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Reading & Notetaking

Reading & Notetaking

To optimise your time try approaching your academic reading and notetaking in an active and structured way.

As a student you spend a lot of time reading and taking notes in order to learn new subject matter and retain knowledge. Your efforts are more likely to succeed if you approach reading and notetaking in an active manner, which happens by taking your current needs as a learner into consideration.

Active academic reading is a structured approach you can use to make sure that you spend your reading time optimally. When taking notes, there are many techniques to choose from, but no rules. So practise an guerilla style approach: try out the techniques, blend them, and adapt them to suit your own needs and 

Consider your purpose

Before you start, it is a good idea to consider the purpose of your reading or note taking.

Why are you reading a particular text? What will you be using it for? How and when do you expect to use the notes you are taking?

When you have identified your purpose, you can decide how much to focus on getting a general overview, and how much to focus on understanding the details.


Active Academic Reading

As a student you must read a large number of texts for your classes, presentations and assignments. Become an effective reader by using the active reading method.

Get the most out of the reading you do for your studies by using the active reading method. With this method, you will make the most appropriate use of your time, and you will get the most out of the reading you do for your studies. The method consists of 5 steps.

The active reading method helps you assess how deeply you need to delve into a text. Some of the texts need to be read thoroughly, while some do not.

The Method: Active Academic Reading

Step by step

What to do

1. Prepare your reading

  • Get a clear idea of the purpose for reading the text. What kind of text is it, and what do you need to do with it? How important is the text in relation to the knowledge you need?
  • Also consider how much time you can and will spend on reading the text, and when you can do the reading. You might try putting reading into a weekly planner where you can also indicate your other activities. Remember: You control your reading, rather than the other way around.
  • Now you can decide whether you need to follow all the next steps or only a few. If your reading is for lectures/class, following steps 2 and 3 may be enough.

2. Orient yourself within the text and form an overview of it

  • Read the title, headings and table of contents.
  • Read highlighted words, keywords in the margin, text boxes and the index.
  • Look at the illustrations, figures, graphs and models, and read the accompanying text.
  • Read the introduction and the conclusion. The beginning and end are the framework for the actual content.

3. Ask the text questions

  • Ask the text questions based on steps 1 and 2 and write down the answers.

4. Read what is relevant

  • The relevance depends on the knowledge you need here and now. You can always return to the text.

5. Take notes

  • Perhaps you are better able to retain what you have read if you take notes along the way. Use, for instance, a form for taking notes, adapting it to your purpose. You can download one or more of the following forms:
  •  A form for identifying key concepts in a reading.
  •  A form that offers inspiration about reading and notetaking methods.
  •  Vary your reading. Download a detailed handout about reading methods and the purpose of the reading.
  •  Do you participate in a reading group? If so, you might want to use an agreement form for working with texts in reading groups.


There are many techniques to choose from for taking notes. Experiment and find your own style.

By taking notes you can read or listen actively. It can help you learn and understand the material better.

Before you start

Orient yourself in the material and decide on the purpose of your notes: Do you need to compare and contrast main points from different texts? Do you need to become familiar with a new subject area with new terminology? What part of the content do you want to focus on?

Once you know what you want to focus on, you can more easily concentrate on selecting and noting down what is relevant.

Notetaking techniques

Notes are many things and can be structured in many ways. Experiment and find your own style. You may want to combine techniques or use one technique for one course or class and a different one for another course or class.

Mark in the text: Mark and write any comments in the text using a highlighter/pen/pencil while you read. You might consider using different colors for different kinds of content or levels of importance. In some courses, it helps to use the books reference books by marking sections, topics or chapters with self-adhesive tabs.

Take notes: Take brief notes in your own words. Find your own effective notetaking language - for example, using abbreviations, symbols and "codes" that are right for you and your course of study.

Use one of our forms:

 The Form for Identifying Key Concepts provides an overview of and can facilitate reading for exams.

 The Questions-and-Answers-Form is useful in connection with reading.

 The General Form for Notetaking in Class can help you retain the topics discussed and the thoughts you had in class.

 The Keyword Form for Classes can help you retain the core content covered in class.

Draw: Use drawings as notes. See the example this page.

Make a mind map of, for instance, an article, a chapter in a book or a lecture.

Oral notes: Using your phone, PC (eg, via OneNote), dictaphone or another device, record your notes while reading. 


Following up on notes

You may want to follow up on your notes by adding comments and references.

Consider whether the notes are useful and how well the technique you used worked for you in the given situation.

Archive your notes. Make sure that they are easy to find and consult when you need to do so. See also Manage Information.


The content of this page was produced by Ina Schmidt, Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media, Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University.

Useful links:

Websites about academic skills:

  • Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Find information on how to research and write with correct grammar and style. Includes detailed style guides for different referencing systems.

  • How-To-Study An American site for lower level students from elementary school to college with easy to understand tips in both English and Spanish.

  • Study Guides and Strategies. Besides information about reading, writing, researching, studying and managing projects, this American site has tips for memorizing and concentrating.

Literature about academic skills: