It’s time to rethink your note-taking strategy

academics reading comprehension study skills

During your time in school, you may have encountered the following scenario. After a long day of in-class learning, you have to muster the energy to complete homework assignments. With darkness falling, you have to prioritize these assignments, beginning with the most pressing. Once you’ve gotten through that punishing problem set and polished your English essay to perfection, you come to the realization that you still have a mound of reading for your history class. Fatigued, you turn to the text and—perhaps resisting the urge to daydream—start reading dense passages about American foreign policy. As you do so, you wield your highlighter or pen, quickly transforming a drab, monochromatic page into an array of colors or marks. 

If this experience is familiar, then the following scenario might be as well. A month after reading the text, you sit down to prepare for a big history test or paper. You take out and scan your notebook. Key concepts, such as the Dawes Plan, and trends, like the causes of the drift toward the Second World War, seem muddled or entirely absent. You then pick up your textbook, turn to the relevant passage or chapter, and realize that you are unable to recall the information there and find the colorful or jagged streaks of frustratingly little help. By now perhaps panicked, you begin re-reading the chapter, eating up precious studying or writing time as you do so. 

These vignettes of hypothetical study or writing sessions demonstrate the pitfalls of approaching texts—historical or otherwise—with overzealous highlighters or pens. In these scenarios, the effortless glide of the highlighter or pen becomes a substitute for the more difficult work of synthesizing and interpreting the facts and arguments of the text. The text becomes a scholastic prop instead of a powerful study aid.

If approached purposefully, however, reading becomes a useful tool for learning that reinforces and expands on classwork and lectures. Authors have already done much of the hard work for you. They have read many sources, identified and interpreted important ideas and trends within, and condensed the material into text. Think of texts as silent teachers. As you read, pose questions and note concepts or passages that are confusing. Above all, try to summarize and integrate the information and arguments presented in the text into your preexisting subject knowledge and within the framework of the course.

There are a number of tips—many covered in Cambridge Coaching’s blog—for how to record and later recall such information. One method, however, that you might like to try involves refraining from underlining or highlighting altogether. Instead, take notes and jot down or type up questions and essential concepts in a notebook or on a computer. Once finished reading, succinctly define these concepts and write or type a brief summary of the arguments advanced in the sections or chapters. Keep your notes organized in a binder or in well-ordered computer files. Then, the next time you’re preparing to take a test or write a term paper, you can quickly and efficiently access targeted information vital to the assignment at hand.

In the end, though, learning is a highly individualized practice. If in-text highlighting or underlining helps you retain information and improves your comprehension, then by all means continue doing so! However, if you find yourself struggling to amass and manage information in preparation for tests or papers, you may consider incorporating the methods described here into your repertoire. It may make studying and writing much easier. It may even boost your grades.


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