Study Skills: Note Taking

Right, first things first and for sake of argument let’s call this a disclaimer!

This post is based upon my first-hand experiences as both an undergraduate and now postgraduate student. I’m not suggesting that my approach to study is better than any other, but it has worked for me. Ultimately every student is different, and you should make your own choices based upon your strengths, weaknesses and not forgetting, the advice from your tutor.

So, with that in mind I’ve often pondered the question….

Note taking, is it really the key to success?

I’m going to tell you what I think, if you agree then great! If you don’t, then say why because I welcome a constructive debate and you never know, we might all learn something.

So, is note taking always necessary and is it the key to success? Unfortunately, it’s not so straight forward in my opinion. I would say that developing your own style of learning is important, but that’s the key to this process, it really must be your style, not someone else’s, yours! If you take the time to look at the Open University Study Skills website, you’ll see that they say…

‘Taking notes is an important part of an active study strategy’

(The Open University, 2016)

In the most part I would agree with this statement, but then again, we don’t always fit into nice little boxes. Sometimes, well, most of the time what’s good for one is not good for another and vice versa. I also take issue with the limitations that come with the term ‘note taking’, after all it’s ultimately down to you to choose whatever process is most effective for you, as in what is your preferred way of digesting, processing and understanding information.

Over the past ten years I’ve tried almost every note taking technique possible and it’s only after starting my MA that I’ve finally settled on a style of active learning that so far works for me. I’ve tried tables, charts, mind maps, audio recording tools and even the good old index card to name but a few, none of which have in my view, had any meaningful impact on my understanding of the module materials or my performance in EMA’s or exams.

So, what is your system I hear you ask?

Well, it’s nothing new! it just happens to be one of the most straightforward techniques to use, albeit the one I never tried until now!

According to the Open University, highlighting and annotating texts helps students to…

‘think critically and formulate your own response’

It also…

‘enhances their understanding’

(The Open University, 2016)

Now, the jury is still out on my success with this method, but I must admit that so far, the results are encouraging. By highlighting my texts electronically on adobe acrobat, then summarising sections of the text in my own words, I’m absorbing the material much better and being selective in my systems of highlighting is, dare I say, enhancing my critical approach to the scholarship which is something that can only pay off in the end. However, I believe it’s important to break down the rigid barriers that the term ‘note taking’ conjures up and adopt what I think is a more student friendly term such as active learning. After speaking with my fabulous tutor for A863 I began to approach my learning differently and following on from a very illuminating first TMA I found that using social media, or more specifically the OU forums provided an alternative platform or learning environment. I’m not going to go into the scholarship behind the process in this post, sufficed to say, it’s extensive, but if anyone is interested and wants to find out more, leave me a comment and I’ll provide some web links to the appropriate material. Ultimately, I’m still experimenting with different study techniques and I expect I will continue to develop as I continue to learn, but for the time being I’ve found a combination of methods that work for me.

To answer the question, is note taking the key to success? I would have to say no, or to be more precise, not in its most rigid sense. Developing a good technique that works to your personal strengths is the important thing. Developing a strategy and making your learning as active as possible so that you engage with the material is just as important as making copious amounts of notes. Some people aren’t note takers by default, I’m not and if you aren’t either then don’t worry. All you need to do is be open to innovative ideas and don’t be afraid of change because after all, it’s your journey, whatever route you take, even if sometimes it’s the wrong one will be a learning experience. You may encounter a few bumps in the road along the way, but eventually you will get there.

All the best


If you want to follow up on the citations in this post and for more information on developing your own study skills, why not visit the Open University Study Skills website available at …

(Accessed on 3rd January 2018)

2 thoughts on “Study Skills: Note Taking

  1. I must admit I don’t take notes except for TMAs. This probably sounds very arrogant, but my notes come out like the sort of note you get if you wake up in the middle of the night and scribble down your genius idea, then go back to sleep. In the morning it’s either trite or garbage.

    The OU does have an annotation tool, which allows you to add notes to any web page or PDF, but when I tried it first it didn’t work, so I stopped trying.

    So I have to rely on my memory, although I’m very mindful of Michael Clanchy’s comments in From Memory to Written Record that there’s a world of difference (Clanchy was a fellow member of the London Society for Medieval Studies and a neighbour of mine).

    What I do for TMAs is to write commentaries on the material, then try to weave it all together according to the plan. These are notes sort-of, because many don’t make the cut, but they’re all typed in onto a Word document, not onto paper.


    1. Hi Martin,

      Thanks for visiting the blog and for your comments.

      I just think the note taking is always going to be an issue for some people where others find it natural. I make efforts to take notes for TMA’S but usually don’t end up using them as I generally make a detailed plan (which in many cases is nothing like the finished assignment).

      For the time being my system is working, so I will see how far I get with it.




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