How to Be a Successful Adult Student - Taking Notes While Reading
By John Steely
An adult student needs to be able to read a paper or a chapter and understand the material on their own, outside of the classroom. One of the best ways to make sure that this happens effectively is to take notes while reading, writing down the ideas and thoughts inspired by what is being read.
Most students are taught to highlight while reading. This can be somewhat useful, but simply highlighting does little to improve the understanding of what is being read. Highlighting is an effective method of finding a passage later, as is underlining and even making comments in the margin. However, none of these are as effective as taking notes.
The Purpose of Taking Notes While Reading
The reason the student is reading something is, usually, to gain an understanding of something that was previously not understood, or at least to improve the existing understanding of the material. Often, the reading assigned to an adult student is more condense and full of information than reading done in grade school. Thus, the reading can be more difficult.
The purpose of taking notes while reading is two-fold. On the one hand, the student is trying to understand what is being said, and to incorporate that understanding in a larger picture of the course or goal of the reading. This purpose means that the student must understand not just the content but also the structure of what is being read. By taking notes while reading, this structure can often become clearer, more easily understood. On the other hand, the student does not want to read the material more than is necessary; after all, the student is working within a time frame that can sometimes put constraints on the amount of time spent in the reading. Being forced to read the material more times than is necessary can be a waste of time. This does not mean that the student will read the material only once; in many cases, multiple readings are needed. But readings should not be wasted. By taking notes, the material can be understood faster and more effectively.
How to Take Reading Notes
Unlike the classroom, the student has the opportunity to read the material more than once. This fact means that the method of taking notes can be more deliberate; the student can take the time needed to create a set of structured notes, rather than using a method of note-taking that minimizes time. For this reason, probably the best method of taking notes while reading is to use an outline. By creating an outline, the structure of the material can be more easily understood.
The outline should be constructed as a sequence of layers, rather than trying to get the entire outline done with one pass. The first layer should be based on the structure of the reading; if section headers are provided, these can provide a readily available initial structure. Within each section, the first thing to determine is the purpose of the section. Is this section putting forth an argument? Is it explaining an idea? Providing an example? Once the purpose is determined, this should be written under the section heading.
After the section's purpose is determined, the reader then needs to put in the details. I have found that doing this twice and comparing the results creates the most effective notes. Read the section through, creating an outline based on the reading. After the section is done, the student usually has a better understanding of what that section of reading is doing. Then reading the section a second time, creating a fresh outline can provide a fuller understanding. Whether this second reading is done immediately after the first is entirely up to the student. With particularly difficult sections, taking a break between the readings can provide a fuller perspective on the reading, creating a better outline.
Once the outline is created, it should be reviewed for completeness. Is anything in the outline unclear, confusing? If so, then the student has two options. Either he can reread the material, looking for a clearer understanding, or a question can be created for the next class, looking a clearer understanding from the instructor.
Reading Technical Material
This technique works best in material where claims are made and supported, such as in economics, design principles, or surveys. Technical writing, such as mathematics and electronics, need a slightly different approach. The key sections for technical material are often not the sections provided by the reading material but the formulas being presented. Once the formulas are presented, then the outline should provide first an explanation of what is in the formula then at least one example; more examples are useful if the material is not clearly understood the first time.
Practice makes Perfect
If there is any academic activity which improves with practice, it is reading and taking notes. Initially, the student will find the endeavor difficult and fraught with uncertainty. Working with others, comparing notes and examples, can be of immense help when learning how to take notes on reading material. As the student practices, however, she will notice a remarkable improvement. As in many other efforts, persistence in reading and taking notes pays off.
John Steely has been teaching mathematics, study skills, and habits of success for over 25 years. You can access a number of free resources he has found and made at Steely Services