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Reading Well and Taking Research Notes

How to read critically and well and take good research notes. Includes information about tools that can help you do this effectively on your computer or mobile device.

Reading without Printing

While reading on a screen may not be as appealing as reading on printed paper, there are several advantages.

  • It uses less paper and (even more importantly) less toner.

  • You can take notes that are searchable and organizable

  • You can have multiple pages open at the same time on computer screens, which reduces flipping back and forth to look at a key chart or bibliography

Since this can take some getting used to, plan to commit to a paperless reading experiment for at least a week or two.

But I already know how to read!

Of course you do! But just as games get more and more complicated as you level up, so also reading means more and more things as you progress through your education. This guide gives you some tips and tools to "level up" your reading for college-level work.

The authors whose texts you read in college, whether the texts are fact or fiction, are engaging in a slow-motion conversation on a topic. Your goal is to listen carefully to the author's side of the conversation so that you, too, can participate in the conversation. You don't want to simply parrot back what other people have said in the conversation, and you don't want to talk about something completely irrelevant. Instead, you want to listen (read) carefully and then contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way.

Active Reading

Reading critically involves more than simply understanding the information that the text conveys. That is the first step. But reading critically requires reading actively, in constant conversation with the text as you discern not only what it says, but how it says it. In the end, according to Dan Kurkland, you want to know three things:

  1. What the text says - information conveyed
  2. What the text does - purpose and techniques
  3. What the text means - interpretation in context

To help you do this, take notes as you are reading. The goals is to give yourself ways to find patterns and key moments in the text. This is your initial conversation with the author.

Make notes that:

  • summarize key sections of the text,
  • mark important structural elements of the text,
  • ask questions of the text,
  • indicate places where you would like to go back and follow up on an allusion or citation,
  • mark the most important phrases or sentences that you might want to quote later.

In the example to the left, the student has used red pen to mark structural elements and blue pen to make notes about and ask questions of the content.

Not only will annotations help you find patterns in the texts, they'll also help you remember what you read. So always read with a pencil (or its digital equivalent)!

Use what you have to find more

Every source contains rich clues to other useful sources. It's a treasure map that can lead you to sources you would never find by pure searching. Think of it is giving clues along two axes:

  • Foward and backward in time by mining the source's bibliography and by seeing who has cited the source (ask at the Research/IT Desk for help).

  • Side to side across the scholarly conversation by collecting key terms, phrases, and names used in the useful source to find other sources that are similar, and by analyzing how participants in the conversation on this topic use evidence, and what kinds of evidence they use.