Strategies for Effective Note-making

Return to Reading and Note-making

*Critical reading checklist*Note-making strategies*How to stay on task while reading

Critical reading checklist

Try using the following set of questions to guide your critical reading.

  1. What is the claim?
  2. What are the conclusions?
  3. What are the premises or reasons for the claim?
  4. What are the underlying assumptions supporting the premises and claim?
  5. What are the definitional and descriptive assumptions, the value conflicts and value assumptions?
  6. What backup evidence supports those assumptions?
  7. How could this claim be refuted? Under what conditions can the claim not be made?
  8. What terms or phrases are ambiguous or not well defined?
  9. Are the samples representative and the measurements valid?
  10. Are there flaws in the statistical reasoning?
  11. Are there alternative causal explanations?
  12. Are there any logical fallacies or errors in reasoning?
  13. What significant information is omitted?
  14. What alternative conclusions are consistent with the strong reasons?
  15. What are my value preferences in this controversy?

Note-making strategies

Highlighting and summarizing

Another way to focus your attention while reading expository texts is highlighting and summarizing. Highlighting (or underlining with a pen or pencil) helps readers to focus on the details presented in a chapter, so it is effective for “global” learners who see the main ideas of a chapter but have trouble focusing on details like definitions, dates, and people. Highlighting forces you to reread the information you highlight (or underline), aiding in retention of that information. Highlighting also gives you a quick way to review the important details in the chapter days or weeks after you have read it, helping with exam preparation.

But to avoid focusing only on the details while reading a chapter, it helps to write a summary of the main points after you finish reading. Although there may be a chapter summary in the  book, writing your own summary forces you to pull the isolated facts and details into a cohesive unit that it understandable to you. Write your own summary and then compare it to the one in the book. Review both summaries in preparation for exams.

Margin notes

The margin notes strategy focuses your attention on important information in readings, including expository texts, journal articles, and theories. Because it involves underlining or circling key words and recording brief notes in the margin as you read, margin notes is a very active strategy that requires you to more deeply process information compared to highlighting alone. While margin notes are faster to record than outlines or reading grids, they are not as complete. The margin notes provide a hard copy of the important information in the reading that may be used to review for exams.


Outlines are a good way to record main ideas and supporting details presented in a reading. They are effective for both global and analytical students, but may be more appropriate for sequential learners than for random learners. Reading outlines may be formal or informal. The chapter title is usually used as the title to the outline. The major headings in a chapter will form the Roman numeral titles in the outline. Main ideas with their supporting details are arranged under each Roman numeral. If desired, you can include a summary at the end of your outline.

Outlining has advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, outlines give a rather complete summary of what is in the readings, so they may be helpful for students with little prior knowledge of the subject or with trouble in reading comprehension or retention. Outlines also give you a shortened version of the reading that may be used for exam preparation. On the down side, outlines can be time consuming to prepare.

Reading grids

A reading grid is a table used to summarize the main ideas and supporting details covered in a chapter. The title of the chapter is used as the title of the reading grid. Each major heading in the chapter forms the heading of one cell of the grid. Terms and definitions, dates, people’s names, and other details are recorded in the corresponding grid cell. Like outlines, reading grids provide a rather complete summary of the reading material as well as a shortened version of the reading that is useful in reviewing for exams. Non-sequential learners may prefer reading grids over outlines because the structure of grids is less rigid.

Journal article checklist

Instructors often require that students read articles published in professional journals; this is especially true in upper-level undergraduate courses and in graduate classes. Journal articles often present results of experiments but can also be summaries of current research on a particular subject. Because articles published in professional journals are geared toward a more sophisticated audience and cover quite specific subjects, students must read them differently from the general overviews that characterize expository text books. It is not a bad idea to read journal articles more than once. Margin notes may be an effective reading strategy for journal articles. Journal article checklists are another strategy one might try. Students can make up their own checklist geared toward a particular subfield, or they can use the sample checklist shown below. Self-made checklists should cover things like the purpose of the article, goals of the research, research questions and hypotheses, theoretical background for the study, methods used, results, and implications.

Theory summary sheet

Reading theories also differs considerably from reading expository text books because theories tend to be much more abstract than the concrete material presented in introductory texts.

Theory books and articles are geared to a more experienced audience.

Like journal articles, theoretical readings must be approached differently from text books. For one thing, most students need to budget time to read theories two or even three times, especially until they get the hang of it. The theory summary sheet shown below provides another strategy for completing theoretical readings. The summary sheet focuses your attention on the purpose, assumptions, and basic tenets of a theory.


Adapted from Muskingum University.

Ideas just sweep me away … How to stay on task while reading

A common problem faced by graduate students, who are naturally curious about information and ideas, is staying focused on the reading task. Going ‘off-track’ or letting one idea lead you to another, and yet another, can occur when an interesting idea grabs your attention and sweeps your mind off to a different place: e.g. another part of the reading, a totally different article or book, an index list.

Going off-track has its benefits … and drawbacks

It‘s true that letting your curiosity guide you may uncover new information which might come in handy. However, if you find yourself persistently reading away from your original reading goal (e.g. I have to read X article for tomorrow’s seminar), you might feel frustrated and unproductive at the end of the day.

Worry behavior versus goal-setting behaviour

However, going off-track may be symptomatic of worries, anxieties, or fears about needing to ‘know everything’ and/or a lack of confidence in your knowledge base. In some cases, graduate students come into a program from a very different subject area and truly don’t know the required literature so their concerns are real and justified. It is important to be aware of the difference between worry-driven behaviour and behaviours based on real needs and goals.


  1. Highlight the Idea—Note new or interesting ideas by highlighting (colour-coding) them. On a separate piece of paper, jot down a key word or tag related to the idea and its location in the text, for later investigation.
  2. Create an ‘Interesting Ideas File’—An extension of the above idea is to create a file of all the ideas you’ve come across when you’ve been ‘off-track’. That way even if you didn’t complete your assigned reading task, you have something concrete to show progress.
  3. Organize Your Time—Set aside daily time for task-oriented reading and also time to allow yourself to surf and/or pick up on new readings you found previously.
  4. Self Check In—using a cell phone or laptop calendar, set periodic messages or beeps to bring you back to your task or goal.
  5. Replace Worry Behaviours—If you notice worry thoughts associated with your reading, it’s time to stop and set real, attainable goals. It’s not possible for you to ‘know everything’ about your field, especially early on in your program. Set small, time-specific goals, e.g. ‘Today I will read one paper.’ ‘This week I will organize a reading schedule.’
  6. Be Gentle with Yourself—If you do find yourself on another track, don‘t get annoyed with yourself. Instead, just gently bring yourself back to the task.