The System: How I Wish I'd Taken Notes as an Undergraduate (Guest Post)

A Note from Katie: Miles Raymer is a frequent contributor to My College Advice, with previous posts including "Playing Club Sports in College," "Peer Editing," and "5 Books to Read Before Freshman Year." 

In today's guest post, Miles shares his excellent multi-tiered system for taking notes on books--starting with writing in the margins, then moving on to dictating thoughts and copying out passages. I'm really impressed and inspired by the idea, and hope to integrate it into my reading as well! 

The System: How I Wish I'd Taken Notes as an Undergraduate

Although some high school students learn how to take excellent notes before attending college, many don't show up to their first term with a fully array of note-taking techniques. I started my freshman year at the University of Oregon with adequate note-taking skills, and although I developed those skills during my undergraduate years, my greatest strides in note-taking actually occurred after graduation. I will break my process down into stages that are relatively independent of each other, so you can mix and match them with other strategies. My system is neither comprehensive nor necessarily superior to other forms of note-taking, but it works well for me.

Picking Up the Pen  

The pen is mightier than the highlighter

The pen is mightier than the highlighter

This sounds cliché, but one of the most profound learning experiences I had at college occurred at freshman commencement, before I'd even set foot in a single discussion room or lecture hall. I remember only two precise details from that day: the decidedly uncomfortable wooden seat in the top tier of UO's old basketball gym, and the wise words of former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. "Put down the highlighter," he said. "Pick up the pen."

Instead of parroting the platitudes about "achievement" and "excellence" I'd been hearing for months leading up to college, Collins gave a simple piece of seriously applicable advice about how students should personally engage with difficult texts. Highlighting, he claimed, is a passive form of "interaction" that does little more than pick out key passages (if the reader is lucky). Collins argued that writing while reading––in the margins, between paragraphs, even on top of the text––is the best way to have a dialogue with the author, to articulate questions, form disagreements, and explore areas of further inquiry.

Up to this point, writing in books had always been taboo in my mind, mostly because I hated the idea of picking up a book with someone else's ideas and reactions scribbled all over it. This is a real potential downside of in-text annotation––it makes your books less lendable, because only a pompous jerk wants to lend out a book with his or her personal notes all over it. But I think the overall benefits of annotation are much greater than the drawbacks, especially for students who enjoy hanging on to books they love.

Personal styles of in-text annotation will vary, so be flexible in developing a system that works for you. Nobody else needs to understand your system. And use a pen (or a pencil, if you're looking to cover your tracks before selling the book back), not a highlighter. The more of you that tumbles onto the page, the more you'll have to work with down the road.  

Note Dictation

Smartphone as a tool, not just a toy. 

Smartphone as a tool, not just a toy. 

In-text notes are a great start, but they're more effective when combined with other methods. Dictated notes, which are easy to create with any app sporting a voice-to-text function, are effective tools that I never used in undergrad because I didn't have a smartphone. But now, all I have to do is open my notepad app, speak my mind, the let the software transcribe my speech into writing. This method is especially useful when recording ideas that are too long to write in book margins, or that aren't directly related to the issue at hand (i.e. thoughts regarding concepts and/or disciplines external to the text). It's another layer of processing where reactions and questions can be developed or set aside for later.

I think dictated notes are superior to typed or hand-written ones because they can be generated with greater comparative speed; they are therefore less intrusive to the reading process. Most people can speak faster than they can write or type, so dictation allows you to exit the text, quickly record an idea, then jump back in without losing your train of thought. And spoken words are cheap, so you can record whatever whimsical notions float through your mind and not worry about having to develop them further or show them to anyone. But make sure to record any thoughts that feel significant, and also ones that appear silly or irrelevant. Remember, the best ideas often come from flashes of insight that seem ridiculous at first glance.

When I dictate, I split my notes into two sections: (1) general reactions and connections to other ideas, and (2) specific responses, which are always attached to a page number (or location number for ebooks). These sections can be organized in whatever way is most convenient for the note-taker.      

The other huge advantage of dictated notes is that they are easily stored and reproduced. When I finish a book, I immediately send the notepad text to myself as an email. I store all of my book notes together under a special tab so they don't clutter my inbox. Additionally, I always make sure to include the book's title and last name of the author somewhere in the email so I can find the notes instantly by searching for those key words. Do this, and you'll never lose your notes again––ever.  

