One of the toughest study skills to develop at any point of your education -- whether it’s high school, college, or in grad school -- is effective note taking. And the students I tutor in history in New York City rarely realize off the bat that different subjects require different note taking methods.
So the following is a rubric that I ask all my tutoring students to follow for their work in history, art history, religion, philosophy, or any type of text with an overarching theory. The beauty of this sort of outline is that you can set up a blank copy in a word processor and have one ready for every new text you need to attack!
What is the author’s main argument? In a well-organized book, you will always be able to find this in the introduction. Look for key words introducing paragraphs like “I hope to…” or “This book aims at…”
Again, look to the introduction. These are the questions the author is trying to answer within the body of his text. Surprisingly often, these will even be posed in question form and stick out very clearly!
Find it in the introduction or first chapter, typically. By thinking about this, you should be able to tell where the author sees his work falling within an established field. Who were his influences? Where does he see the field turning in the future? These are critical questions for engaging with a text critically!
If you’re noticing a pattern here – this valuable information should be in the introduction. Is the author producing an ethnography or a methodology? Is it a work of theory or a different sort of synthesis of collected data? In any case, the author should explain early on how he went about producing the information presented in the text, and it’s a key concept to keep in mind.
Here’s the easy part – this can be as detailed or as quick as you’d like, whatever is going to help you the most with the text. I typically divide my summaries by chapter and hit a few key points and quotes. Just the main ideas to help stir a class discussion or to write a paper.
Clearly, it’s crucial to pay close attention to introductions! While the body chapters will fill in gaps in your knowledge, remember that the intro is where the author explains his project and essentially lets you know everything he’s thinking.