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Do you take notes when you read?

  1. Jul 1, 2008 #1
    When I read, even math books, I often take notes. This includes copying verbatim many things from the math book, such as a completed rule or theorem, or of a proof to study so I can understand it. I like to take notes when I read some political and philosophical texts as well, highlighting the important stuff. This way, I assume, I can go back and easily reference points I thought were important. I like to study my notes, not just from courses but from the textbooks. I've seen few people take as many notes as I do.

    However, there are some disadvantages that are cropping up now that there is more work. The most obvious of which is that notes slow down your reading, of course, plus it can make the reading seem more like a chore.

    Most people would probably rather read the book, and then reference what sections they need. This probably helps categorize the text in their mind. In fact, I have found I more often reference sources that I have simply memorized from readings (and I'll go back and look them up) than I do from notes I've taken.

    Another problem is that I have so many notes going from so many different books, I have to keep them in the same binder or folder, not using the standard divisions that come with them at all, and often forget where the notes are to the text I want to review, and have to sort through them all. Worst of all, when I review, I often just get the text out itself, and completely discard said notes.

    This makes me think my obsessive note taking is just a bad habit I picked up somehow, in much the same way moving your lips while you read or obsessive highlighting can be confusing. So I'm wondering if people here think this is a bad habit, or a good thing.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 1, 2008 #2
    No, but your post makes me think I should...
  4. Jul 1, 2008 #3
    Yes, perhaps. I'm thinking it might be a flaw, though. Most physicists would probably just reference the material if they ever need to look something up.

    Most people, students and so on, do I think take minor notes. Of course, they do homework sets. They also might write something in the book, highlight something in there, or put brackets around something they think is important or an important quote.

    But, I can't stand marking up books, so I usually just write it all down.
  5. Jul 1, 2008 #4
    I highlight all the bits that are important to me, which I guess isn't great if you lend the book...
  6. Jul 1, 2008 #5
    If the notes are your own words, I think it's a good thing. I don't see the value of transcribing the text when you can just underline it.

    I write extensive notes in the margins of my physics books. If I can't derive an equation in my head, then I do the derivation in my notebook and then transcribe it to the margin of the book. If it won't fit in the margin, I put it in one of the blank pages at the end of the book. In addition, I put in cross referencing information. So if the author references equation 3.27, I add a note telling me what page that is. I also make a note indicating that I don't understand something. I often read my books a second or third time, so these notes save me a lot of time and effort on subsequent readings. Some pages have as much marginal text as printed text.
  7. Jul 3, 2008 #6
    Sounds like a very efficient method of note taking.

    The process of transcribing an explanation, was to help memorize it. In some books, they're nice enough to put the algorithms and methods in special text boxes or italicized words. But I still write them down, and then try and explain it in my own words.

    The purpose of the notebooks is because I figure there will always be something I want to keep on hand without having to fiddle around with the books, but like I said I end up writing too much. My plan now is to just note take in a way that will increase memorization alone, rather than trying to "reference" the book in my notes, as it seems I've been doing.
  8. Jul 5, 2008 #7
    I don't take notes, and I never ever mark a book.
    I used to create mind maps while I was reading a subject, but I don't anymore, it just takes too much time.
    I see tons of people pretty much taking notes copying the text verbatim from the book, but what's the point? Books often have a summary at the end of each chapter with the key points highlighted, so why should I lose time writing the same stuff over and over again?

    Granted, writing it down seems to help memorizing it, but I am using another strategy now, I use programs that track how often they should question me about something I learned a while ago to keep it fresh on the long term memory.

    Read about the forgetting curve and software such as jmemorize.
  9. Jul 7, 2008 #8
    I used to do that, summarize the reading I've done. Surprisingly, it made a lot of things stick better, although not math. I've stopped doing that namely because its inefficient, and I learn more doing problems.
  10. Jul 7, 2008 #9
    No...I think notes are a waste of time. The information is in the reading material; I do not remember everything, but the aim is to understand and not to memorize (memorization is too mechanical of a way to learn). Of course, if its for a subject one does not care for and only intends to pass, I guess notes would be suitable (I still don't do them regardless of such...I just skim over what I need to when I'm disinterested...or just not read anything and try to grasp things at the last minute).
  11. Jul 7, 2008 #10
    Well, I myself am guilty of obsessive highlighting, but as long as it makes me feel more comfortable while working with a book, so what ? What you do is no bad habit, at worst it is less effective than other methods.

