Note-taking strategies for graduate students


Everyone has heard the phrase “there’s a method to my madness.” It sort of conjures up people like the executive at the TV network I used to work at whose dark burrow-like office was literally filled with books and papers–there was not a surface in that room that was not piled high with folders, pieces of mail, copies of god-knows-what, and general detritus of all descriptions. (Though I will say that I don’t know if even he would say, “Oh, I know where everything is in here.” If he did, he would have to be lying.)

However, ever since I returned to graduate school (not to mention the whole move across the country, which necessitated shedding a lot of belongings so as to not have to pay the movers to haul crap that I wouldn’t really need), I’ve had to really pare down the amount of stuff that I hang on to, so that’s required that I carefully think through how I take notes in class and as I work through papers and such.

So I thought I’d discuss my strategies for note-taking–also partially because one of my colleagues asked me what it is that I do to keep my ducks in a row.

There are three main areas that I’ll cover here:

  1. Electronic and hard copies of texts
  2. Note taking while reading
  3. Note taking in class

Electronic and hard copies of texts
Despite my reliance on 21st century technology (I would be adrift in a sea of confusion without my iPhone), I find that I simply cannot absorb texts sufficiently if they aren’t printed on paper. At the same time, I rely on electronic copies of texts for quick reference, particularly when writing. It’s a lot easier to hit Command-F and search for a particular phrase than it is to page through a book or a forty-page printout. This has been easy enough so far; most of my professors issue our required readings as PDFs, which I print as needed (I will admit that I store these in a file cabinet, though I will likely discontinue that habit, as one term has nearly filled an entire drawer). I store the files in class-specific folders on Dropbox as backups (this also allows me to access them from any Internet-enabled computer), but I also store the files in Evernote–I have a class notebook “stack,” with one notebook per course. Happily, because I use Evernote Premium, the software converts the files to a searchable form, which is great.

Physical books are a little more challenging. While they easily satisfy my need for a paper copy to read from, they aren’t as easily searchable unless you can obtain an eBook copy, either from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a library source. Unfortunately that can create extra expense, which is not a good thing when you’re a cash-starved grad student. There are a couple of options, though–the best, if you have access to it, is to use a book scan station (the University of Oregon libraries own several, and they are GREAT) to create a searchable PDF of pertinent sections for yourself. Failing that, there are services online (such as Blue Leaf Book Scanning1 that will scan books for you via return mail service. If neither of those methods are an option, and you aren’t willing or able to scan pages for yourself using a flatbed scanner, the next best thing is to use the note taking technique I explain below.

Note taking while reading
If you’ve ever taken a learning styles inventory (and if you haven’t, I would suggest you do–it’s pretty enlightening), you’re probably aware that there are a variety of different ways in which people best learn. As it turns out, I’m primarily a “reading/writing” learner–I learn best when I can read a text, reflect on it, and write notes to myself about it. So, as I’m reading a text for a class, this is what I do:

  1. Read the text (or heavily skim, if it’s particularly long and time is an issue) and highlight key passages; I might also use adhesive flags to mark particularly important pages that I want to return to later.
  2. Create a new page in a dedicated notebook (I use simple spiral-bound one-subject notebooks that I get at Walmart or wherever, but you could use a multi-subject notebook if you wanted to use one notebook per term) for each reading–obviously you can use more than one page per reading should you need to; oftentimes my notes on a 40-page reading will run 2 or 3 pages long, depending. As you flip back through your highlighted text, and make notes on the pertinent parts of the reading, including parentheticals to record page numbers. You’ll use these notes later when you need to refer to the reading in class. Here’s the key: Don’t just write notes. Mark these notes up as you make them. I keep a black pen, a highlighter and a colored pen on hand; as I make my notes, I will…
    • …underline, in color, direct quotes from the reading
    • …circle or box, in color, little notes to myself (things like “Important!” or “Study idea?”)
    • …highlight questions/comments/concerns/ideas to bring up in class for further discussion
  3. Bring this notebook with you to class, as well as the original text–and you’ll be ready and able to discuss the readings confidently!
Reading notes
An example of the notes I took while reading.
Admittedly, this does only produce a paper version of your notes, but if you’re hell-bent on getting an electronic version, it’s easy enough to scan your few pages of notes after you’ve made them. That’s a lot easier–not to mention time-sensitive–than trying to scan an entire notebook at the end of a course.


Note taking in class
I will confess that this portion of my method is perhaps the most technologically intensive, and a little on the expensive side, so I’ll present an alternate method that will work just fine for most people.

I use a Livescribe pen (specifically the Echo, though I am now lusting over the new Sky model) to take notes in class almost every day; I have a dedicated notebook for each term, and I collect all notes for all classes in the same notebook. The Livescribe pen does several things–it allows you to write your notes down on paper, obviously, but it also records the audio of the lecture as it occurs, and it digitally records your handwriting (though this requires the use of special notebooks, which do cost a bit more than regular notebooks, though they do come in multi-packs).

When you connect your pen to your computer, the (somewhat buggy) Livescribe Desktop software will pull your notes and the accompanying audio off of your pen; you can output your notes to a variety of channels (e.g., Evernote), and you can also produce “pencast” PDFs which amazingly combine audio with the written word–when you play these back, you can actually see the notes being written on the page as you listen to the recorded lecture.

There is also a plug-in for the Livescribe software that will attempt to translate your handwriting into text. I’ve found that it’s moderately successful at doing so, but I have pretty good handwriting–however, when diagrams are involved, or anything even more complex than just plain rows of text, it can be a bit dodgy. But it’s an imperfect and improving technology that can only get better, right?

If you aren’t in a position to shell out several hundred bucks for this stuff (and I can completely understand if that’s the case), then you can always accomplish much of the same by simply using a regular notebook and an audio recorder in class and scanning pages after you’re done. If you prefer typing your notes on a laptop or using an iPad–that’s not typically my preference unless there’s some sort of extenuating circumstance–then try using Evernote’s recording capabilities or an app like Record Lectures2 if you’re using a Mac.

Hopefully these strategies will prove useful! Next time I’ll talk a little bit more about my organizational techniques for pretty much everything else academic. Stay tuned…

  1. I have not utilized this service myself; it is merely the first one that a Google search revealed.
  2. Again, I have no direct experience with this app–it’s just one of several I found from searching the App Store.

3 thoughts on “Note-taking strategies for graduate students”

  1. Hi Ryan. I have to say that you have a very nice and kind way of write. I had been reading your article because I found it helpful. However, I’m searching for other kind of note-taking.

    In the TOEFL there are definition essay tasks and one way of be sucessful in it is with the strategy of taking notes. It is more like a out-line: Theme and sub-themes. I have been learning a lot about this taking note, but it is a little difficult to name the sub-themes for me. If you have any suggestion, I will appreciate it!

    Your welcom!

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