C. Munzenmaier Hamilton College Urbandale, IA

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Taking Notes on Sources

Stages of the Note-Taking Process

The temptation to jump in and start taking notes can be strong. However, some of your sources are going to have more information than others. If you start with the best sources, all you have to do when you get to the others is note any new information.

  1. Sort your sources into categories: most valuable to possibly useful.
  2. Start with the most valuable sources.
  3. Work your way through the sources until you're not finding much new information.
  4. Stop. Ask: Do these sources answer my questions about the topic?
    • If yes, you're ready to start writing.
    • If no, you need to find more sources.
      • Search for the names of authors quoted in your sources.
      • Use important words from your questions as search engine keywords
        or go to ask.com and type your question in the search box.
      • Check the bibliography or reference list at the end of your sources. You can try to find the articles or other works by the authors on the Internet, in EBSCO, or through interlibrary loan.
  5. Keep researching until you meet Daphne Gray-Grant's criterion: "Before you begin to write ask yourself: 'If a friend, partner or colleague grilled me on this topic, could I answer most of their questions easily and in plain English?' If not, continue your research."
  6. Save all of your sources until you've finished writing and revising your paper. You may find that a statistic you didn't think you'd need makes a good beginning for your paper. You might also need to add information to a reference citation.

Methods of Note-Taking

Before word-processing, students were told to take notes on 3 x 5 index cards. Some people still recommend that approach, because it makes it easy to organize your notes by topic. However, students often find it too labor-intensive.

Some prefer to underline printouts of their sources. Highlighters can be your friend, as long as you own the source and you underline selectively. One technique is to mark long, important passages with a vertical line in the margin. You can then highlight the specific details you need within the passage.

You can also cut-and-paste important information into a Word file. This works well, as long as you remember to include information you'll need for the reference list, like author's name and where you found the information.

Sticky notes can be a note-taker's best friend. You can use them in two ways:

  • to flag important information
  • to find patterns in your information

Double-entry notes let you keep track of information and your thoughts about it at the same time. This strategy uses two columns. If you find an objection to your thesis, you would summarize or quote it in one column. In the other, you would add a comment, such as "this can be my counterargument."

Principles of Note-Taking

No matter how you take notes, you should follow these general principles.

  • Engage your brain. It's easy to do too much copying-and-pasting and not enough thinking. Without critical thinking, your paper generally can't get a grade higher than C.
    • Have you chosen material that proves your thesis?
    • Have you considered opposing points of view?
    • What relationships have you found among your sources?
  • Get a sense of the whole source before you start taking notes.
  • If you can’t put the ideas in a source into your own words, don’t use it.
    Read an easier source, like an encyclopedia, to build your background.
  • Read actively. Highlight key ideas and note your own questions or reactions to a source.
  • Focus on ideas rather than sticking too closely to your source. If you put things in your own words, neither the wording nor the structure of the original should be recognizable in your paraphrase.
Original Too Close to Source
…America’s fuel is caffeine. Coffee is the brew kick-starting a nation of bleary-eyed, foggy-headed sleepwalkers.
       “Caffeine Nation”
       CBS Sunday Morning, 11/14/02
Coffee is the drink that gives a nation of foggy-headed sleepwalkers a kick-start every morning.
  • Use your own words as much as possible. Quote only when
    • something is exceptionally well-said
    • you want to show that an expert agrees with you,
    • it's important to have exact language, such as a legal definition.
  • If you take more than three words from the original, quote them.
    Exception: Some terms have more than one word. You need not quote standard terminology (or shared language) like perennial allergic rhinitis or parole revocation hearing.
    Exception: If one word is used in a way that is unique to that source, you must quote that one word.
    For example, author Raymond Chandler said, "At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable." Paraphrase: According to Raymond Chandler, a well-plotted mystery should have only one "inevitable" ending.
Original Paraphrase/New Structure Quotation/

Caffeine is one of the fastest acting drugs known to man. When we drink it, almost every cell in the body, including the brain, absorbs it within minutes. There, caffeine works its magic by blocking something called adenosine, a chemical the body releases to tell the brain it’s tired. Caffeine intercepts the adenosine, turning the "I’m tired," message into "I’m wide awake." The result is an invigorating buzz coffee drinkers crave.
  “Caffeine Nation”
   CBS Sunday Morning, 11/14/02

Caffeine is stimulating for two reasons: it is quickly absorbed, and it blocks the chemical that signals fatigue, adenosine ("Caffeine Nation," 2002). According to a CBS news report, “Caffeine is one of the fastest acting drugs known to man” ("Caffeine Nation," 2002). Once absorbed, caffeine blocks the body’s chemical signal of fatigue, adenosine.

Class Materials

Sample notes (.doc)

Susan Jellinger's Tracking Tool (.doc)

Pompous Proverbs paraphrasing practice .(ppt)

Internet Resources

Template for Taking Notes in a Word-Processor (.doc)

Create an Internet archive of sources with Furl It! or Zotero.
Synthesizing Information: Step-by-Step Instructions for Learners (Johnson's Post-It method)
RATE your sources (D. Abilock)
Paraphrase and Summary (explains how to use your notes to put something into your own words; J. Plotnik at U Toronto)
Quoting and Paraphrasing Sources (excellent examples of paraphrases; U Wisconsin handbook)
Summarizing: A Case Study (WritePlace)
Paraphrasing: A Case Study (WritePlace)
Take Notes Effectively (Purdue)
Taking Notes from Written Material (U Manchester)
How to Paraphrase (tutorial from LILO)
Citing Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism (Duke Library)
Using Principles of APA Style to Cite and Document Sources (explains how to use source-reflective statements to show where an Internet source ends and your ideas begin)
Fair Paraphrase (includes advice on how to "own the material" and signal the difference between your ideas and those taken from the source; Yale)








Copyright in these materials belongs to C. Munzenmaier © 2007.
Teachers are free to reproduce or modify them for nonprofit educational use. 

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