Most EAP courses include something about note-taking. It’s an
area I’m always a bit unsure about how to teach … Is it better to teach a
specific note-taking technique? To get students to experiment with a few? Or
just to stick to explaining general principles and let them find their own
Recently, I’ve found myself on the other side of the
classroom as I’ve started studying for a part-time MA. It’s given me lots of
food for thought from a student’s perspective and the opportunity to play
around with different approaches to studying, including notetaking.
I should probably start off by admitting that my note-taking
in lectures has been minimal to non-existent. All my lecturers use PowerPoint
presentations, the slides are available online and often as a printed handout
as well and there’s generally another handout and a reading list to take away too.
So beyond the odd scribble on a handout, I haven’t really felt the need to take
notes. I’m just making sure I file all the handouts for future reference.
When it comes to reading though, I’m very aware of the need
to take notes, especially when you’re reading to write. I’ve always banged on
to my students about the importance of note-taking when you read to keep a
record of ideas that you might want to use with all the relevant reference
information so you don’t waste ages trying to track something down again later.
I also stress how useful note-taking can be in transforming the ideas you’ve read
into your own voice and incorporating them into your train of thought that will
then, hopefully, help you slot them seamlessly into your writing. I know that so many of
my students slip into plagiarism or patch-writing just because they’re writing their essay with
the source text open in front of them and it’s all too easy just to copy the
words across. If you process the information as you read and translate it into
notes, then half the job of linking ideas together and weaving them into your
own argument has been done already.
But what’s the best format for doing that? Well, I’ve had
two sets of assignments to complete so far, two pieces of coursework mid-term
and two more over the Christmas break and I approached each using a different
Pros: I was doing some of my reading on the train to and
from university (an hour each way, twice a week and I found, one of my best
times for reading), some I was doing at home and occasionally, I did a bit in
the library too. This meant that being able to make notes either on my tablet
or on my desktop and having them automatically synced was really useful. Plus
the notes are all neatly filed and easy to refer back to in future.
Cons: There’s lots of flicking about between windows, both
if you’re reading and making notes on the same device and when you’re using
notes to write from. Although during writing, I got round this by having my
notes open on my tablet while writing on my desktop. I also found it quite
difficult to get on overview of key ideas when faced with lots of screens of similar-looking,
small, black text. I could probably experiment with different fonts and
colours, but that’s fiddly when you’re making notes on a tablet.
My second set of assignments were during the Christmas
break, so I was working almost entirely at home. And with a longer essay which
involved a review of the literature in a particular area, I took a different
approach. As I was reading (quite a bit from books this time), I noted down
key points that might be relevant on post-it notes and stuck them on the page
as I went along (including those all-important page numbers!).
Then when I’d done a big chunk of reading, I used my wardrobe
doors to arrange the notes into themes and to order them.
Pros: It was fun! I still find it much more natural to write
notes by hand than using my fiddly tablet keyboard and rearranging the notes so
I could see the shape of the essay emerging was a really nice way to organize
my ideas; moving things about, spotting gaps, doing a bit more reading, adding
more notes, taking stuff off that wasn’t really relevant. I was almost tempted
to stop at that point and just submit a photo of my notes! But actually it did
help the writing process too, getting up to look at the notes, taking one off
to include it, then sticking it back up, checking that I hadn’t missed any key
Cons: It only worked because I was at home for the whole
process, it wouldn’t have been practical if I’d been trying to read and collect
post-its on the train. And I realized as I took them down that they won’t be
very practical to store for future reference, so at some point, I’ll probably
sit down and type them up into Evernote anyway!
So what are my conclusions … well, first and foremost, I’d say that
experimenting is definitely good, it helps you work out what approach works best for you. If I were teaching EAP classes again in the
future, I’d definitely get students to try out different techniques and to make
submitting their notes part of some writing tasks … and not just as a boring
page of bullets points either!
Labels: EAP, Evernote, note-taking, Post-its, study skills