How to Take Notes From a Textbook | 10 Top Tips
Ideally, you want your textbook notes to supplement what you’re learning in class, whether it be at school or on your summer course. They’ll make the basis for any revision or further study you need to do - great notes means great revision!
For it to be effective, note-taking needs to be a fairly active process. That doesn’t mean you are actively writing out notes, but engaging your brain in a way that makes you really think about the information you’re putting onto paper. Here are our top tips to make you a more efficient note-taker.
How to take notes from a textbook: 10 top tips
1. Understand what you need to know from the textbook
Typically, when a teacher has set you a text to read, they’ll often give you a set of questions or points of interest to consider whilst reading which can really help to guide you through the text. But when it comes to revising for exams or writing an essay, it’s usually down to you to work out what you need to learn.
If this is the case, take some time to check through your subject’s syllabus, past papers, or even notes from class to understand what topics you need to focus on during your note-taking process.
2. Create an outline of the textbook
A great tip for helping you to do this effectively is to skim through the entire textbook, chapter by chapter, and use all the headings and subheadings to create an outline of the book – but leaving small gaps between each of these headings.
Read the textbook from the beginning and fill in each heading at the end of each section – try not to read an entire chapter and then go back to take notes; this can overloading your brain with a whole chapter’s worth of information could mean you forget something important.
3. Skim for important information
When it comes to taking notes effectively, one of the best ways to pull the information you need is to skim the entire textbook and make notes on the most important content. Have a look for headings, sub-headings and any terminology that’s highlighted in bold or bright colours. These are the hints from the author that tell you which topics and snippets of content are the most important.
If you are looking for an even quicker method you can read the introduction and conclusion – they’ll highlight the main topics of the book, including which chapters may be of most importance to you.
4. Paraphrase the content into your own words
Paraphrasing someone else’s content is one of the most challenging things you can do when learning new information, especially if you’re coming across brand new terminology but it will make it easier for you to understand the content and remember when you come to revise it.
Remember, your notes are only going to be read by you; they only need to make sense to you. Even if you write your notes in a way that would be gibberish to others, it’s okay as long as you can understand them.
5. Read a section and write your notes from memory
Another great and effective note-taking tip to try and implement when reading is to try and memorise the content as you’re transcribing it, otherwise known as the retrieval method.
The method is fairly straightforward, and works by reading a chapter of your textbook, closing it, and then making all your notes from memory. You then go back over to check for any errors before moving onto the next chapter.
As challenging a method as this may be, it’s actually proven to help you remember new content. Recent research has demonstrated that the retrieval method is more effective at helping students retain information for classroom quizzes than traditional note-taking methods.
6. Don’t forget graphs and charts
It can be tempting to ignore or skim over information in boxes or charts within a chapter, particularly for research-heavy subjects such as Psychology or Mathematics.
However, these snippets of extra information can be a great way to condense the body of the text into a visual representation which might help you absorb it quicker. As a bonus, you could even consider copying these over to your notes. They’ll definitely stand out against your text and make it easier to revise content when you come back to review it at a later date.
7. Check your notes for any errors
To make sure your notes are accurate we suggest that every time you finish a chapter or section of text you skim back through and check it against the textbook. This is particularly important for subjects that have lots of technical spellings, such as scientific terms in Physics and Chemistry, as well as names of important figures in subjects such as History and Politics.
You should also ‘sense-check’ the entire section of notes, ensuring that what you’ve written really does make sense, so you know that when you return to your notes in a few weeks or even months, you’ll be able to understand exactly what you meant.
8. Highlight the important details
Did you know that highlighting notes can actually be the secret to helping you achieve great academic results?
Colour-coding, or highlighting, your notes is a great way to help you remember information. You’ll be selecting critical details that require your attention and making sure that when you come back to your notes you'll think; “that’s really important!”
There are a few top tips you should follow to ensure that your colour-coding works for you:
Do it after an entire chapter/section – This can be counter-productive and actually prevent us from really reading the content that’s on the page. Instead, colour-code your notes as soon as you’ve finished a chapter or large section of text – this gives you time to process the content and select the most important parts.
Be colour-cautious – The general rule of thumb is that you should only use between three and four colours throughout your text. Any more, and you will complicate your notes, making it confusing to look at and memorise. It is a good idea to use colours that contrast with each other for the purpose of making that information stand-out on the page.
9. Include small illustrations and doodles
A great method for how to take notes from a textbook effectively is to try and interpret them in a way that is completely unique to you; by turning snippets of text into small illustrations and doodles.
Those who enjoy illustrations and diagrams should consider including them in their note-taking. After all, they can have several added benefits:
Better understand new information – This can be particularly useful for topics such as Medicine, Chemistry, or Physics where you often need to understand how different processes work.
Improved memory retention – Using a combination of note-taking techniques can help you to better understand information. Illustrations in particular can really help you to memorise complex processes that you may not have remembered as well if presented in a written format.
Highlights key details– Just how colour-coding your work can help highlight important details, so too can illustrations. Illustrations are a really visually-stimulating presentation format, and your eyes will naturally be drawn to them when reviewing notes.
10. Condense, condense, condense!
Finally, one of the most important tips we can offer on how to take notes effectively is to condense your notes as much as possible. This is particularly important for those of you using your notes for revision purposes. Make room in your schedule to condense them as much as possible; and maybe consider using flashcards. This will make it easier to retain the content when it comes to your exams
The more you go back to your notes and the more you interact with them, the more familiar you’ll become with the information and retain it for the long-term.
Taking effective notes from textbooks is an important part of academic success. Most courses require significant reading and memory retention, especially for those that rely heavily on exams as part of their assessment.
For note-taking to be productive, it needs to stimulate your brain and encourage you to really think about the information you’re writing down. In this sense, pre-determining what information you want to gain from the textbook, using memory retention techniques, and condensing your notes can all help with making sure you have fully understood the content you’re reading.
The important thing to remember is that there is no right way to take notes from a textbook. The strategies which work best for you may not be the same as someone else. As long as you are able to fully understand and remember the information you’re reading, then it doesn’t matter how you do it. Experiment with a few different techniques on this list and find the method that works for you.
Further study advice Looking for more ways to improve your learning? For further study advice and helpful tips on how to make the most out of your learning, take a look at our other education blog posts.
With guidance on creating an effective study schedule and detailed information on how to stay focused while studying, we have plenty of articles to help you become a more conscientious learner.
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Want to become a more effective reader and note-taker? Discover our 10 top tips on how to take notes from a textbook.