The most common note taking advice from tutors is to ‘write notes in your own words.’ But, we’re never really taught why we should do this and how to actually do this.

In this blog post I’m going to share the reasons why you might write verbatim (word-for-word) notes, reasons why you should write notes in your own words, and some tips for how to switch up your note taking methods to gain these improvements in your studying and grades.


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Verbatim vs own words

Let’s have a quick look at the brain processes required for verbatim note taking.

Read information > copy information

Now, let’s have a look at the processes needed to write notes in your own words.

Read information > process information > understand ideas > analyse the value of the ideas > link ideas with existing knowledge > create new, personalised summary.

Now we’re talking.
When you write notes in your own words, you’re engaging a lot more of your brain. It will take you more time, BUT, the results are so worth it because it will skyrocket your understanding and your ability to write high-grade essays and exams.

Passive vs active

Verbatim note taking is a passive learning technique which means there’s little mental engagement. It’s surface-level learning and reduces the likelihood you’ll understand the material or be able to recall it in an exam.

Pretty crap, right?

If you write notes in your own words then you’re engaging in active learning which allows you to gain solid understanding of the material and create strong neural connections so you can remember and recall the ideas – skills you need to achieve great grades.

5 reasons why students write verbatim notes

1. You feel like everything is important, so you don’t know how to pick out the main points.

2. You don’t know how to summarise and condense the material to write notes in your own words

3. You feel like it’s too time-consuming to write notes in your own words

4. It’s too much effort to summarise the material – it’s much easier to copy word-for-word

5. Your textbooks are written by experts. The ideas are already written in the best way, so there’s no point changing them.

What’s the point in copying your textbook word-for-word?
When you’re short on time, spending hours translating your textbook into your notebook is pretty pointless.

Now, I’m not saying this as a recommendation NOT to take notes at all but instead as encouragement to write notes in your own words, so you can get most the most of your study time and reap the benefits of increased understanding and recall in your essays and exams.

8 reasons why you SHOULD write notes in your own words

1. You’ll create a condensed summary of the key points – necessary for effective essay preparation and exam revision.

2. You’ll develop a deeper understanding of the material. If you cannot state an idea in your own words, you don’t understand it.

3. When you understand a concept you’ll be able to think about it critically. You can’t identify the strengths or weaknesses of a concept if you don’t understand it fully.

4. Engaging more of your brain will help your study material stick. Improved recall = A LOT happier exams.

5. When you write notes in your own words you create a personalised, powerful record of your material which become ready-made revision guides.

6. You’ll improve your academic writing skills. Copying and pasting won’t teach you how to string a great sentence together. You’ll find it easier to write coherent, clear arguments in your essays and during exams if you practice this in your note taking.

7. Essay writing will be easier because you’ll understand the concepts AND have already identified the key points.

8. Note taking in your own words will strengthen your paraphrasing skills in your essays. This is great for two reasons. Firstly, no plagiarism! Secondly, although direct quotations have their place in essays, if you really want to demonstrate your understanding of the material (and gain more marks) then you want to be able to paraphrase an author’s words (with a reference).

5 tips to help you write notes in your own words

1. Identify your focus

Look at your upcoming essay topic and identify the key areas of material you’ll need to understand and use. Do the same for any upcoming exams or projects. Make a note of these areas so you can ensure your note taking here is more detailed – which may allow you to spend less time on the less important areas.

2. Look for clues

Make a note of any learning outcomes/aims/objectives for your unit of work as these will often give you a clue as to the most important areas for you to understand. Also, read the introduction and conclusion/summary of each chapter/article before you start taking notes. The introduction will tell you what you’re going to learn and the conclusion or summary will tell you what you should now know.

Use these clues to help you work out what to include in your notes and as a check before you move on that you’ve covered the key areas.

3. Scan and highlight first

Scan through a section of material first to get a feel for it. Then go back through and highlight or underline what YOU think are the most important points. Be careful not to highlight everything as that’s a mindless, passive, pointless activity.

4. Don’t work sentence by sentence

Don’t read a sentence then try to take notes – that’s just gonna lead to verbatim note taking. Instead, read a whole paragraph or section and then summarise that. You’ll find it much easier to paraphrase three or four sentences at once than one.

5. Be extra careful with typed notes

When you type notes it’s more tempting to copy them word-for-word because your fingers will naturally tap, tap away, so pay extra-special attention.

How to write notes in your own words DURING CLASS

Note taking during class is harder because you have to try to keep up with your tutor. That’s why a lot of students revert back to writing verbatim in a bid to just try and get everything down.

You have two options here:
1. Write verbatim notes and then re-write them after class in your own words with the help of handouts, slides…etc.

2. Just note down the key points and anything not included in the resources during class. After class, add to your notes (if you type them) or rewrite them (if you note take by hand) using handouts and slides to fill in the gaps.


How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

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