How do I take good notes and turn my notes into a research paper?

Follow these tips from Juliet Dunphy, Manager, Student Learning Services, Concordia Student Success Centre.

Try a two-step process

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When you first search for books and articles, sort them into folders or piles and take only minimal notes; for example, two or three lines summarizing the key argument. You can also flag articles as "high," "medium," or "low" priority. Once you have identified book chapters or articles that are highly relevant to your assignment, take in-depth notes.

Be an active note-taker

Always try to think critically about a text and its connection to your assignment. Write down some of your own ideas by summarizing the key arguments in your own words. This can be done in the margin of the text, or on a separate piece of paper. Only highlight very important quotes or terms.

Source: University of New England. (n.d.) Reading and Taking Notes on Scholarly Journal Articles. Retrieved June 5, 2017, from http://www.une.edu/sites/default/files/Reading-and-Annotating.pdf

Keep track of which words are yours, and which belong to someone else

When taking notes, always put quotation marks around direct quotes. Some students try to use italics, or a different font, but it is too easy to accidentally re-format your document and change the fonts. You may want to consider dividing your page into two columns: they say/I say. This way you will always know which words are someone else's, whether it's direct quotes or paraphrases.

They say... I say...
  • Prolonged sitting is countered by 60-75 minutes moderate daily activity (Ekelund, 2016, 1308)
  • This is relevant because....
  • This supports what Johnson said about...
  • "effect of TV-viewing on all-case mortality seemed to be stronger in magnitude." (Ekelund, 2016, 1308)
  • This is relevant because....
  • This contradicts Smith's finding that…

Ekelund, U., Steene-Johannessen, J., Brown, W. J., Fagerland, M. W., Owen, N., Powell, K. E., & ... Lee, I. (2016). Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. The Lancet, 388 (10051), 1302-1310. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30370-1

Always include citation information when taking notes

Many databases will generate a citation that you can paste into your notes, or take down by hand. This should include information on the author, date of publication, title, journal title (if it's an article), page numbers, and (if it's online) the DOI or URL. Taking the time to record accurate citation information at this stage will help you avoid accidental plagiarism, and will also save you time at the writing stage.

Take note!

Make sure to check your generated citations - they are not always correct! Use the Library's citation style guides to make sure all the required elements of the citation are present and correctly formatted.

Create an outline, but keep it flexible

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There are several ways to organize your ideas. You could:

  • Create a mind-map or flow chart.
  • Make a list, group similar ideas together, and then label them.
  • Brainstorm a list of questions your professor might have about your topic.

As you learn more about your topic, you will probably want to revise your original outline.

Write as you research

Don't wait until you've read everything to start writing; this can lead to over-researching. Writing can help you refine your argument and clarify what is essential. Try to write a little every day without worrying about spelling or grammar. If you want, you can start in the middle, or with the easiest sections. Your work will go through many revisions; it's okay if your first draft is rough.

Find out more!

Learning Specialists at the Student Success Centre have created many handouts to help with writing, reading, oral presentations, note-taking, time management, taking exams, studying, and problem solving. Make an appointment with them to learn more.

page last updated on: Thursday 18 January 2018
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