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Research Planning Guide

Use this guide to learn about the research process and plan your research project.

Step 9: Read and Take Notes

You've chosen your topic.  You've written a research question or thesis statement. You've crafted a preliminary outline so you know where you're going, and maybe even how you're going to get there.  You've found books, articles, and websites on your topic. Congratulations!  

But are you ready to write your paper?  NO!  Your sources may be great, but they won't do you any good until you read them and learn what they have to tell you.  (see the box below for suggestions on reading books efficiently)

So what's the problem?  Reading is easy, right?   The problem comes when you have many different sources.  You need to remember which information came from which source, and that's when note-taking becomes important.

Some people use the traditional note-card method.  Some print out articles or copy book pages and use color-coded highlighters and sticky flags.  William Badke has developed a system* for taking notes digitally. There's no one best way—the best way to take notes is the way that works best for you.  Below you will find a list of sites that explain the different systems—their strengths and weaknesses.  

Basically, when you read for research, you should be looking for "treasure" amid the "trash."  Your treasure will be the information you find that helps you to understand your topic and build your arguments.  The rest of the information, even if it's interesting, is "trash."  Many students get bogged down in their reading because they don't keep their ultimate goal in mind, and they waste time on irrelevant information.  As you're reading, you must constantly be asking yourself, "How does this information support or explain my topic?"  If it doesn't, it's trash—throw it out!  

Here is a list of great resources for learning more about taking great notes—notes that will help you keep all your new information organized so that you can use it to write a great paper.  

*Knowing How to Read for Research – taken from Badke’s book, chapter 8, abridged

Best Practices for Research and Drafting – from the Purdue OWL

Effective Note-Taking - from the University of Reading 

Read your sources and take notes - (basic note card approach)

Taking notes from Research Reading - from the University of Toronto

Taking notes summary from Easy Bib – good overview of different methods

Template for Taking Notes on Research Articlesfrom Rice University

Using Books for Research

When reading for research, you DON'T need to read the whole book.  Instead, approach each book like an explorer looking for buried treasure.  This does NOT mean, however, that you should take bits and pieces from the book while ignoring the context.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Beginning: Examine the title page, preface, forward, introduction, or any other preliminary material in the beginning of the book.  This will give you an idea of the purpose or plan of the book, the basic topics that will be covered, what the author's reasons for writing may be, his/her approach, and even the thesis of the book. 
  • Table of Contents: Reading this will help you understand the basic structure of the book and the development of the topic.  From here you can identify the chapters that should be most helpful to your research, and which ones can be ignored.
  • Index: Scanning the index can provide clues to the important topics covered in the book.  Some topics may have one or two page numbers listed, while others will have multiple listings.  Compare the index to the table of contents for an even better understanding.  But heed this warning: if you rely solely on the index to find the information you want, you might be tempted to take that information out of context.  Be sure to explore what goes before and after that page. 
  • Run-through: Look for an introductory and concluding chapter and read both of those first.  Then flip through the remaining chapters and read the first and last paragraph of each.  Pay attention to headings and sub-headings within the chapters. 
  • Read: Finally, read carefully any chapters or portions that relate directly to your topic.  Be sure to read critically, asking questions and taking notes as you go.  Evaluate the fairness, completeness, and strength of any arguments or propositions you encounter.  In other words, use your brain!