Resources for teaching notetaking at the graduate level

I’ve been looking at ways to help graduate students cope with reading and taking notes as they deal with more, and more complex and subtle, material.  As a librarian working with graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, I deal with them as they make the transition into graduate studies.  In general, we warn them that more will be expected of them – more reading, more originality in their research, more independence – and leave them to figure it out on their own.  Professors give them guidelines for research assignments, they take research methods classes, and professors and/or librarians may tell or show them how to perform more sophisticated literature reviews.

But then what?

I recently gave a ten-minute session on active reading for graduate students during “Grad School 101,”  a four-hour session on aspects of being a grad student that aren’t discussed in class.  I will be giving a longer session on reading and note taking in a couple weeks.  I focused on reading and note taking because of two comments I heard from academics who work closely with grad students.  One said she thought we need to put more emphasis on developing advanced reading skills than on writing skills; another said he is struck by how unprepared graduate students are to cope with the amount of reading expected of them.

We’ve dealt in this blog with note taking software, but only touched on the process of taking notes.  Because it is such a highly personal process, I have always sidestepped this, but someone needs to help students figure out how their note taking should evolve as they move through academia.

I have found four resources particularly useful to me in formulating guidance for students on reading and notetaking:

  • How to Read  a Book (revised editions, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Dorn, 1972)
  • Effective Notetaking (Fiona McPherson, Wayz Press, 2nd edition, 2007)
  • Effective Note Taking for University Coursework (Ruth Ford, Jagged Edge Press, 2012)
  • How to Read for Grad School,” Miriam Sweeney on the weblog  feminist research in critical information studies, posted on June 20, 2012.

I first looked at the classic How to Read a Book, which lays out such an excellent how to readframework that is still in print, though it dates from 1972.  Adler and Van Doren suggest using the road map of the author’s structure (table of contents, section heads, index, introduction and so on).  They go on to discuss levels of reading including understanding the work as a whole, understanding the argument, filling in the details, and making connections to other, related works.  Anyone who wants a broad education and expects to have an enduring interest in reading should probably get a copy, because Adler and Van Doren explain how to read different types of books, from pleasurable fiction to the most difficult nonfiction, and to derive maximum value from each reading experience.

Miriam Sweeney has posted a short, focused bit of advice for graduate students as “How to Read for Grad School,” using the term “strategic reading” to emphasize the need to understand one’s goals before undertaking any reading.  While I can’t agree that a single read through will always be adequate, she’s correct that students need to prepare for reading by establishing what their purpose is; not read straight from beginning to end; not focus equally on everything in the work, and bring critical perspectives to bear on the material.

In Effective Note Taking for University Coursework, Ruth Ford addresses taking notes from both lectures and written works. The work (a Kindle book) is short and practical. Ford also emphasizes the role of preparation and establishing goals in note taking.  Students need to think ahead about the work in relation to other material, including lectures and discussion.  They have to establish what they need to gain from reading a work and how they will use the notes they take and the knowledge they hope to acquire. To solidify learning, once they have read and made notes, they should review their notes, make sure they understand the notes, find gaps and, once again, relate what they have just read to other material.

This kind of active note-taking helps develop analytic, information processing, reflective, and writing skills.  It is more time consuming, but more effective, than simply opening a book and starting to read in the expectation of being enlightened.

Ford identifies four methods of taking notes as well as a number of purposes for note taking (to understand, remember, focus, identify key areas for study, etc.).  Of the four ways to Cornell note4take notes, two are variations on lists, one more hierarchically organized than the other.  The third is using mapping techniques.  The fourth, the Cornell method, was new to me.  In addition to a main note taking area on a page, one creates an separate area each for  comments and questions on the notes and a summary – active processing of the notes.

All in all, this was a cheap and practical guide, with the limitation that it apparently exists only in Kindle format.

I’ve saved the heavyweight for last.  Those who want theory with application should pick up Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson.  McPherson’s more complex work  draws on the literature on memory.  She looks as note taking as part of cognition, covering different ways of taking notes as well as how to choose when to use which strategy.

effective notetakingMcPherson categorizes note taking methods by the degree to which they help you assimilate the material.  Foundational techniques allow you to select key material: highlighting (useful only if used sparingly), writing your own headings through the text, and making factual summaries.  Graphic organizers represent a different level of learning, since the reader re-organizes the material as well as summarizing it.  Visual imagery may help integrate the material more deeply.

Concept maps require you to fit new information explicitly into your existing framework of knowledge and to specify relationships.  McPherson notes that concepts maps are difficult and frustrating to build because they typically require much iteration to achieve a satisfactory result.  However, they can be extremely useful tools, especially with ideas that will be elaborated over time (such as thesis and dissertation proposals).

McPherson’s sixteen pages on concept maps are what I will assign as background reading from now on.  She walks her readers through developing a map for a passage she has used as an exercise throughout the book; she shows the steps in developing a concept map using complex examples; and she addresses some of the difficulties that typically arise.

Toward the end of the book, McPherson offers tables to assist in matching different types of note taking with different conditions or situations.  However, there’s a separate table for each factor, and my head was spinning when I tried to put all the factors together and come up with a choice (let’s see, the task is organizations, the text difficulty level is complex, the text structure, is comparison, my goal is comprehension, my personal style is wholist-verbalizer – but should I pick the method that’s comfortable for me, or the one that would be comfortable for someone of the opposite style and which would compensate for the weaknesses of my style?).

I learned a lot from McPherson, and there is much in here that I can use.  Using example texts was a great way to illustrate different methods of note taking.  However, the intended audience isn’t clear to me.  The most likely audience seems to be educators.  Most students wanting to learn how to take notes more effectively won’t want to plow through 230 pages of material that is often fascinating but may turn out not to be very useful;  McPherson describes a series of methods in detail and then reviews the literature on each, and in some cases I concluded the evidence on results didn’t make it sound worth the trouble.  Very few people are likely to learn fifteen techniques and run through an analytic framework for every work they read.  However, it was a most valuable reference book for me, and I do recommend it for anyone who is interested in helping students process knowledge more effectively.

I hope to teach a course on reading and note taking for graduate students in about two weeks.  At the moment, I’m stymied by laryngitis.  A neighbor said it took her two weeks to get rid of it so I hope I’ll be safe in scheduling for two weeks from now!





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