Taking Notes: Taking Notes on Reading Assignments

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

In many classes, the lecture is based on content from a book. For example, in a literature class, you need to read the novel or play or poem first so that you can follow along with the lecture. In a history class, you need to read the chapters about the end of the Cold War so that you can better understand and follow the lecture on this topic.

Instructors don’t always cover only the information from the book. Often, they add other facts because an instructor who simply lectures from the book makes for a pretty boring lecturer. The best lecturers bring in other concepts and show how concepts relate to other events or trends or ideas. They help you build connection and see relationships among the topic at hand and the world at large. That’s why it’s important that you take notes on lectures (as covered in the preceding sections).

In addition to lecture notes, you should also take notes on any reading assignments. Doing so will help you find and note the key ideas in the reading materials. Taking notes on a reading assignment ensures that you are really understanding the information rather than just skimming over it. Having these notes will come in handy when you need to prepare for a test or compose a paper.  The following sections give you tips on how to best take notes on your class reading assignments.

To Highlight or Not to Highlight?

You’ll find differing opinions on the usefulness of highlighting. It’s true that if you indiscriminately highlight entire passages (maybe even the whole book), the highlighting won’t help much when you go back to review the main concepts. Also some anti-highlighters say that highlighting makes for passive rather than active reading. This is similar to jotting down everything the instructor says but without making sense of it yourself.

Personally, I like to highlight (as do a lot of instructors and
students), but when highlighting, it does make sense to do so judiciously. Consider these guidelines for highlighting:

  • Focus on the main point — and that may not be the entire sentence. It’s perfectly okay to highlight only key terms or parts of sentences. In fact, you may get a better sense of the main idea of a paragraph if you highlight a string of words (excluding extraneous information) that lets you glean the main idea at a glance.
  • Consider reading the entire paragraph, and then going back and highlighting the important words and ideas. If you highlight from the start, you may not be sure of the paragraph’s purpose and how to best capture that purpose or idea with your highlighter.
  • Don’t make highlighting more complex than it needs to be. Some students use several color of highlighters to call attention to different types of information. This is overkill and is likely to add confusion (rather than clarity) when you do review this information. Also, this makes taking notes more time-consuming.
  • If you buy a used textbook or other reading material, look for one with little or no highlighting. It’s hard to ignore the previous owner’s highlighting.
  • In addition to highlighting, consider jotting notes in the margins, next to passages. This note-taking strategy is covered in detail in the following section.
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