How to Take Notes

CBS Library's writing consultant Thomas Basbøll gives study advice in a series of 5 short articles.


Student taking notes

There are lots of reasons to read, but university students have at least two central ones. The first is to learn about the world, how it works, and what the facts are. The second is to become familiar with “the literature”, who has written it, and when they wrote it. It can be useful to let your notes reflect these different aims.

That is, some of your notes should keep track of your knowledge gains. They should tell you what you have learned about a particular kind of organizational structure, or management routine, or accounting practice, or marketing strategy. You should have a set of notes that is continually updated with your understanding of “the truth” on various subjects.

You should include references to the texts that you can cite in support of your beliefs. After all, part of knowing that something is the case is knowing where you got that understanding from. But these notes are not “about” the texts you have read, they are about the world. They are a way of keeping track of what you know -- what justified, true beliefs you hold.

Some of your notes, on the other hand, should summarize the texts you have read, regardless of what you’ve learned from them. You should have these notes even for texts that you disagree with, i.e., texts that have not persuaded you to see the world in a particular way. These are texts that you are obligated to be aware of, ideas you are required to acknowledge as a knowledgeable person in your area of expertise. These notes will be your basis for engaging with them critically, and will, of course, help you prepare for your exams.

I’m not going to say anything definitive about how to organize your notes page for page. But I will suggest that you keep separate notebooks for your learning (organized by topic) and your reading (organized by text). Most students will do this electronically, using some sort of file system and that’s advisable because it allows for easy searching. In fact, software like Nvivo and Mendeley can help you organize your notes. We offer regular courses in them at the Library.

Other articles in the series

The page was last edited by: CBS Library // 11/20/2019