By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
Before learning how to take notes from a textbook, you need to make two key decisions. Where will you take your notes and what note-taking format will you choose? I explain both decisions below.
Where to take your textbook notes
Where will you take your notes? You have three options:
- Paper (notebook)
- Digital notes in Google Docs or Word
- Digital notes that you write by hand with a stylus or Apple Pencil
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of rating system. I argue that paper notes (option 1) and handwritten digital notes (option 3) are far superior to typed notes. Yes, typed notes are faster. But if the goal is to understand and learn information, writing is better than typing.
Choose the right note-taking format
There are different formats for taking notes from a textbook. The most common methods are:
- Two-column notes
- Notes from Cornell
- The outline method
Two-column notes: Divide your page into two columns (⅓ and ⅔). Key concepts and ideas go on the left and details on the right.
Cornell notes: Similar to two-column notes, but you write a summary at the bottom of each page. More details here.
The plan method: Write key concepts on their own line, then add bullet point details below each main idea.
Which is the best ? Option 1 (two-column grades) and Option 3 (the outline method) generally work best for most students. When teaching my students how to take notes from a textbook, I start with one of these methods because they both allow for self-expression. and they are simpler. Cornell’s ratings are stricter and take longer: it’s a tough sell.
How to take notes from a textbook – 11 strategies
The following note-taking strategies will help you take notes from a textbook quickly(ish) and in a way that will come in handy when you need the notes later, especially for open-book tests. You’re also going to want these Organization advice in 7 notes to complement your note-taking skills.
1. Preview the manual chapter.
Before you begin your notes, flip through the chapter you are about to read. Get an idea of its duration, configuration and what it is about. You are just scanning at this point, not reading.
2. Date and title your notes.
Always start with a new page. Put the date at the top, along with the name of the chapter you’re taking notes on.
3. Take notes as you read.
Read small chunks of text at a time and take notes as you read. According to the manual, it could be the second paragraph. Do not read more than two paragraphs without writing something in your notebook.
What to actually write in your notes:
1. After reading the short text extract, try to summarize the content in your own words. Avoid looking at the manual when doing this, or you’ll end up using the author’s words. Write this brief bullet point summary in your notes. You may need to split the summary into multiple bullet points.
2. Then go back to the paragraph and remove all key terms. These are usually bold, but not always. Include these words as bullet points. See note-taking tip #6.
4. Include enough white space around your notes.
White space is empty space with no text or image. White space makes your notes crisper and easier to read. We create white space by skipping lines and avoiding grouping notes. Create white space by skipping at least one line when the subject changes
5. Organize your notes according to headings and subheadings.
Textbooks organize information under headings and subheadings. Match the titles and subtitles of your notebook to these. If you are taking notes in two columns, you can place the title or subtitle on the left. If you take detailed notes, the headings will go on their own line with the key points below.
When the textbook title changes, create a new section in your notes. Use an extract feature around titles to make them stand out. I describe extract functions in note-taking tip #7.
6. Take notes on any terms in bold.
Terms in bold are important. You should write these words down in your notes. If it is a vocabulary word, include the definition. If it is a significant event, such as the Geneva Convention, include a description. Use your own language to define these terms.
Tips for taking notes on key terms:
- Always include key terms under the headings or subheadings they belong to.
- Use an extract function to underline key terms. The extract function must be different from your heading extract functions.
- Game Changer: As a supplement to your basic textbook notes, create a running glossary of terms on a separate page. Add any terms in bold to this list as you read. This means that you would have key terms in two places: as a bullet under the appropriate title, and also in your glossary.
7. Use bullet points.
Whatever note-taking format you use, use bullet points to organize supporting details. One detail per chip. No paragraphs. Avoid complex sentences. (See note-taking tip #11.)
8. Use extraction functions.
Extraction features include underlines, highlights, circles, bold or italic text, colored fonts, wavy underlines, and boxes. These subtle formatting details draw attention to different sections of your notes. When taking notes from a textbook, you only need 2-3 extract functions. It is optional to use more. You should have a different extract function for each of the following:
- Main headings
- Key words
9. Use arrows to indicate cause and effect.
Textbook content often includes elements of cause and effect. In other words, you’ll probably read about one thing (poor living and financial conditions) leading to another thing (the French Revolution). This type of content is best represented by simple arrows. Picture below.
10. Draw key diagrams or take a photo if you are taking digital notes.
Your notes should include key diagrams and tables from the manual. If it’s easy enough to draw, do it. If you take digital notes, take a picture of the chart and insert it into your document.
11. Avoid full sentences.
Taking notes from a textbook becomes almost impossible if you write complete sentences. Use fragments, abbreviations, and symbols to be a more effective note taker. Make a legend (legend) if you are afraid to forget the meaning of your abbreviations.
How to take notes from a textbook – 5 BONUS TIPS
- Choose a location for your notes and stick to it. In other words, go all-paper or all-digital notebook for each course. You can use digital grades in English and paper grades in math, but be consistent across each subject.
- If your handwriting is confusing, use these 6 tips to improve your writing.
- Don’t be afraid to rewrite your notes if they’re messy or you want to edit them. The best students rewrite their notes. Here’s what else top students do, but don’t talk about it.
- Seek inspiration if you need it. Instagram and Pinterest are full of photos of student notebooks that are essentially art. You don’t need to meet these standards, but the images might inspire you.
- Use the right notebook with the right paper. Inexpensive notebooks with thin paper will make your textbook notes messy and boring. Invest in your materials.
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