How to Read Effectively and Take Notes to Excel in Studies.

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As a student, you’ll encounter vast amounts of information. Beyond academic material, you must process and interpret news, instructions, communications, and a wealth of other data. You’ll also need to separate fact from opinion, and understand the quality of sources. The stronger your reading capabilities, the more efficiently and effectively you can turn information into knowledge.

Reading improves your thinking, your vocabulary, and your ability to make connections between different sources. Its benefits will go much further than college: Your ability to absorb and analyse information will be important in your career. Whether you become a mechanic considering specifications on a new engine type, or a lawyer crafting an argument based on previous case law, you’ll need to continually process unfamiliar material and apply what you’ve learned. Like many other forms of self-improvement, reading’s benefits come from doing it properly.

Make Time to Read

It might seem too obvious to mention, but allowing enough time to read is a critical step in doing it well. Overall, many barriers to student success arrive in the form of time or priority management, and reading is no exception. Reading takes time, because — as you’ll see below — reading isn’t just a one-time event. You need to read, re-read, and then re-read again. You read to get new information, and you read to familiarize yourself with material you’ve learned before. Neither can be hurried.

Estimate your required reading time by considering the type of material assigned and whether it includes other activities such as practice or explorations. For typical textbooks, most students take four or five minutes per page for a regular read-through, and should add time for highlighting, notetaking, and any practice, included videos, or web exploration

Create the Proper Environment

Avoid distractions. They will limit your focus and retention. Most texts — whether they’re novels, primary sources, or textbooks — are written with a narrative and logical flow. Constant interruptions will break this flow and prevent you from seeing the connections within the material.

Distracted reading also reduces your efficiency: if you spend an hour with a book but don’t really focus on it, that hour was partly wasted.

Find a quiet, uninterrupted, and distraction-free environment. Consider that noises and people aren’t the only distractions; visual clutter or a video screen (even muted) interfere with your understanding. If you read while in transit, headphones or another device to limit the noise may help, but make sure that any music or other sounds aren’t themselves a distraction.

And if you read on your phone, put it on do not disturb.

Read Actively

True knowledge — knowledge required to think critically and analytically — requires more than  memorization. It involves engagement and effort. Effective reading is an active process: you are activating your mind to make connections, process information, organize, and build understanding. Brain scans show that reading (over time) can actually change brain anatomy.

Active reading, sometimes called recursive reading, applies six processes:

  • bringing any prior knowledge about the topic to the reading session,
  • asking yourself pertinent questions, both orally and in writing, about the content you are reading
  • inferring and/or implying information from what you read
  • learning unfamiliar discipline-specific terms,
  • evaluating what you are reading, and eventually,
  • applying what you’re reading to other learning and life situations you encounter.

Consider these a circular, not linear, process. Do each of them as you read, then go through again and use the relevant skills as you re-read


Highlights are best used alongside other tools to build your knowledge or repair its gaps. Whether you’re using digital or physical highlighters, you can apply the same core principles.

  1. Think about the reasons you are highlighting, which may vary by subject or situation. Examples:
  2. Highlighting to organize
  3. Highlighting to emphasize
  4. Highlighting to remind
  5. Highlighting to reuse
  6. Consider the desired reading outcomes, which can be set by you and/or your instructor.

Are you reading to be ready for class discussion? Are you reading to prepare for a minor quiz? Are you studying before an exam? Are you gathering information as you write a  paper? Organize your highlights accordingly.

  1. Highlight using different colours or styles, and then take notes on what you highlight! We can’t emphasize it enough: Make reading and notetaking a multi-step process.
  2. Employ a regular highlighting pattern or “cadence.” For example, read a page or two without highlighting, then go back and highlight. This will force you to read the content again and give you a better chance of highlighting only the most important material.
  3. Don’t over highlight. Usually, highlighting brief phrases is important to emphasize, remind, or organize your thoughts about your reading. Take notes and ask questions along the way, but don’t leave your page a mess of lines, circles, and boxes. (Note that if you are highlighting in order to reuse the material in an essay or similar activity, longer highlights might be necessary.)

Taking Notes

Notes help you organize the ideas and help you make meaning out of something about which you may not be familiar. Taking notes also helps you stay focused on the question at hand. Think of all notes as potential study guides. Don’t transcribe every word a speaker utters—even if you have an amazing ability to do that. You’ll be so focused on the notes that you’ll miss valuable information. Learn to distinguish between main ideas and details that typically support the ideas.

Use your initial notes as starting places, and improve them as you study. If you only take notes without actively working on them after the initial notetaking session, the likelihood of the notes helping you is slim. Research on this topic concludes that without active engagement after taking  notes, most students forget 60–75 percent of material over which they took the notes—within two days!

The very best notes are the ones you take in an organized manner that encourages frequent review and reuse. You may have a standard way you take all your notes for all your classes, or you may adopt different notetaking strategies for different subjects. The strategies in this section represent various ways to take notes in such a way that you are able to study after the initial notetaking session.


Outlining organizes ideas and concepts according from the more general, “big picture,” to narrower, “smaller picture.” Outlines appear as lists of information with different levels of headings, and use indentation to indicate subtopics and sub-subtopics. The main benefit of an outline is how organized and familiar it is. Most textbooks and articles are arranged in some version of an outline.

The following formal outline example shows the basic pattern:

Dogs (main topic–usually general)

a) German Shepherd (concept related to main topic)

  • Protection (supporting info about the concept)
  • Assertive
  • Need training to ensure not too aggressive
  • Loyal

b) Weimaraner (concept related to main topic)

  • Family-friendly (supporting info about the concept)
  • Active
  • Healthy

Concept Mapping and Visual Notetaking

 Another notetaking method often appeals to learners who prefer a visual representation; it is called mapping or sometimes mind mapping, concept mapping, idea clustering, or knowledge graphing, although each of these names can have slightly different uses. With this method, you make connections between ideas through a graphic depiction. Some maps can get elaborate with colors and shapes, but a simple version may be more useful. Main ideas can be circled or placed in a bx with supporting concepts radiating off these ideas shown with a connecting line and possibly details of the support further radiating off the concepts. You can present your main ideas vertically or horizontally, but turning your paper long-ways, or in landscape mode, may prove helpful as you add more main ideas

Reviewing and Improving Notes

Reviewing and augmenting notes after the initial notetaking session may be one of the most valuable study skills you can master. Whether you are highlighting, underlining, or adding additional notes, you are reinforcing the material in your mind and memory.

Annotations can refer to anything you do with material to enhance it for your particular use. The act of looking over your notes and related materials will itself enhance your knowledge. Further notations will only strengthen that connection. Your activities may include:

  • Summarizing your notes
  • Defining key terms
  • Drawing connections between different concepts (such as cause and effect)
  • Paraphrasing concepts or quotations
  • Asking yourself questions
  • Noting questions to ask your instructor

Your notes play a significant role in your test preparation. They should enhance how you understand the lessons, textbooks, lab sessions, and assignments. All the time and effort you put into first taking the notes and then annotating and organizing the notes will be for naught if you do not formulate an effective and efficient way to use them before sectional exams or comprehensive tests.


The cycle of reading, notetaking in class, reviewing and enhancing your notes, and preparing for exams is part of a continuum you ideally will carry into your professional life. Don’t try to take short cuts; recognize each step in the cycle as a building block. Learning doesn’t end, which shouldn’t fill you with dread; it should help you recognize that all this work you’re doing in the classroom and during your own study and review sessions is ongoing and cumulative. Practicing effective strategies now will help you be a stronger professional.

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