Annotating and note-taking - Being a purposeful reader and note-taker

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Annotating and note-taking
Being a purposeful reader and note-taker

As we considered earlier in the chapter, reading is a complex process. In order to understand and learn from what we are reading, and then apply it in our writing, it pays to read actively with a purpose in mind. Engaging with what we are reading can involve marking up (annotating) text and/or note­taking. Both involve us asking questions about what we are reading, selecting key information and ideas, and interpreting them.

Note-taking and annotating can help you:

✵focus your attention as you read

✵create a record of what you have read

✵link new information and ideas with what you previously knew

✵organise and develop your ideas

✵research and plan your assignments

✵revise for your exams.

You can, of course, take notes in many situations, whether reading a webpage, article or book, or viewing or listening to a lecture, a video, a radio broadcast, or some other audiovisual medium. In most cases, notes are for your own use. We all have our preferences about how we like to learn, so develop ways of note-taking that work well for you. Some suggestions are considered below.

General guidance on note-taking

Note-taking is, for most of us, a key part of academic reading and writing. I am keen on taking notes that are brief and focused. The best notes can be transformative, involving capturing aspects of the original material and shaping them into something of great value to you, the reader. Like reading itself, note-taking is often best done strategically to meet a purpose. Such a strategy involves:

✵Reminding yourself, ’What is my purpose in taking notes or annotating this document?’ ’What will this enable me to do?’

✵Answering such questions encourages you to take notes or annotate efficiently to meet your purpose, without wasting time recording unnecessary information.

✵Reading using a strategy such as SP3R, and taking notes and/or annotating to capture the key points to meet your purpose. Write your own comments, criticisms or queries about what you are reading.

✵Making your notes brief but sufficiently detailed that you will understand them when you return to them days or weeks later.

✵Finally, checking that your notes have achieved their purpose.

Taking notes in combination with annotating

Notes, of whatever form, tend to work best when they are visually appealing and have a clear logic. Consider combining annotating with note-taking. If the original material is your own copy, annotate it and then refer to the annotations in your notes, using a numbering or lettering system to refer between the two. Here are some suggestions:

-Systematically use CAPITAL LETTERS, underlining, highlighting and colour to draw attention to key words and phrases in your notes and annotations.

-Ask yourself questions about the new material, in particular relating it to what you previously knew.

-Notes and annotations are dynamic, subject to change.

- Include plenty of white space to make your notes more appealing and to provide opportunities for adding material later.

Your notes and annotations are precious resources. Well-written, they will allow you to return to quickly pick up the thread of what you were reading. Make a note of your purpose(s) and record the date of your reading, note-taking and annotating. This information will be invaluable when you return to the source material days or weeks later, perhaps with a different purpose in mind.

Forms of note-taking

Effective notes contain key words, short phrases, abbreviations and many visual elements, rather than sentences and paragraphs. Notes can be broadly classified into linear or patterned, or combinations of the two.

Linear notes are arranged down the page, from top to bottom. They contain phrases and summaries arranged at different levels such as:

✵headings and subheadings

✵with items listed in number (1, 2, 3 ...) or letter (a, b, c ...) order and bullet points.

Patterned notes are more visual and use space in a more fluid manner. Common types of patterned notes include:

•Mind maps (sometimes called brainstorms or spider diagrams). These show ideas branching out from a topic image, word or phrase in the centre of a landscape page. Part of a mind map is shown in Chapter 1, Section 1.3. The mind map concept was originally developed by Tony Buzan in the 1960s (Buzan, 2010) and seeks to engage with the mind holistically, encouraging imaginative and associative thinking (linking one idea with another). See Illumine Training’s Mind Mapping Site ( for examples of Buzan-style mind maps and how to create them.

•Concept maps (sometimes called tree hierarchies). These show ideas branching down from the top of the page in a more hierarchical manner, which can be like the arrangement in a family tree. A line between one idea and the next usually has a verb or phrase explaining the connection. Figure 5.1 shows a concept map in response to the question ’Why does the U.S. have a human space exploration program?’. Free software for creating your own concept maps is available from the University of West Florida’s Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (

•Flow diagrams (flow charts). These show items, usually contained within geometric shapes, linked by arrows in a sequence. Flow diagrams are particularly effective at depicting cyclic and step-by-step processes.

•Matrices. A matrix is a table in which items or themes are identified in the headings of rows and columns. Information is placed in the cells where columns and rows intersect. Matrices are particularly useful for summarising and comparing data or themes from different viewpoints or sources.

The Open University has useful webpages and activities on note-taking at www2. McMillan and Weyers (2012) give examples of different kinds of notes, with guidance on how to create them.

Patterned and linear notes are not mutually exclusive. You can often pick and choose flexibly between the two approaches, using them in combination, when note-taking for a particular purpose.