    I think what Howers mentioned (about learning more doing the problems) is most important. Try to do as much of the problems as time permits. Mark each solved problem with a checkmark and each one where you failed with a fat questionmark - or better yet, a short description what part of the problem you could not solve. Maybe you can return to the problem a few months later. This is a good way to control your progress, and seeing the pages with the problems littered with checkmarks (hopefully) is a great boost for confidence.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2008
  12. Jul 7, 2008 #11
    I don't take notes (or at least, very rarely). I just read and try to understand the material before moving on.

    For some it takes awhile, for some it comes easy depending on the material.

    However, I do write notes for others to view.
  13. Jul 7, 2008 #12
    I have a notebook just for that. I put everything in it that I think could be useful like interesting passages, quotes, ideas, new vocab, and my thoughts. I also write math proofs, physics and electronics schematics in the same notebook. All in one pile so to speak. But frankly I rarely go back to what I wrote because the process of writing the stuff down helps me remember it immensely.

    I don't write in a book, and never have. I just hate to see a book ruined by marks, scribbles and highlights which distracts me.
  14. Jul 7, 2008 #13
    I take notes when I read a scientific book, well, a technical mathematical or physics book. I have a notebook, the right page is dedicated to that, the left page is left blank for future details/references/additional information/numerical investigation.

    The reason is simple : I usually read 2, 3, 4 or more books at a time on a given subject. I follow one that I want to understand fully, and use the others to cross-check, get another perspective, compare, or just get technical details.

    The notebooks I use come from the lab, they are quite convenient for cross-references because they are numbered. I especially find the left/right system very convenient.

    It did lead me to write a short essay when I was in high school, after having an afternoon long physics conversation with them. Never published though, yet I re-read it 10 years later and still found it good :rolleyes:
  15. Jul 7, 2008 #14
    It depends on what I am reading. When reading a physics or math text sometimes I finish a paragraph and realize I have no idea what I just read. In those cases I start writing the paragraph because it seems to calm my mind enough to let the ideas sink in while I'm writing.

    You might just have ADD. If you do then don't feel bad. This method is probably just helpful for you like it is for me. It might take a little more time to do but not noticeably much if you can write decently fast. Also another trick I have learned is to read out loud. Even though teachers might say it isn't a good idea because you "don't learn how to read in your head" what they don't realize is that you learn better using two senses than just one and as an added bonus it helps you stay on track if you are like me and tend to space out.
  16. Jul 7, 2008 #15


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    I always write my notes directly in the book. I don't consider it "ruining" the book. It's my book and the notes make it more useful to me. Of course, I also write very few notes in my books, so the effectiveness of the notes aren't diluted.

    I always found it kind of humorous when someone highlighted the "important" part of the text and wind up with all but 7 or 8 sentences on each page highlighted. At a certain point, highlights and notes in a book become kind of meaningless.

    Having separate notes is sometimes useful if you're using just a small subset of the book's info or using info from several books and you're using the info repeatedly. I tend to lose the notes after I'm done using them, though.
  17. Jul 7, 2008 #16


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    Depends on the book doesn't it? Depends on the purpose of the reading too I would say for me anyway.

    For instance if I read history books or English books for entertainment, magazines for that matter, I can't imagine why I would make a notation in the book or otherwise. If I was reading it for a course and I was to be quizzed, I should make the notes for preparation - though making the notes - identifying the important facts in most cases for me renders the notes not that useful as I seem to remember it from writing it. Cheat sheets could seldom help me on an exam, because making them in most cases internalized them for me.

    For math and physics I doodle the ideas and the steps and verify the solutions and conclusions on any scrap of paper as I might be able to. That helps me to understand the concepts, or at least think I understand better, but regardless I can't remember marking a book on math or physics itself even in school.

    I suppose I have an aversion to actually marking most any book. Exceptions might be travel books that I would rarely mark, except if taking on vacation to modify and amplify with supplemental info that might be needed for a trip. But with so much online and so many handhelds available I see the sun setting on that. Yellow pages are ephemeral and I mark those and corner them for finding anything I might look up. I hate doing things twice, and practically speaking their time value makes them pulp soon enough.

    In short I suppose it's a complex multi-variate that depends on how much you want to absorb detail, how much you value the books themselves, how much you want to understand, or how much you are reading for entertainment and you are simply in the moment with what you are reading. I expect that everyone comes to their own habits by what serves them best.
  18. Jul 7, 2008 #17
    The brain learns by repetition and application; a piece of new information that is not repeated and applied soon is not likely to make it into your long term memory.

    If this weren't the case, it would be possible to become a brilliant mathematician without ever having done a single page of homework (i.e: by just reading proofs and such), or a great painter after reading a bunch of books on anatomy and perspective. Clearly not the case.

