Active note-making strategies

You are probably thinking, “I know how to take notes!” But do you consider why you are making notes? And how you are writing them?

Thinking about these questions will help you to see why good note making can be seen as the secret of success at university.

Developing active note-making skills

Active note-making is the secret to university success as it allows you to develop your understanding and thinking on a topic and helps to ensure you are able to use evidence effectively in assignments.

Why is it important to make good notes?

At university you are more in control of how you approach your learning. When making notes in class or from texts, think about your role in the process. This means becoming a note maker (someone who selects the information they record, rather than a note taker who records much of what they read or hear).

To do this you will need to develop your decision-making skills as you will need to decide what you record, how relevant the information is and the best method to use (see later in this guide). Decision-making is a skill you will develop as an independent learner, so by taking a consistently active approach to your note-making, you will have better idea of what is relevant to record (see our guide to starting your Surrey learning journey).

Additionally, a deeper understanding of a topic is only possible if you always check whether your notes make sense. This is because as an active note-maker you will need to make sense of (understand) the information but also make meaning (interpret) from the information.

Don’t worry if this concept of note-making sounds difficult: Developing good, active note-making skills takes time, but will, with practice, provide you with notes that will add real value to your learning. It will assist you in communicating that understanding – and your thoughts – effectively. You’ll also find support available to help you develop these skills when you come to University.

As you start to think about study strategies at this point, consider what note-making you have used so far, and how you might adapt this method to make it more active.

Becoming an active note-maker

  • Think about the points being made and summarising these in your own words
  • Capture your own thoughts, questions, and queries on the page
  • Being selective about what information you record:
    • In class, getting the balance right between writing and listening; augmenting your notes (revisiting post-session anything you missed and adding your further thoughts) to ensure they make sense to you
    • When researching, rather than simply highlighting pages, or recording large chunks of text word-for-word; think about why it is relevant and the significance of what you are recording.

You may think copying and pasting content will be a lot easier and save you time, but doing this means you will miss out on the value of note-making as an important stage of the critical thinking process: Have you fully understood and interpreted the information? Copying can also result in unintentional plagiarism (see our guide on good study practices: academic integrity and why it is important).

Remember MURMER

Remembering ‘MURMUR’ will help you to maintain active note making approaches and therefore ensure your notes are valuable to your learning.

  • Make sense: Of content by noting in your own words what you read or hear. This will allow you to check your understanding and follow up on anything that is unclear
  • Understand: Why you have recorded or selected the information and how it applies to your understanding of the topic or assessment requirements
  • Recognise: Where you found the information. Record the date and session title or details of texts so you can reference them in your work and avoid passing someone else’s work off as your own (see our guide on good study practices: academic integrity and why it is important)
  • Make meaning: By adding your own thoughts and raising questions in your notes will help you to interpret the information and develop your critical thinking on a topic
  • Utilise: Your notes effectively, for assignments, exams and discussions by recognising how your notes fit in with learning (and notes) from previous weeks and seeing connections to notes you have made in other modules
  • Revisit: Your notes (frequently) to allow you to remember key subject information. This will ensure you develop your subject knowledge and not just memorise information; a useful thing when writing assignments, sitting your exams or online tests.

Note-making strategies

You may have used some note-making methods before, but the rest of this guide provides some brief strategies you may wish to become familiar with before starting university.

There are various note-making techniques, and you may need to utilise different ones for the different learning situations you will experience.

You might also want to consider:

  • Note-making tools: This could include paper, coloured pens and highlighters or a digital note-making app (such as Microsoft OneNote, accessible via your Surrey365 account)
  • How and where you store and organise your notes: Such as paper in files or notebooks or a filing system on your device. This will help to avoid frustration when trying to find the information you need and ensure you include the most relevant evidence.

Note-making methods

Below you will find some methods you can try. This guide does not cover every note-making strategy available, so you may wish to explore others, such as creating tables/charts, or the ‘boxing method’, in your own time.

Key takeaways

  • Always think about what your notes are for and why you are making them
  • Experiment with and practise different methods to know what works best for you and is appropriate to the specific learning setting
  • Make your notes work for you and use 'MURMUR' to help make this happen
  • Seek support to develop these skills.

What next?

See how active note-making strategies will help you adhere to good study practices: Academic integrity.