student on bed with highlighted book in her lap

Taking Notes and Reading Actively

Taking notes on what you are reading is called annotation, and it is an essential tool for active reading. Active reading means actively engaging a text by taking notes, questioning the author/claim, making comments, and writing paragraph summaries. When you take the steps to critically engage and effectively understand a text, you are reading it actively.

To begin, you want to figure out a way to take notes on what you are reading. This could mean opening a word document or using a pen and paper to jot down ideas. Think of your annotations as a way of “talking” to the text and responding to the authors.

Why Should I Take Notes?

Throughout your studies, you’re inundated with information that you’ll need to access for discussions, exams, quizzes, and assignments. Taking notes (or annotation) will help you better organize, outline, and understand your course material so that you can recall and access it when needed.

Taking notes is key to the learning process because it trains to put the someone else’s words into a language you can understand. It gives you a chance to learn through translation and direct interaction with the author. These notes will become a gateway for understanding and a reference point when it comes time to write, study, or present.

Questions to Get You Started: Below is a checklist to help guide your note taking. Use this to start outlining your readings and building your notes.

  1. Identify unfamiliar words, key terms, and abbreviations. You can create a list or table for these, which defines and explains them further.
  2. Identify the author’s main idea(s) and major point(s). Narrow these down and organize them so that you’re not overwhelmed.
  3. Type one-sentence summaries of important sections or paragraphs. Remind yourself what the overall point is and how it relates to the rest of the reading.
  4. Write down questions you have and challenge the author. If you are unsure of the author’s evidence or have questions about what they are saying, make a note of it.
  5. If you have an opinion about something in the text or want to make a comment, do so! This is the best way to interact with the text. Point out inconsistencies and contradictions.
  6. Make lists, charts, diagrams, etc., that help you better understand the material.
  7. Create a consistent system of symbols and shorthand to use while annotating. These notes are to help you, so make them as personal and as easy to understand as possible.

Ways to Take Notes

In-Text Annotation: Try a number of note-taking methods to see what works for you, e.g., sticky posts, highlighting, marginal comments, color coding, etc.

Book annotation

Books On Loan: Using color-coded sticky notes is a good option for library books or when you can’t write directly in the text.

post it notes (with notes on them) inside a textbook


Annotation Symbols or Shorthand: To save time and space, create your own code or shorthand for annotation. Make your symbols simple and distinct. In time, you will find a personalized system that works for you. You can start by using the symbols below:

chart of annotation symbols

Taking Paperless Notes

Since many HSEWI courses are online or use electronic documents, you should learn effective ways to take notes digitally. The health science workplace is also becoming increasingly paperless, so developing a personalized method of electronic annotation would be a valued workforce skill. Microsoft’s OneNote is a great place to start because it is free and compatible with your Canvas courses. In OneNote, you can consolidate all of your notes within a single digital “notebook,” making it simple to keep track of information across courses.

Using Microsoft OneNote

OneNote allows you to type up notes, upload links, draw, record audio, and insert photos, images, or videos. Play around with different ways of arranging your notes. If you’re more of a visual learner, be sure to include more graphics and color coding—just see what works for you.

To download Office 2016 (which contains OneNote) click here:

How to Organize Your Paperless Notes:

  1. Use major section titles, headings, or key terms to structure your notes
  2. Define/list key words and phrases you encounter
  3. Summarize major findings, claims, or important points made by the author
  4. Write down questions, comments, or reactions that you have along the way
    1. Be critical and inquisitive as you read
    2. Ask yourself about the methodology and validity of the author’s claims
  5. Include graphics (charts, tables, etc.) or videos that carry significant or relevant information
  6. Include relevant audio recordings or important clips from lectures/videos

The example below and this video show you how to structure your course notes:

Sample of student's OneNote notebook for taking course notes

Links for Active and Critical Reading

These links will help you better understand what it means to read something thoroughly.

  • Close Reading: Question the author and the intent. Correspond with the text. What’s being said here? Why does it matter?
  • Active Reading: Engage the text physically by highlighting. Ask questions. Take notes.

Last Updated October 18, 2018