Reading & Note Taking

Navigating a text

At university, you will be expected to read large amounts of information. Rather than reading texts from start to finish, be selective and identify key parts (shown below).

Parts of a text to help skim reading: contents, introduction, chapters, index, conclusion, visuals.
Figure 1: Parts of a text
  1. Search for chapter headings related to your subject in the contents.
  2. The introduction outlines key topics covered. Use it to decide if the source will be useful. In journal articles, read the abstract (which gives a summary of the entire piece) and the introduction.
  3. Read the beginnings of chapters and first sentences of paragraphs to gain miniature overviews.
  4. Visuals, headings and subheadings also give clues about content.
  5. The conclusion summarises the key findings.
  6. Search for words, names and phrases in the index to identify important pages.


Use Control + F (PC) or Command + F (Mac) to search digital documents.

Steps within reading: SQ3R

SQ3R technique for reading: Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review.
Figure 2: SQ3R diagram

Try following the SQ3R sequence to aid reading.

1. Survey: 

  • Skim read to gain an overview of the source. Look at areas such as the contents, introduction and index page.

2. Question:

  • What do I hope to answer?
  • What key words or phrases will I search for?
  • How reliable is this source?

3. Read:

  • Pick a relevant area to read. Start by skim reading to gain a general understanding. Read again in more detail and note-take.

4. Recall & Review

  • Recap what you have just read.
  • Check your understanding and the accuracy of your notes. Consider taking further notes.
Video about active reading

Methods of note taking

1. General tips

  • Organise your notes: order notes in a folder or keep digital documents for different topics. Alternatively, try an online note taking system such as Evernote.
  • Include clear references: always capture the Harvard reference, including the page numbers for books and journals. Consider an online tool such as Zoterobib.
  • Make information accessible: use subheadings and spaces between different topics.
  • Colour-code: highlight important information such as quotations or other sources. You might also want to use a different colour for paraphrased or quoted material.
  • Capture your thoughts: as well as noting quotations and key points from sources, write your initial responses. So what does the evidence show? Why is this a relevant example? How does it link to my research?
  • Collate your notes: use a research matrix (table) to summarize your research.
Video about note-taking
Visual example of the note-taking system.
Figure 3: Cornell note-taking

2. Cornell

  • This form of note taking involves dividing your page into three parts.
  • Learn more about it at Cornell University (no date).

  1. Firstly, fill in the main note-taking column.
  2. After making notes, put key words or questions in the cue column. These should act as a prompt for the information to the right in the main note-taking area.
  3. The last column summarises the notes. What was the source or talk about? What were the key parts or messages? How might you use the information?

3. Mind maps

  • Mind maps are a visual way of taking notes.
  • They can be hand drawn or made digitally with free software such as Xmind.
Example of a mind map made with XMind software.
Figure 4: Example of a mind map
  1. Start with the main idea in the centre. This could be an image or a word/phrase.
  2. Create branches out from centre.
  3. Write your main ideas as you add these branches.
  4. Make smaller branches (associated ideas) stem from the main ideas.
  5. Use images and symbols to represent ideas.

(Buzan, 2002, pp. 28-31)

Tools and software

Resources consulted for this page:

Buzan, T. (2002) How to mind map. London: Thornton.

Cornell University (no date) The Cornell note taking method. Available at: (Accessed: 28 August 2019).

Royal Literary Fund (2019) How to read: SQ3R. Available at: (Accessed: 28 July 2019).

Image to represent a list of eBooks available about reading and note-taking.


Find out more out note-taking and critical thinking here: