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College Success Skills: Taking Notes/To-Do Lists

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Resources for Gathering & Noting Ideas


How To Take Notes

Note-taking techniques vary from person to person. Here are some of the most commonly used:

  • underline or use a highlighter (only in texts you own) to identify key passages and ideas
  • write in the margins your reactions to the material and how it relates to your assignment (only in texts that you own)
  • flag the location of important information using Post-it Notes
  • use online mechanisms for notating electronic documents (e.g., Evernote, Google Docs or an ebook reader)
  • record the exact location (e.g., page number, paragraph) of key ideas or passages in the reading material you have on hand, to help you locate this information when you need it, and to later include it in your bibliography
  • code your notes numerically or using different colours. For example, record a “1” beside ideas or passages you might use in your introduction, a “2” for information that relates to the first theme or argument in your paper.

Tips for using to-do lists effectively: 

  • Have Two Lists

Keep a master list of all the tasks you need to get done long term (assignments, important jobs etc) and a daily list for each day. The daily list will include several tasks that contribute to tasks on the master list (read a paper, collect a book from the library etc) as well as other things that are incidentals (go for a run, put out the bins etc).

  • Write your daily list at the end of the previous day

Writing a list can be a form of procrastination that stops you starting the actual work - so write your daily list at the end of the day before. This can be just after you stop work for the day or just before you go to sleep. Refer to your master list as you create your daily one to keep you on track. Include at least one task that sets you up for something to do the following day (finding papers to read is a good example).

  • Be specific 

Don't just put tasks like "Work on essay". Be really specific i.e. "Read and make notes on 5 papers", or "plan the points of each paragraph". This will make it much easier to start each task as you will not have to think about what you need to do.

  • Don't have more than 7 items on your daily list 

The more items you have, the less likely you are to complete them all. 7 seems to be the optimum number. Fewer items means you can concentrate on some tasks for longer so your concentration isn't broken. That isn't to say that you cannot have 5-10 minute breaks during these tasks though. It just means you can get into the flow and not worry about having lots of other tasks that are not getting done.

  • Prioritize the list 

If you are using on online tool, then you can easily reorder your list, but if you are using paper and pen then you may want to use highlighters to indicate priorities or just add a number alongside them to indicate the order in which you will tackle them.

- Give top priority to jobs you can do in 5 minutes or less. Just get them out of the way right from the off - this is both motivational and stops them being distractions later.

- Give next priority to the jobs where you need to really think - you are more alert earlier in the day. Ideally these should be jobs related to your most important task (MIT). This MIT is the job that would cause you the most trouble if you did not complete it - at university this is usually your next or most highly-weighted assignment.

- Give least priority to tasks that could, at a push, be done tomorrow. 

  • Have a 'done' list for each stage of bigger tasks

Large tasks on your master list are broken into smaller tasks for your daily list - so keep a record of which tasks are completed. This is very motivational as you can see what you have achieved not just what you still have to do.

  • Be realistic about your undone tasks

If any of your daily tasks are not completed, you have four choices:

  1. Move them onto tomorrow's list.
  2. Return them to your master list if there is no time tomorrow.
  3. Ditch them - perhaps they don't need doing after all.
  4. See if someone else can do them (not for your uni work!).

Making Sense of Your Notes

As you continue to work on your paper, shift from simply recording or identifying key ideas and information to organizing your research findings. This shift to organizing becomes a sort of “thinking on paper” and aids in developing the structure and main arguments of your paper.

You can think of organizing your notes as “taking notes on your notes.”

Some useful strategies include:

  • summarize the themes, ideas and/or arguments that you have noted
  • outline relationships and draw connections among authors, readings, ideas and concepts
  • synthesize material from different sources around themes, key ideas, etc., to help you develop your own interpretations or arguments
  • create comparison charts, diagrams or graphs to help you combine information from different sources in ways that will help you build the arguments for your paper
  • map or create a rough blueprint to help guide your writing process, perhaps by physically manipulating Post-it Notes or note cards

Try organizing your ideas in different ways. At this point it is not necessary to have a clear picture of the flow of your final paper. This is a good opportunity to experiment.

How to Take Notes in Class

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