering, working part-time, joining a society, or a mixed combination of things. There are so many resources at your service, that you can use much or as little as you choose to. That being said, make sure you take plenty of time to rest and look after yourself when needed. Tala, 2nd year Law

 

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.

 

 

Student perspective: How to make the most of your Reading Week

Photo of Tiegan, the author of this postby Tiegan Bingham-Roberts, Bristol Futures Advocate

If you are in the Faculty of Arts like me, it is likely that you have an upcoming Reading Week! For most Arts students this is Monday 1st – Friday 5th March, although some of you may have a different date range. I hope this blog will be useful ahead of Reading Week to inspire some activities you can do in order to stay productive and make the most of this time. So, here are my are my tips below:

 

(R)EADING: the clue is in the name, catch-up on reading!

If you didn’t quite manage to finish one or more of the texts you have studied so far in TB2, now is the time to set aside some time to finish them. Or, if you have an upcoming text that is quite long and will require a big chunk of time to read, you can use this week to get ahead and at least start reading that text. As a final year English student myself, there is usually always one ‘long’ text per Unit each term that is significantly longer than most of the others (remembering George Eliot’s Middlemarch from my second year here…) and Reading Week is a great time to tackle these head on.

(E)NHANCE: enhance your Study Skills by attending sessions and creating a study schedule

Now that you will be aware of roughly how much time it takes you to prepare for all your TB2 Unit seminars each week, how long it takes you to watch the pre-recorded lecture materials (be realistic – with pausing to take notes or skipping back to hear something you weren’t paying attention to for a few seconds – can make a 30 minute recording take 45 minutes!), and how long it takes you to do your readings for each week, you can set aside some time to create a study schedule. I personally find that writing into my diary/calendar a specific day and time to watch lectures, as if they were live sessions, to be really helpful. I also write into my diary/calendar when I am going to complete the preparation for all of my seminars, by paying attention to my usual working patterns and when I am at my most productive and energised to study. If you would like any advice on creating a study schedule that will set you up for success in the latter half of TB2, you can book into a 1-1 tutorial or drop-in session with the Study Skills team here.

 (A)NALYSE: analyse your feedback from TB1 assessments to spot common areas to improve on for TB2 assessments

You are likely to have received some if not all of your feedback from TB1 assessments by the start of your Reading Week, so it is a great time to look over that feedback again in an impartial way now that you have had time to digest the grade itself. This is a task that you often do not have time for when in the throws of writing a piece of academic writing or doing academic research – it feels like a waste of time to look back to past essays when you have so many future deadlines! However, Reading Week gives you the time to do this, and it can seriously improve your prospects of getting higher grades in TB2 because you can make specific changes and improvements. My other blog post, about using feedback effectively and building academic resilience, can be found here if you are interested to read more about this.

(D)ECIDE: get ahead on TB2 assessments by deciding on your interest areas

Check the ‘’assessment information’’ tab on the Blackboard pages for your TB2 units, to see whether your tutor has uploaded their essay questions document. They will probably have done this by Reading Week, because deciding on an essay avenue to explore in the latter half of the term is quite a common task for students to undertake during Reading Week. Even if you are not sure on the text, concept, event, framework, or author/scholar you want to write on, perhaps you haven’t studied the one that looks the most interesting to you yet, you will have a vague idea about what interests you and excites you when looking at the reading list. It’s also a good time to start thinking whether any of the tutors’ questions sound interesting to you or whether you want to devise your own question.

(I)NVITE: send some Zoom social invitations to your friends or coursemates

Now we move on to the personal side of Reading Week rather than all of the academic things. It is important to use this break productively, of course, but it is just as important to enjoy yourselves and do things that you don’t manage to find the time for whilst participating in normal teaching weeks. One of these things might be to catch-up with your friends or coursemates. At the moment in Bristol, with national lockdown restrictions, it is difficult to meet up in-person due to the rules apart from if you have a support bubble or are meeting one person for socially distanced exercise. Considering this, Zoom meetings (or similar platforms) may be the most practical way of catching up. You could organise a quiz (throwback to lockdown number one…), have a dinner date, have an afternoon tea meeting, have a cooking/baking session, host a watch party, and more!

(N)OTHING: set aside time to do nothing, to rest and relax!

All of the above activities are useful and involve actively doing something – but please so set aside time to do nothing. It can feel aimless to think of doing ‘nothing’, so you can make this more distinct by choosing a specific day of the Reading Week which you will spend doing whatever you like, whether it is sleeping in all day, watching Netflix, having a pamper session, going for a long walk to a place you want to explore, having a killer workout session, listening to loud music, doing some online shopping, etc.  Reading Weeks are designed to offer extra time for being productive as well as resting, relaxing, and rejuvenating. Letting yourself get burned out is never fun, so do something that will help to prevent this and allow you have consistent energy levels in the latter half of TB2.

(G)ET ORGANISED: clean and tidy your bedroom and organise your notes

Tidy space = tidy mind. During the chaos of the teaching weeks and the exhaustion of getting back into the swing of things since Winter Break, especially since TB2 started so soon after January assessments for many of us, you may not have spent much time on cleaning, tidying, and organising. Personally, I find having a clean house (albeit difficult to maintain in student accommodation!) makes me feel a lot more comfortable to work in productively. I also find that organising all of the random pieces of paper, receipts, letters, returns labels, that I have somehow accumulated over a month or so to help clear my mind. When you know that your room is tidy and contains nothing that doesn’t belong in there, it is usually a more attractive space to use. Reading Week is not only about replenishing your mind, you can also replenish the physical area around you.

Finally, thank you for reading, and have a great week! Do you have any other suggestions for How to Make the Most of your Reading Week? Feel free to share them in the comments section.