Note-taking to avoid plagiarism

Plagiarism is the act of taking the words and/or ideas of others, and not properly attributing those sources in your writing. To avoid plagiarism, you need to ensure that you keep full records of the sources from which you have gathered information, and properly cite and quote them in your writing. If you ever copy and paste material from a source, record the full reference details along with the relevant page number, and mark the copied text in some way (for example, by colour coding or enclosing in quotation marks) to show that these words are not your own. See Chapter 9 for detailed strategies for avoiding plagiarism.


Figure 5.1 A concept map drawn in response to the question ’Why does the U.S. have a human space exploration program?

Source: Adapted from Canas et al. (2012)

Thinking big using colour

Do you find organising your reading, note-taking and planning a struggle? Here is an approach some students find useful. Put your notes and ideas on coloured sticky notelets and arrange them on a large sheet of paper - brown parcel paper is cheap and convenient. Rather like the police investigator’s case summary displayed on a board, items can be moved about and notes added as ideas develop. You can use various coloured pens to classify your notes and ideas into themes by colour. Try using this ’big picture’ approach. Tearing yourself away from the computer keyboard can make organising your note-taking, thinking and planning more flexible, creative and enjoyable.

Key points in the chapter

1There are different kinds of reading, such as scanning, skimming and various forms of in-depth reading. Exactly how you read source material depends on its nature, your purpose, your preferences and your familiarity with the content.

2Reading is a complex skill, involving assimilation, recognition, inner-integration and extra­integration. Note-taking and/or annotating while you read can improve retention and recall.

3Reading for academic writing is, in most cases, best done purposefully. A purpose involves establishing the reasons for reading the material, and the likely benefits in doing so. To establish a purpose may involve surveying (scanning and/or skimming).

4Scanning entails reading at high speed to identify specific items.

5Skimming involves reading at speed to gain an overview of the structure and content of the written material. It confirms or establishes the purpose in reading. It also assists in determining a suitable reading strategy to meet the purpose.

6In-depth reading using the SP3R method involves surveying the material, setting a purpose, and then reading the material selectively three times to meet the purpose. This includes annotating and/or taking notes and then reviewing them together with the text to check whether the purpose has been met.

7An electronic or paper copy of the text (assuming it is your property) can be annotated with highlighting, underlining, brief notes, observations and questions.

8Annotating the text can be combined with note-taking. There are many different methods of note­taking, both linear and patterned, and they can be combined according to your purpose, your preferences and the nature of the material.

Cited references

Baron, N. (2016). ’Do Students Lose Depth in Digital Reading?’ The Conversation, 20 July 2016. Available from: [accessed 8 August 2017].

Buzan, T. (2010). The Speed Reading Book. Revised edn. Harlow: BBC Active.

Canas, A. J., Carff, R., and Marcon, M. (2012). ’Knowledge Model Viewers for the iPad and the Web.’ In A. J. Canas, J. D. Novak, and J. Vanhear eds., Concept Maps: Theory, Methodology, Technology - Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Concept Mapping. Malta: University of Malta. Available from: [accessed 8 August 2017].

Illumine Training. (2017). TheMindMappingSite. Windsor: Illumine. Available from: www.mind- [accessed 8 August 2017].

Institute for Human & Machine Cognition. (2017). CMAP. Florida: Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), University of West Florida. Available from: [accessed 8 August 2017].

Jabr, F. (2013). ’The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.’ Scientific American, 11 April 2013. Available from: paper-screens/ [accessed 8 August 2017].

McMillan, K. and Weyers, J. (2012). The Smarter Study Skills Companion. 3rd edn. Harlow: Pearson.

Murray, R. (2008). ’Writer’s Retreat: Reshaping Academic Writing Practices’. Educational Developments, 9(2), pp. 14-16. Available from: 4 1&pID=9.2[accessed

8 August 2017].

Rowntree, D. (1998). Learn How to Study: A Realistic Approach. London: TimeWarner.

Smith, F. (2004). Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. 6th edn. London: Routledge.

The Open University. (2013). Skills for OU Study: Note-taking Techniques. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Available from: [accessed 8 August 2017].

Further reading

Buzan, T. and Buzan, B. (2010). The Mind Map Book. Revised edn. Harlow: BBC Active.

Cottrell, S. (2017). Critical Thinking Skills. 3rd edn. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fairbairn, G. J. and Winch, C. (2011). Reading, Writing and Reasoning: A Guide for Students. 3rd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Answers for Chapter 5

Activity 5.2: Writing retreats

Depending on your purpose, you would read Murray’s (2008) article in different ways. If you had chosen (a), you would have discovered that the article emphasises the merits of writing retreats. If you had chosen (a) or (b), you would have noticed that the article does not consider the challenges or difficulties of running writing retreats. You would need to read more articles about writing retreats (including perhaps some selected from the reference list at the end of the article) to gain a more balanced view of the drawbacks as well as the benefits of writing retreats. Finally, had you chosen (c), you might only have needed to read parts of the article - those parts that concerned the operational parts of running a writing retreat. In choosing (c), this article alone is unlikely to provide all the information you need. Again, you would need to gather more information. You might even wish to contact the article’s author to find out more about how she currently organises writing retreats.