Passage Duplication

Passage duplication, or typing quotes verbatim, is another method I wish I'd used in undergrad. The idea of rote copying is off-putting to many Millennials because copying has been poorly implemented or overemphasized in schools (this was perhaps more true for our parents' generation than ours). We now use computers and phones to store information and memories that past generations had to absorb via repetition and memorization. And while I think these are generally positive developments, copying can still play an important role in education.

I discovered the usefulness of passage duplication quite by accident. When I started my blog, words&dirt, I decided to sit down five days a week and type out one or two interesting quotes from whatever I was reading; I wanted to put something interesting out into the world each day without making any personal commentary. What I didn't anticipate was how these quotes would improve both my intellectual endeavors and personal relationships.

Believe it or not, passage duplication is a great comprehension tool. Ever had a teacher or professor tell you to read an assignment at least twice and thought to yourself, that's never going to happen? Me too! Copying key quotes is a good middle ground between reading a text once and reading it twice in its entirety. I'm always surprised at how much more I get out of a passage once I've typed it out; oftentimes, it isn't until the third or fourth readthrough that I begin to truly grasp a challenging quote.

Passage duplication doesn't just help with comprehension––it can also radically boost retention. There are plenty of social and professional contexts where it's advantageous to have a statistic or idea stored in your mind (rather than in your phone or computer): class discussions, study groups, meetings with professors, interviews, and casual interactions. If you start habitually copying quotes, you will find yourself paraphrasing with greater precision and even recalling passages verbatim, sometimes effortlessly. People might start thinking you're a lot smarter or more articulate than you actually are, but you'll know it's just that you've put in the work to get intimate with the ideas you love.  

Writing quotes by hand can be a good exercise, but typed quotes make excellent cut and paste fodder when writing a paper (when doing this, always record page numbers, put quotation marks around any writing not your own, and cite sources properly). Digitized passages are also easy to put into emails or to post on social media, which is a great way to deepen your personal relationships. Linking a loved one to a quote that reminded me of him or her is one of my favorite ways to interact with people I don't see often enough in my daily life.

Bringing it All Together

There are lots of ways to effectively implement the strategies described above, but if you use all of them, you'll have a battery of resources available when sitting down to bang out that midterm or final paper: 

  • Annotated text
  • Dictated notes (general ideas + list of important quotes)
  • Key passages (typed, cited, and ready to paste into your paper)
  • Any additional notes (from class or study groups)

 With all of this at your fingertips, writing the paper becomes more like putting a puzzle together than conjuring something from scratch. The student's worst enemy is the blinking cursor on the blank page, so these notes should make it easier to write that first sentence or paragraph, as well as everything that follows.

Does this system really work? In my experience––absolutely. I publish four or five book reviews per month on my blog and my Goodreads profile, so I actively analyze everything I read, including stuff I pick up just for fun. I recently wrote a personal essay called "Coping with Climate Change," which drew from sources as far back in my reading history as 2012. Using my notes system, it was easy to connect ideas from a wide range of books, and also to track down supporting quotes. Information gathering that would have taken hours took minutes instead. 

 This broad capacity to synthesize information absorbed over long periods of time is an indispensable skill for traversing the information landscape. Edward O. Wilson makes this point in his naturalist manifesto, Consilience

Profession-bent students should be helped to understand that in the twenty-first century the world will not be run by those who possess mere information alone. Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost...Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely. (294)

These words were first published in 1998, and history has done little since then to refute them. Becoming a site of human synthesis is an important goal for all students, and thorough note-taking separates the competent from the merely adequate.

Annotated pages from Nick Bostrom's    Superintelligence

Annotated pages from Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence

(Side note: I read Consilience three months ago, but it only took a quick search to find that particular passage. What began as a fleeting memory––didn't Wilson say something about information synthesis in that book I read a while back?––almost instantly became a concrete addition to my article.)   

Efficacious note-taking strategies will help you generate a personal interpretation of a text that can be easily consulted, revised, and adapted into an academic paper or any other creative project. This is what good notes are all about––linking the raw text with a student's developed response to it.

Your reading notes are the road map to your intellectual journey. They show where you turned left, where you got sidetracked, where you flipped that wild U-turn, and how you found your way home. No one in the world (or history for that matter) has read exactly what you've read in the order that you've read it with the brain you've read it with, so no one else can contribute to the world exactly the way you can. Great notes will help you fully actualize this contribution.


I hope you liked this post as much as I did! Please leave comments or questions for Miles, and check out his excellent blog words&dirt. You might also enjoy "Study Tips: The Study Buddy," and "When You Can't Finish the Reading."