Date of Publication: 07 June 2021
How often have you found yourself copying down large chunks of text from a textbook, only to remember – well, almost none of it? More importantly, how often have you found yourself reading a section of text and scribbling down notes before realising you’ve not even been paying attention to the actual text on the page.
Many students make the mistake of picking up a textbook, copying out pages and pages of content as they read it from front to back, assuming they will remember all the information. But that simply isn’t true.
For it to be effective, note-taking needs to be a fairly active process. Now, 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.
We’re going to cover some of the most effective techniques to help you do so, including: pre-empting what information you are looking for, using memory retention strategies, and using colour and illustrations to help highlight and condense complex information. All the tips are designed to make you a more efficient, more effective note-taker.
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. Therefore, it’s important to take notes effectively, making it easier for you to read and understand when you come back to revising the topic in the future.
Need some help with yours? Take a look at these 10 tips on how to take notes from a textbook and make your learning process so much easier.
1. Understand what you need to know from the textbook
Before you even consider picking up your textbook, it’s vital that you understand exactly what content you need to learn from it. After all, there’s no point reciting an entire two-hundred-page book if you only need to know a small section of it.
As such, one of the most important tips we can give you on how to take notes effectively is to take the time before your note-taking session to decide what you need to learn.
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.
Ideally, you should give yourself at least 15 minutes to do so, making bullet points of every section you need to cover. Once you’ve completed the note-taking process, remember to check back over this initial list and ensure that you have made notes on all the sections you needed to. If not, see if you’ve missed anything in the textbook, or you may need to look further afield for another book.
2. Create an outline of the textbook
When you take notes from a textbook, you’re essentially trying to condense the entire thing into a succinct format – one which pulls all the important information and terminology out for you, without any superfluous content.
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 – don’t read an entire chapter and then go back to take notes; moving back and forth between pages can waste time and overloading your brain with a whole chapter’s worth of information could mean you forget something important.
There are many different ways you can do this; by using the headings to make a storyboard, a mind map, or even using the Cornell notes writing technique – whatever method works best for you is fine, as long as you keep the notes short. Or else you’ll simply be making a carbon copy of the original textbook.
3. Skim for important information
When it comes to taking notes effectively, one of the greatest and most efficient ways to pull the information you need is to skim the entire textbook and make notes on the most important content.
To master this technique, go through your textbook chapter by chapter, and 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. They’ll also help you to make notes which are clear and well-organised – a key trick for helping you when it comes to revision.
Don’t have time to skim your entire textbook from cover to cover? 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
To take notes effectively from the very start, you need to make sure you’re interpreting the content in the textbook in a way that makes sense to you. And one of the best ways to do this? By re-wording it using vocabulary you’re familiar with.
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. However, it will make it easier for you to understand the content and remember it in a way that makes sense to you.
There’s no one way or sure-fire method for doing this, you can paraphrase in any way you want. Of course, you don’t want to try and paraphrase key terms or facts – these are probably going to be important for your exams and coursework. But as long as you are correctly interpreting the information, you can write the surrounding material using your own vocabulary.
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 on the premise that you read a chapter of your textbook, close it, and then make all your notes from memory. Checking for any errors or inaccuracies before moving onto the next chapter, you’re encouraged to repeat this method over and over until you’ve made notes on all the sections you’ve needed to.
As challenging a method as this may be, it’s actually proven to help students 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, whereby students make notes as they read sections of text.
By paraphrasing the content and trying to interpret it yourself makes you an active participant in your learning; rather than simply copying notes from a textbook, you’re encouraged to really understand what the content is trying to say and recite it in a way that will make sense to you. As a result, you’ll find it much easier to remember the information in the long-term.
6. Don’t forget graphs and charts
Often, when taking notes from a textbook, 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 supplemental information snippets can actually help you to understand information, and shouldn’t be ignored. Research, statistics, and other bites of information can often be critical to helping you understand the chapter’s main concepts and definitions. Ignore them, and could find yourself missing some key understandings.
Instead, take a few moments to glance through any supplemental material, including captions and headings on graphs, tables, and charts. This will help you to understand exactly what the section is about and ensure you focus your attention on key information while reading.
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
For your note-taking to be effective, it needs to be accurate. And so, every time you finish a chapter or section of text, it’s important that you check your notes thoroughly for any errors or inaccuracies.
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.
Using your textbook, revise your notes to check for accuracy in your dates, facts and figures, spelling, and key terminology. These are all important details you can’t afford to miss or recite incorrectly in the future.
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 all the important details
How many times have you scrolled through your social media looking at beautifully-coloured notes? Well did you know that highlighting notes can actually be the secret to helping you achieve great academic results?
Colour-coding, or highlighting, all your notes is important for helping you to remember information easier. You’ll be selecting critical details that require your attention and ensuring that your future self will be able to come back to your notes and 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 – It can be tempting to do our highlighting while making notes, however 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.
- Consistency is key – The colours you choose to segment your text needs to be consistent. Whether you use red to highlight facts, blue for dates, or green for names, remember to make a note of the colours you use for different sections and stick to them. By doing so you’ll avoid unnecessary confusion.
- Be colour-cautious – As tempting as it may be to make your notes reflect all the colours of the rainbow, it can actually hinder the note-taking process. 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. Instead, use colours that contrast with each other for the purpose of making that information stand-out on the page.
- Don’t colour everything – Remember, colour-coding should only be used to highlight the most important pieces of information. If you highlight an entire page of content, you’ll struggle to distinguish one part from another and understand which information is of primary importance.
9. Include small illustrations and doodles
Another 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.
These shouldn’t overwhelm your notes, instead, they should slot in around your page as visual clues about the content that already exists on the page. You still need to ensure that text is the main element of your work to add further detail to your content, and that these doodles are used purely to enhance your understanding.
With that being said, 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 – Turning complex explanations into easy-to-understand diagrams can help you 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 biggest tips we can offer on how to take notes effectively is to condense your notes as much as possible. No one can memorise pages and pages of context. After all, that’s why you’ve decided to take notes from a textbook in the first place.
This is particularly important for those of you using your notes for revision purposes. As you return to your notes over your revision period, make room in your schedule to condense them as much as possible; from A4 pages of notes into a pack of revision cards; from a pack of revision cards into a single A4 sheet of paper with a mind-map on. It’ll make it far easier to retain the content when it comes to your exams.
This may sound daunting now, but as you become more familiar with the content, you’ll find it easier to curb lesser important information and superfluous words. In the end, you want to head into the exam process knowing definitions off by heart, with only key memory triggers, statistics or figures there to prompt you as and when you need them.
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 (within a fairly reasonable time frame), 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.