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Taking Notes For The Research Paper

When students write essays requiring research, in the age of Wikipedia and other online resources, I worry a little, not so much about the quality of the sources themselves (that has always varied, even in the day of hardcopy sources), but about the quality or outright dearth of note taking that often accompanies the writing of research papers.

When I was a student, I was taught to take notes when researching by summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting on note cards. Although this process was often tiresome and time-consuming, it did force me to read and, hopefully, process the information that would eventually end up in my essay.

I think maybe that phase in writing in which students allot time to actually take notes on their sources—to, in a sense, “process” and internalize their research—is being lost as students increasingly access their sources from online sites and “cut and paste” together the first draft of their essay.



Now, I’m not advocating a return to taking notes on note cards—a practice I began to abandon even before I was finished with my graduate studies years ago. Although I think it is a form of note taking that still may work for some, the ease with which students can take notes on their computers means that the 3 x 5 note card may well be on its way out as a research method.

What I am advocating, however, is that we as writing instructors (and I don’t only mean English teachers!) talk much more explicitly about the importance of note taking (or, as some texts now call it, “information gathering”) in the writing process. I think this is important because so many students skip this phase and try to write an essay without having completed the research they need to produce a substantive and thoughtful essay. We’ve all read these kinds of essays—slapdash, lacking in depth or analysis, a patch quilt of different sources that don’t go anywhere.

Teaching note taking skills
Here’s how I address the issue with my students. In some of my early assignments, I apportion a whole class or part of a class to simply having students take notes on their sources, which I ask them to bring to class. Of course, you might, as I do, have Internet access in your classroom, but it’s better if you ask the students to print out one or two of their sources beforehand. I recommend letting students take notes for maybe a half hour or forty-five minutes at a stretch. Then, five or ten minutes before the end of class, talk to students about what they have just done.

We need to remember that at least some of these students are now, as freshmen, just discovering how to take notes on sources. Talking about note taking and even devoting class time to practicing this important skill is every bit as important as all the other skills students need to write a college-level essay. Although many writing texts now have sections describing the various ways students can take notes on sources, how many of us are actually teaching or modeling these techniques to students, as opposed to assuming that they are already employing them?

Matt Birkenhauer teaches English at Northern Kentucky University.

Posted in Teaching and Learning
Tagged with benefit of note taking, improving student research skills, improving student writing skills, improving writing assignments, note taking benefits, note taking skills, teaching undergraduate research

SUMMARY:

  • Taking notes is a key part of the research process because it helps you learn, and allows you to see your information in a useful visual way.

LINKS:

Once you’ve gotten a group of high-class sources, the next thing to do is go through them in detail. When reading through your sources, it’s important to be taking notes. Not only does the note-taking process help you learn the information, the notes themselves are an important visual aid in your paper-writing process.

There are as many ways to take notes as there are people. Everyone has a slightly different method. Some prefer to type notes on a computer, some choose to use notecards, and others like a good ‘ol pen and paper. The specific tool you use to take your notes isn’t as important as the notes themselves. Choose the method that’s the most comfortable for you.

Here are the things that all good notes systems will allow you to have:

  • Information about the source so you can find it again – You’ll want to write down the author, title, date published, publisher, and URL (if it’s a website).
  • A way to group notes – You’ll want to be able to organize your notes in a visual way so you can arrange them in an order that makes sense.
  • Spaces for you to write down quotes (direct text straight from the source), comments (your thoughts and questions), and paraphrasing (information from the text in your own words).

When taking notes, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Skim your entire source before you read it in detail. Skimming will help you understand how the document is laid out and what the main ideas are.
  • Search for the subject headings in the material you’re reading and write them in your notes. They’ll help you find relevant information faster, and they’ll provide you with reference points when you review your notes later.
  • Write down every fact or note that may be of use to you in your paper. Don’t write down things you already know or would never include in your finished work.
  • Break down the text into small groups of paragraphs. Read each group one-by-one, taking notes between groups. Breaking up the text into smaller, bite-sized pieces will help you process the information.
  • Don’t write down information from the text word-for-word. This takes too much time and prevents you from using your higher brain functions to filter out and process important information.
  • If a source is too dense or has too many dates, don’t feel like you need to write every bit of information down. Make a note of where the dense parts are and move on.

In the following sections, we’ll cover some specific note-taking tools. Remember to choose the one that matches your style the best.

 

1) Using notecards

SUMMARY:

  • Using notecards is a great way to arrange research information visually.
  • Have a “bibliography card” for each source.
  • Have notecards for every major idea that the source discusses.

LINKS:

Notecard methods:

Within the method of using notecards, there are many different formats to take notes. Again, the keys are to have a system that 1. works for you, and 2. includes all of the information you need.

Here’s a note-taking system that we like:

  1. Create a bibliography notecard for each source you use. It will serve as the “title notecard” for each stack of notecards dedicated to a particular source. On the bibliography notecard, you’ll want to include every piece of information you’ll need to cite your source. Here’s an example of a great title notecard for a book:
  2. Using the general principles of note-taking outlined in the earlier section, write note cards (one for each main idea) with bullet points. Here’s an example:

 

2) The Cornell note-taking method

SUMMARY:

  • The Cornell note-taking method is a great way to manage notes for a lecture or any type of source.
  • The Cornell system helps you commit information to memory.

LINKS:

The Cornell note-taking method can be applied to taking notes for research. The method helps you retain information.

The Cornell system is done on regular notebook paper that’s divided up into four sections:

Here’s an example of a notebook page:

 

3) Other note-taking tools

SUMMARY:

  • There are a variety of electronic note-taking tools out there.
  • If you like taking notes electronically, check out some of these tools.

LINKS:

ToolDescription
EvernoteMulti-platform (computer, mobile, and web) note taker for to-do lists, image archiving, and more.
SpringpadMulti-platform note taker for the busy person to edit, tag, and view notes.
Microsoft OneNoteSoftware with ability to create organized to-do lists, tag notes, bring in images; works well with Windows
SpringnoteCloud tool where you can generate text documents and share them with people.

 

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