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Reading & Note Taking

Navigating a text

At university, you will be expected to read large amounts of information. Rather than reading texts from start to finish, and use the key parts of a text (shown below) to help you select the most relevant parts.

A figure showing parts of a text
Figure 1: Parts of a Text
  1. Search for chapter headings related to your subject in the contents.
  2. The introduction outlines key topics covered. Use it to decide if the source will be useful. In journal articles, read the abstract (which gives a summary of the entire piece) and the introduction.
  3. Read the beginnings of chapters and first sentences of paragraphs to gain miniature overviews.
  4. Visuals, headings and subheadings also give clues about content.
  5. The conclusion summarises the key findings.
  6. Search for words, names and phrases in the index to identify important pages.


Use Control + F (PC) or Command + F (Mac) to search digital documents.

Steps within reading: SQ3R

SQ3R technique for reading: Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review.
Figure 2: SQ3R diagram

Try following the SQ3R sequence to aid reading.

1. Survey: 

  • Skim read to gain an overview of the source. Look at areas such as the contents, introduction and index page.

2. Question:

  • What do I hope to answer?
  • What key words or phrases will I search for?
  • How reliable is this source?

3. Read:

  • Pick a relevant area to read. Start by skim reading to gain a general understanding. Read again in more detail and note-take.

4. Recall & Review

  • Recap what you have just read.
  • Check your understanding and the accuracy of your notes. Consider taking further notes.

What to include in notes:

  • References: always capture the Harvard reference, including the page numbers for books and journals. Consider using an online tool such as Zoterobib.
  • Questions: make a list of what you hope to answer.
  • Key information: Arguments, quotations or examples that link to your research.
  • Your analysis: What does it show? How does it link to your research? How does it relate to other sources?
  • Next steps: consider further research such as names or areas to look at next.

* Tip: use the critical reading grid below as a prompt.

Critical Reading Grid PDF Critical Reading Grid Word

Making notes memorable:

Make it easier to return to your notes by using some of the following devices:

  • Subheadings: separate different topics with clear headings.
  • White space: place gaps between subjects to aid readability and make room for further notes.
  • Visual aspects: use colour coding, highlighting or symbols to represent different themes.
  • Watch the video below to find out more about effective note-taking.

Methods of note taking

  • You will need to pick a style of note-taking that works for you.
  • Read below to find out more about three main styles: linear, visual and Cornell.
  • Find a summary of these techniques in the downloadable guide.
Note-taking Guide
Example of linear notes.
Figure 3: Linear notes
  1. 1. Linear notes
  • Linear note-taking is the most traditional form.
  • It involves taking down information in a line by line formation.
  • The example shows how linear notes might appear.
  • Note: the inclusion of the reference, date, subheadings, highlighting and own thoughts in red.

2. Cornell

Parts of the Cornell method.
Figure 4: Cornell note-taking
  • This form of note taking involves dividing your page into three parts: a main note-taking area, a cue column and a summary section. See the diagram beside.
  • It can be used both for notetaking during reading or in lectures.
  • Watch the videos from Cornell University of how to use this method.

Steps to follow:

  1. Start by filling in the main note-taking column. Use this to make your key notes as usual whilst reading or listening to a lecture.
  2. After making notes, put key words or questions in the cue column. These should act as a prompt for the information to the right in the main note-taking area.
  3. The last column summarises the notes. What was the source or talk about? What were the key parts or messages? How might you use the information?
Cornell Template PDF Cornell Template Word

3. Mind maps

  • Mind maps are a visual way of taking notes.
  • They can be hand drawn or made digitally with free software such as Xmind.
Example of a mind map made with XMind software.
Figure 4: Example of a mind map
  1. Start with the main idea in the centre. This could be an image or a word/phrase.
  2. Create branches out from centre.
  3. Write your main ideas as you add these branches.
  4. Make smaller branches (associated ideas) stem from the main ideas.
  5. Use images and symbols to represent ideas.

(Buzan, 2002, pp. 28-31)

4. Condensing information

  • A research matrix is one way of making sense of large amounts of information.
  • It is a table that helps you to summarise and compare different sources within your research.
  • The example below is structured for a classic literature review with sections for reference, summary, evaluation and use.
  • See the matrix templates in the blue downloadable guide below for more suggestions.


Source referenceSummaryEvaluationUse
Coles, A. (2012). The transdisciplinary studio. Sternberg Press: BerlinThis book describes what we mean by studio practice through visits and evaluations of various artistic practices and studios as well as conversations and interviews.Strengths • Studio based research and what it means today Weaknesses • Very text heavy – not great for a visual learner. Perhaps too focused on fine art (though that is the role of the book in fairness)I will use this to determine my own methodologies around design from a multi-specialist background and to incorporate ideas from sustainable practices in other creative fields to influence my work in menswear.    

Research Matrix Templates

Tools and software

  • Try an online note taking system such as Evernote or OneNote (which you have free access to through Office 365).
  • See the downloadable documents below for information on reading and listening to texts.
Colour or tint screen guide PDF Apple text to speech PDF Dragon dictate software PDF

Sources consulted

Buzan, T. (2002) How to mind map. London: Thornton.

Cornell University (no date) The Cornell note taking method. Available at: Note-Taking Strategies ( (Accessed: 1 September 2022).

Godfrey, J. (2014) Reading and making notes. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Royal Literary Fund (2019) How to read: SQ3R. Available at: (Accessed: 28 July 2019).

University of Sussex (no date) Note-making styles: Available at: Note-making styles : Skills Hub: University of Sussex (Accessed: 31 July 2022).

Image to represent a list of eBooks available about reading and note-taking.


Find out more out note-taking and critical thinking here:

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