    When I read, I write down all the words I don't understand and look them up. After I'm done reading the book, I go over the list of words and write them down again, with the definition, and then come up with a sentence in my head using that word.

    This is how I still remember the word syncitium, which I asked about a few months ago on this forum :rofl:

    So I think that just as important as the repetition part (note taking) is the application part... instead of writing down notes word for word, it would probably be more helpful to write the information in your own words and make your brain actually put to use that new information.
  19. Jul 7, 2008 #18


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    It depends on the book, but most of the time, I take notes in the book and on separate sheet of paper. I would love to have all the books as pdf files so that I could extract passages as opposed to having to write and/or type the key passages of interest. I'll mark with pencil or iridescent yellow (hi-light), and bend corner of key pages.

    On a separate sheet, the notes are done by page number and chapter.
  20. Jul 7, 2008 #19


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    As a student, I always took notes on things I was reading to learn. Actually, when I'm reading now, I still often take notes. I don't find underlining or highlighting text to be particularly useful, but jotting down key points is helpful for me to solidify my knowledge. I don't think I can learn without a pen in my hand.

    Different people have different learning styles. Some need to write things to get them to stick. Some can just read a book and absorb the contents. Others need to hear someone else give a lecture on it. And others do best if you discuss it. And then some need to actually do what they're reading about, i.e., laboratory classes.

    Of course, if your notes get too extensive and are just transcribing the text, they lose their efficacy. If, instead, you can take a page of text, jot down a list of terms you need to know from it (or formulae), and then jot a couple sentences summarizing the key points, that can be a useful way to review when it's time to study. I also jot down anything I encounter that I don't yet understand, as in, "Look up..." Then I remember later to look for that in another source without having to slow down my reading at the time to search for more information on that detail (unless I realize I can't get any further along without it).

    As a different example, I've been working through the text the students in the course I'm helping teach this summer are using (I'm not the course coordinator, so had nothing to do with the text selection or course content, just help teach what I'm asked to teach, and this is the first time I'm using this text, so am trying to keep a week ahead of the students so I know what's coming next when they ask me things). I've taught similar material from different texts and for different course levels, so need to be careful not to get carried away with more than they are supposed to know in this class (a little extra won't hurt them, but they only have a limited time to learn it, so I don't want to overwhelm them with information that's not covered in their text). So, I've been reading their text and taking notes. Each page is two columns. One column is all the terms they're learning, so I have a quick reference of which ones they are responsible for. The other column are my notes about things I want to remind them...common points of confusion, tips for finding structures in their dissections, places to be extra careful not to damage underlying structures, etc. For each day of the class, I have about a page and a half of terms listed, and about 4 to 5 notes of key concepts they should learn.

    If you can condense your own notes to focus on the major terms (so you can go down the list and review them) and just a few key concepts per chapter (a lot of the work is in figuring out which are the key concepts), you'll greatly speed up your studying, and really understand what you're reading. You can always go back to the book to find details again if you need a refresher on those, but with the notes, it's sort of like having a quick index to what the highlights of each chapter are so you know where to look for the information again later.

    Though, as others mentioned, if you're doing math courses, it's more useful to spend time solving problems to practice using the concepts than it is to take notes about it.
  21. Jul 13, 2008 #20


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    I do take notes when I read, usually done in pencil in the margin of the page I am reading (my own books and journals). The reason I take notes is probably conditioning from many years in academia. They are points that I found particularly interesting, or mistakes I've noted, or even humorous content of the author.
  22. Jul 14, 2008 #21
    I tend to use paper sitting around as "extra working memory", so to speak. I'll be jotting things down on it while reading ("x stands for ____"), drawing diagrams for myself, or working out little pieces of a proof or whatever, but with no intention of ever looking at it again.
  23. Jul 14, 2008 #22
    I guess I must be slow, but I read things more than once. Always. Often 4 times.

    The first time I just read the math book until I get to the point where I don't know what is going on. I make note, in my mind of "important" theorems and pause to think about why they might be so important.

    Then I stop and memorize all of the definitions. With flash cards.

    Now I read it again and slow down and read the proofs. If they don't make sense I copy them out and try to translate them in to my own ideas.

    Then I read it again and stop and try to do the proofs on my own.

    Then I try the exercises and have such a hard time I go back and read again.

    In any subject but math I'm a fast reader. Super fast. I have trouble with math reading because I know I need to go slow, but ...

    I also read the book again after the test. This is the most enjoyable since I know what it's about and I can read it fast like a novel.
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