Originally published on the University of Oxford History Faculty Articles section on 4th May 2021 at www.history.ox.ac.uk/article/tips-from-my-first-year-note-taking#/.
This is the second of a three-part series giving advice on the process of writing, focusing on the key area of note-taking.
Daniel is a first year BA History and Politics student at Magdalen College. He is a disabled student and the first in his immediate family to go to university. Daniel is also a Trustee of Potential Plus UK, a Founding Ambassador and Expert Panel Member for Zero Gravity, and a History Faculty Ambassador. Before coming to university, Daniel studied at a non-selective state school, and was a participant on the UNIQ, Sutton Trust, and Social Mobility Foundation APP Reach programmes, as well as being part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. Daniel is passionate about outreach and social mobility and ensuring all students have the best opportunity to succeed.
History and its related disciplines mainly rely on essay-writing with most term-time work centring on this, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. The blessing of the Oxford system though is you get plenty of opportunity to practice, and your tutors usually provide lots of feedback (both through comments on essays and in tutorials) to help you improve.
Here are my tips from my first year as an Oxford Undergraduate:
- General ideas, not all the details – reading is mainly about getting the argument of a text, so make sure to note down in really brief form what the viewpoint is. There may be relevant case studies, so get down the most important information as you can’t write down everything (believe me, I used to and it isn’t worth it!). If you are struggling to really pick out the important points, consider what notes you would make if you were to give an unscripted one to two minute presentation or if you were going to tell your friend about the text. Because I’m interested in politics, I see it as a briefing note, to really get down to the top-level information that sticks out as you won’t need to cover every intricacy of a text.
- Bullet points or mind maps – these are the most common methods students use when making notes. I prefer bullet points because I find mind maps a challenge as I end up focusing far too much on the presentation rather than on the content. Bullet points help me to be efficient with my time, but use whatever method works for you.
- Use memory triggers – if you have found certain ways of remembering larger amounts of information, then make sure to use them. They may be pictures or key words, or I have even heard of somebody who writes down the first word of a paragraph of a text to remember it (this was a single isolated case!). Or if you are like me and haven’t found something for you that works like this, keep condensing your notes down as a form of revision.
- Personal choice – I’ve mentioned it throughout some of the other points, but really use what works for you. One-page mind maps I really struggle with for presentation reasons, but also because I initially struggle to condense my notes to that size – I spend too much time focusing on using less words instead of absorbing the content. While being concise and effective with words is heavily prized (and something I’ve certainly improved on), I would also say balance it with understanding and being focused on the task. As I’ve said, I use bullet points (around two pages on a chapter initially) and then when I go to revise or plan my essay I will try to halve that, and I try to keep that process going throughout the year.
- Make notes that will help you in six months’ time – if there’s one thing I wish I had done differently when I started, it would be making so many (or in some cases so few) notes that they are basically impossible to work with. Get the essay done how it works for you, but equally give yourself a useful resource to work with in revision.
I hope this will help as a toolkit to get you started, but my last piece of advice is don’t worry!
You get so much practice at Oxford so there is plenty of opportunity to perfect your note-taking skills. Don’t think you need to be amazing at everything straight away. Take your first term to try new methods out and see what works for you – don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Good luck!