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Academic Writing: Reading and Note Taking

Reading and Note Taking

Reading and Note Taking

Before you start reading, it is a good idea to think about why you are reading, including what you are trying to learn.  Depending on those considerations, your reading approach may vary.  For example:

  • If you are reading for general interest or to better understand background information for lectures you will need to read the topic widely but with not much depth.
  • If you are reading for an essay you will need to focus the reading around the essay question and may need to study a small area of the subject in great depth.  In this case, you should write out the essay question and make a note of any questions you have about it

In both cases, it is important that you don't get side-tracked and waste time on non-relevant issues.

You will not be able, nor will you be expected, to read everything (books and articles) on your reading list.  Whilst you will likely have essential readings outlined in your module handbooks, finding time to read through all of the material may prove challenging.  

To decide whether a book is relevant and useful:

  • Find out if it is listed as essential reading in your reading list.  You should also consider the author and publication date.
  • If the book is not listed as essential, skim through the introduction or publisher information about the book to see if it seems relevant to the topic you are studying.  This will also help you better understand the author's approach
  • Look at the contents pages and think about whether the information you are looking for is likely to be covered.  This will also help you to decide whether the book is at the right level for you, or if there is enough/too much information being covered.
  • Find a topic you are familiar with in the index and then read what the author has to say about it to see how they deal with the concept. 
  • Look at the bibliography to decide whether the author uses a range of references and sources.
  • Consider whether there are enough examples, illustrations, graphs, etc. that allow you to follow along and are helpful for your purpose of a study.

To select useful articles from journals or research papers:

  • Read the abstract, or summary, and decide whether it is relevant.
  • Skim through the conclusion or discussion to decide whether the article may be useful.
  • Read through the introduction and consider whether it provides a useful literature review
  • Unless you have plenty of time, you do not need to read the entire article unless one or more of the following apply:
    • it is an essential, seminal piece of work
    • it is highly relevant to your essay
    • you are likely to get ideas from reading it
    • it is highly relevant to your assignment
    • you can't find anything else

If you don't have a reading list or set reading:

  • View the Subject Guide for your course area
  • Find a general textbook on the subject
  • Consider searching the internet for information on your topic- keeping in mind the importance of evaluating the information.
  • Browse the relevant shelf areas in the library, including related topics.
  • Ask your tutor, Librarian, or Academic Skills Advisor for suggestions about where to start.
  • Attend a Learning Services workshop to further develop your research skills

There is no definitive amount of reading recommended for your assignments, as the amount you need to read will vary according to assessment criteria, module design, and course. 

It is a better idea to concentrate more on the quality of the sources you decide to read and whether you are able to effectively interpret the information.

  • DO NOT rely heavily on just one or two resources- this shows a lack of engaging with wider reading and prevents you from developing a well-rounded understanding of the topic, as using one or two sources means you will only get a limited view of the concept, rather than one that is varied and dynamic.
  • DO NOT try to read everything on your reading list and try to fit it into your assignment.  Doing so will result in losing your demonstration of understanding the topic or getting your ideas across. 
  • Try to be strategic about what you read by identifying what you need to find and what the best resources are to do so.
  • Take your time reading- it's more important that you fully understand the information you are reading, rather than the amount of information you are reading.

What can you do if the items you need from the library aren't available on the shelves?

Due to high usage rates, you might find it challenging to acquire a copy of certain, key texts throughout the year, but don't panic!  There are a number of things you can do to access the information you need for your course.

  • Use Discovery to find other books or resources on the same topic area.  You can do this by clicking on the hyperlinked subject terms that appear with the title you are looking for, or you can make a note of the item's call number and look in the same area on the shelves in the library.
  • Make sure you reserve the book you want if it is not available immediately.  Not only does this add you to the queue, it also lets the librarian know when there is a book in high demand (in which ordering additional copies may be necessary).
  • Find out if there are any journal articles that deal with the topic area you are researching. Discovery can be used to find these, as well as other types of resources, such as newspaper articles, dissertations, and book reviews. 
  • Check to see if the book chapter or reading you need is available within your module on LearnUniversity of Suffolk.  If not, ask your lecturer if certain key readings can be made available on LearnUniversity of Suffolk, or contact your Librarian
  • Check if there is a reference copy of the book available at the library so that you can photocopy the pages you need.  Just make sure you stay within copyright guidelines.

You can also contact your Librarian to schedule an appointment if you'd like further support with finding relevant information.


Reading Actively

At university, you will need to develop what is called active reading and note taking. This requires you to engage your brain and think about what you are reading and writing down. In-another-words you cannot just sit, read and copy from a text book or lecture slides. You need to think before you start about what you are looking at and expecting to learn.

Writing down questions you need answers for can help as it gives purpose to your reading.

Making predictions on what you may learn can help engage your brain.

Linking what knowledge you already know with new knowledge can aid understanding and develop the new knowledge.

You can re-read notes and tutor slides to aid linking to new knowledge. After reading and note taking review your notes regularly, rework them and reuse them, as this all aids building up your knowledge of the subject.

Note that actively reading and making notes this way is a skill that you learn over time. The effort needed to actively read and note take can be tiring and hard to start with, as you need to build up your reading stamina. An alternative way of accessing information is to use technology.

Tips for effective annotating and note taking:

  • record all reference details such as author, title, publisher, publication type, date
  • record subject terms or keywords
  • include notes, paraphrasing and summaries
  • accurately record page numbers for each note taken beside the note
  • include your comments on the text
  • identify relationships to other literature
  • indicate relevance of main points
  • clearly identify original text
  • clearly and accurately record text for each quote and page number
  • skim the text to identify broad themes

Taking useful notes from the materials you've read will help you stay organised.  Consider the following tips:

  • Make a note of the information source used
    Include all the details you need for referencing further on to save time later
  • Survey, skim and scan 
    Survey - look at the title, introduction and chapter heading in the contents
    Skim - look at headings and subheadings, first paragraphs, and/or first sentences of each paragraph in each chapter
    Scan - use book indexes for the broad topic then look through the chapter for the specific topic in context
  • Summarise information in your own words
    Don’t copy out long passages
  • Look out for the main points
    This may help when writing your preparation for an exam
  • Use ‘post-its’ 
    To mark important information which you will return to later
  • Use a style of note-taking that suits you
    including Mind Mapping (a resource from UEA)
  • Use quotation marks to indicate direct quotes from the text
    This will help you to avoid plagiarism through unacknowledged quotes

For further information, these external links may be useful:

Note Making


1:1 bookable appointments can be made with your Academic Skills Advisers for your subject area.

Students from Ipswich can book two appointments per week (if you are a student from the Learning Network, please contact your library) - 

  • up to 1 hour with an Academic Skills Advisor

Appointments are scheduled in 30 minute slots.  

Schedule an Appointment