Student sat reading in front of the Museum of Natural History, Oxford.
Student sat reading in front of the Museum of Natural History, Oxford.

Reading, note-taking and library skills

Making effective use of the libraries at Oxford

As part of your orientation as an Oxford student, take a look at the Getting Started pages to find out how the libraries can help you. For many subjects, departments will schedule library sessions into your induction timetable. Specialist librarians are available to discuss your research topic and literature searching needs as well as offering expert help on how to locate online and print material. Training sessions are also provided for those embarking on independent research.

Developing your IT skills

It is important to develop your IT skills while at university and there are many resources to help you to do so. In addition to software training provided by IT Services, there is a wide range of information skills training available through the Bodleian Libraries’, including practical Bodleian iSkills workshops. You may register for free taught courses or pursue online self-directed courses at your own pace. Visit the IT Services website.

Reading skills: using different sources

Reading is a key academic skill that requires you to be able to identify and find appropriate materials, then prioritise these and then read them with a specific aim in mind, for example research for a tutorial. Thinking about the purpose of why you’re reading what you are can help you to more effectively tackle a reading list.

If you are just beginning to learn about a particular topic you may well be reading to get some background information. If you want a broader context for something you already know lots about, a general text or textbook can be a helpful starting point. If, however, you are looking for particular examples or research data to support an argument or to get into a topic in more depth you should be reading peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters in edited collections.

Getting started with your reading
Rather than starting a book on page one and working through it in a linear fashion, look first for key terms relating to your topic, read the beginnings and endings of chapters, and find summaries of the main arguments. Similarly with research papers you may find it helpful to start with the abstract, then read the conclusion and discussion. You will then be primed with a sense of the argument and structure of the book or paper. This should help you both to read more quickly and to engage more closely with the author’s main ideas.

Focusing your reading on the essay question
If you are reading materials in preparation for an assignment, such as writing an essay, report or project, then as you read, regularly remind yourself of your assignment brief, such as what the assignment is asking of you; for example ‘write an essay to illustrate the impact of x and y upon z’. This will help you to focus your reading to make sure it is relevant to what you actually need to be preparing.

Accessing online material
A lot of what you will be reading may be online and this can create some additional challenges. Do remember that there are a range of technologies available to help make reading on a screen easier including for you. Add-ons such as ‘Immersive Reader’ built into Microsoft Edge and ‘Read Aloud’ to allow you to listen to your readings in Microsoft Office and in Microsoft Edge. If you are using a phone or tablet as an e-reader you might want to try Speak Screen (in the accessibility settings on iOS) or VoiceDream reader to listen to your readings.

Further information about assistive technologies to help you study effectively and efficiently at Oxford is available on the IT courses website

Making effective use of your time
Above all, don’t be scared to put a book or a research paper aside and move on to another source if it isn’t relevant or if you’re not finding it useful. You can always come back to it later, or make a note to ask your tutor about it in your next tutorial. Having a specific aim of why you are reading will help you to read more analytically and more effectively.

Watch this brief video
from the Oxford Study Skills Centre to find out more about how to manage your reading list (2mins 19 sec).

A practical way to manage your reading list: the Pomodoro Method
A top tip if you find it hard to concentrate on reading for extended periods is to use something called the ‘Pomodoro method’. This is a technique to focus your studying and it has a few easy steps to follow, as below:

  1. Choose your reading task and identify how much time you realistically have to spend on it.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes and then read for this length of time without any other distractions—no phones, no social media, no talking—until the timer alarm sounds.
  3. Take a five minute mini-break from reading. This is then one ‘Pomodoro’ round completed.
  4. Set the timer again and work solidly for another 25 minutes without distractions, followed by another five minute break.
  5. Repeat this process, taking a longer break after completing four such ‘Pomodoro’ rounds.

Breaking up a reading task using the Pomodoro method can help if the reading list feels a bit overwhelming or if the material you’re reading is unfamiliar to you. It is also a really useful method if you find you are easily distracted or prone to procrastination.
A downloadable handout on the Pomodoro method is available for you here: embed link into text as above

Note-taking: Three top tips

You may find it helpful to develop more strategic approaches to note-taking that are more than simply writing down everything that looks important (strategic note-taking is often referred to as ‘note-making’, rather than note-taking). This can not only help you to focus on the task at hand, but it can also save you time. This section will show you how to do this.

1. Identify the main points
When taking notes in a class or lecture, try to identify the speaker’s main points and note them, together with any useful supporting evidence. Don’t try to record everything the lecturer is saying verbatim.

2. Keep a record of all the sources you have read
Remember to include full citation details for all your sources, online and in hard copy, and ensure that you note down the page number or URL of each example, argument or quote that you select.

This is important as you may need to revisit some sources and so having complete citation information to hand will save you time later on.

3. Avoiding plagiarism
When making notes from reading materials, whether those are textbooks, papers or materials online, try to confine yourself to identifying the main points and writing these in your own words. This avoids something called close paraphrasing, which can lead to inadvertent plagiarism. It is really important to make it clear in your notes when you are quoting something verbatim by enclosing the material in quotation marks.

If you are watching recorded lectures there are some ideas to develop your note-taking skills on the Oxford Students website.

A technique for note-taking: the Cornell Method
A well-known approach for note-taking is called the Cornell Method (also discussed in the video below) and while it has been designed for classes and lectures, you may also find it useful for taking notes while you’re reading. The idea is that you divide a page up into three sections to create your notes as follows:

Section 1. Notes: make a note of key points from the class or lecture during the session, or make notes whilst you are reading a text.

Section 2. Main Ideas: this is where you make connections and further develop your understanding, for example, in the form of writing down your questions. This is likely to be most helpful for you if you do it after the class or lecture you’ve attended, or having finished your reading.

Section 3. Summary: draft a very short overview of the class, lecture or reading material to make it easier for you to return to your notes at a later date.

Here’s a template for you to download if you’d like to try this approach to note-taking.

A visual method to take notes: using mind maps
Some people find taking written notes doesn’t work for them, so you might want to try creating ‘mind map’ notes instead. These are a visual representation of what you’ve noted from attending a class or lecture or having undertaken some reading; the topic is written in the centre and then lines are drawn to indicate connections and their relative importance between your notes.

Watch this five minute video on how to create a mind map. You can also see further examples of mind maps used for note taking on the Open University webpage.

If you are using a tablet as an e-reader and to take notes on digital readings you might want to try MarginNote 3 or LiquidText to annotate texts using a keyboard or OneNote or Notability to take hand-written notes. Further information about the study tools can be accessed with your Oxford Single Sign On (SSO).

Key points for successful note-taking

  • Try not to be a perfectionist. Spending time in a lecture or class trying to perfect your notes may lead you to miss an important point if you’re spending too long writing out one specific point.
  • Develop your own shorthand methods to make your note-taking as efficient as possible.
  • Don’t worry if your hand-written notes look scruffy – the main thing is that you are able to read and understand them when you come to revisit them later.
  • Make a note of the class or lecture, or full citation of your reading material, along with the date at the top of your notes. This will help you keep your notes more organised and make it easier for you to find them at a later date.
  • Experiment with different approaches to taking notes – what works for one person may not be the best way for you.



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