Selecting and evaluating your material
Start with the sources your tutor has recommended, and ensure that you use the most current issues or latest editions of journals and books.
Be selective - focus your reading on the sections of the book or journal that are relevant to what you need to find out. You can locate these by:
- Browsing the back cover, contents page and index.
- Quickly scanning the introduction and conclusion.
- Browsing the section headings.
- Looking at the author's bibliography for ideas for further reading.
Question the source
- Is the source reliable? (Who has written or produced it?)
- Are the authors respected? (Is it peer-reviewed? Is it endorsed by a recognised organisation?)
- Be conscious that the author could be biased.
Academic reading can be challenging due to the high density of specialist vocabulary, abstract concepts and references to other theories, theorists, practitioners and events that may not be familiar to you. If a section is particularly difficult it may help if you:
- Sample the topic in a simpler version (for example, in an introductory work or secondary text).
- Use a dictionary or subject-specific glossary to help you understand difficult words or concepts.
- Be prepared to read difficult sections several times in order to fully understand.
- Write it out in your own words.
- Reading the first and last paragraphs of a chapter may give you an overview of the key ideas the author wants to make in that chapter.
- Reading the first and last sentences of a paragraph will give a similar overview of that paragraph.
- Identify the claims the author makes and question their validity.
- Identify and evaluate the evidence that supports the argument.
Question assumptions and look for hidden agendas. Ask yourself:
- How convincing is the argument?
- How does this new information fit in with what I already know?
- Can I link together all this information in a new and original way?
- Can I now identify things I do not know and ways to find them out?
Find a format that suits you:
- Notes do not have to be linear. Think about spider diagrams or mind-maps.
- Use your own abbreviations or shorthand.
- Keep your notes brief and focused.
Remember that you will need to be able to re-read and understand your notes at a (sometimes much) later date, so it is important to organise your notes.
- File them in a way that they can be easily accessed.
- Number the pages of loose-leaf notes.
- Use keywords, headings and sub-headings may make them easier to use.
- You may find colour-coding clarifies the key points.
- Leave space to annotate your notes later, either by only using one side of the paper or by leaving space between sections.
Re-reading your notes and annotating them may help you to:
- Understand the subject better.
- Make links with information you already have.
- Identify new ideas and questions which arise.
Strategies to avoid plagiarism
Plagiarism is passing off other people's original ideas as if they are your own. It is often done inadvertently by students who take notes but forget to reference them. Copying text word for word from books or journals, or cutting and pasting sections from the Internet is plagiarism, but so is rewording someone else's theory or opinion without referencing it. For this reason it is essential to:
- Put a full bibliography on your notes. This is essential for photocopies, journals and internet downloads as well.
- Always take notes in your own words (don't just change a few words here and there).
- Identify direct quotations and keep a record of the author, year of publication and page number.