Student zone: Take note(s)… a skilful art!

People climbing books. isolated on white background. Vector illustration. Eps 10

What is at the root of academic success.

As a lecturer in Social Work at Sunderland University I get to talk to, listen to, and observe students going about their business. I watch them in my lectures writing copious notes generally thinking, ‘my goodness! Don’t write down and rely on anything I say!’ Self deprecating humour is my go to place! Such things lead me to consider note taking and academic success. I myself often take notes and having read the wonderful book ‘How to Take Smart Notes’ by Sonke Ahrens, I realise there’s more to it than meets the eye. My musings here are largely from or driven by that book. Here are some things to consider.

IQ does not drive academic success – what drives academic success is what you do day in day out

In order to learn you must strategise your learning – it’s not something that happens by chance. What leads to success is how you go about your everyday work and what you do day in day out will affect the quality of your assignments, rather than just what you do when you’re writing the assignment.

Success depends on the environment you create externally and internally

Where you work and how you work – and how you feel about work – will dictate the quality of the work. There’s a well researched phenomena which goes that if you work in a cluttered environment you will think in a ‘cluttered’, messy, way. This applies not only to your desk but also to where you store your files, how you structure your folders on your computer, and generally how you go about storing all manner of things that you need to support your success. Your internal environment is also important. How you feel on the inside. Do you feel alert or tired, sluggish or enthusiastic? Have you set an effective approach goal? Approach goals are about setting positive thoughts in motion. Students who set avoidance goals – ‘I just don’t want to fail’ – rather than positive approach goals – ‘I want to do my best’ – actually do worse in assignments research has shown as a consequence of this avoidance thinking. Positive mental attitude isn’t a silver bullet but it sets out a pathway.

Learning is cumulative and connected

When we’re taking notes and reading books and generally going about our business of studying we need to connect our ideas in some sort of system so that we can see what links to what because, as you may have noticed, ideas are connected and build on each other. Theory influences practice, practice helps us consider methods, methods are influenced by theory – and so it goes. If you watch University Challenge you’ll spot that sometimes they know the answer but often they don’t but they work it out from other things they know.

Insight only comes from exposing yourself to volume of material

I often say at induction events and during lectures that those who do the best are those that read the most. You have to expose yourself to a range of ideas and often to the same idea in different places until you hit a light bulb moment. You have to put the graft in. If you wanted to grow bigger biceps you couldn’t get someone else to go to the gym for you and do barbell curls you’d have to go to the gym yourself and you’d have to go more than once!


When it comes to taking notes there are two key places to consider

In Lectures

When Reading

In Lectures

Firstly, we can’t multitask effectively. If you are trying to write everything down then you risk missing what’s been said. Whatever you do in class or when watching a video lecture be in that moment – phone away and on silent, distractions eliminated. Don’t try to capture everything – capture only the key points. Use bullet points and short phrases to signpost yourself to further reading.

Note down things you didn’t understand (ask questions in class if you can) and then follow up with reading the things you found difficult – you will find things difficult that’s fine!

Do these things:

  • Arrive in time to be settled
  • Title and date your notes
  • Be ready to focus completely – set a positive attitude – a positive approach goal
  • Develop abbreviations for yourself that you always use to speed things up when note taking
  • Highlight, underline, and capitalise to add emphasis to key points etc. I use arrows to connect points a lot
  • Use headings and sub headings. Have one point per line and leave gaps to add things in

Then, crucially, return to your notes    

The important thing to do is to go back to them as soon after class as possible and review and re-write them adding in other things you remember and then using the guided reading (where there is some),or relevant texts you find yourself, to embellish and enhance what you have noted down. You should undertake this review within 24 hours – sooner if you can. So plan this time into your calendar. This cements learning. Repetition is everything.

Review your notes periodically. When you type up the next notes look through all of the previous notes – this establishes those connections – write the connections down!

When Reading

Read with pen in hand and note or underline (not on the library books obs! Maybe use post-it notes). Once you’ve done this you must do something with these notes and underlines

Be aware that reading is a skill. Different texts require different approaches, some take longer to read, some can be scanned through, and when reading some you need to go off and look things up that you don’t understand. This is completely normal. Don’t panic.

Write up your notes and underlines
Your on-going understanding is reliant on external scaffolding. If you want to really understand something turn it into your own words. Just copying down quotes can risk stripping them of their context and therefore their meaning (and can risk plagiarism). Always write down the outcome of your thinking. This is about having a meaningful personal dialogue with the text.

Writing down is not a record of your thinking it is your thinking
“I’m never sure what I think until I see what I write” Carol Loomis (American Journalist)

Take notes…. consolidate notes…. read your notes… connect your notes…. tell it to yourself (I do this when I’m walking the dog! In my head not out loud!)

Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing. To be good at writing you don’t just write when you have an assignment to do – you need to practice writing, and you can do that when sorting out your notes into a meaningful system!

Stephen is a Lecturer in Social Work at University of Sunderland. He’s a bit obsessed with self-care, well-being and productivity and writes about those things on here in the productivity section and on our sister site Self Care Shorts

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