When you are searching for evidence to include in your essay, have you ever read an article and then instantly forgotten it?
You’ve spent 45 minutes reading it in detail, your mind kept wandering and to cap it all, you couldn’t even recall the title and author, never mind summarise what you’ve read.
Well, there’s good news: Gathering evidence for your essay writing doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out and fruitless process. With the right template and technique at your fingertips, you can easily read and make notes on a whole research paper and recall the information a week later – without needing superpowers of memory or concentration!
I’ll lead you step-by-step through how I make notes on a research paper in this blog post. By the end, you’ll know EXACTLY how to review and retain evidence for your essay in your long-term memory AND impress your tutor. Sitting comfortably? Let’s dive in.
The template and technique you need to write effective notes on a research article
Most journal articles (also known as research papers) follow a standard format of Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Method, Results and Discussion/Conclusion. The template I use follows almost the same structure, with extra sections for your own Questions, Observations, and Evaluation. You’ll find the template really straightforward to complete because your notetaking follows the natural flow of your reading.
Let's take it one stage at a time, but first download your template here>>
1. Write down why you are reading
Regular readers will know I ALWAYS start out by asking the question: why am I reading? The reason? It's easier to read actively when you're crystal clear about your purpose and what you want to gain from the article you're reading. When you're writing an essay, your WHY might be to:
- Study the article in detail to reference the material,
- Skim the information to get an overview and assess its relevance,
- Scroll through the content to find a particular reference, diagram or data point.
If you’re reading a paper thoroughly it will usually be because you want to make reference to it in your essay. Knowing this allows you the opportunity to narrow down your WHY even further. Perhaps you are reading in detail to get evidence to support an argument? Maybe it's to compare and contrast one theory with another? The more specific and focused you can be on why you need this information for your essay, the more likely it is you’ll get useful information from the exercise.
There is space right at the top of the template to add your own Why. It’s the first information you need to fill in – it’s that important!
2. Write down the identifying details of the paper
Below the WHY statement, write down the details of the research paper, including its title, the date it was published and the author(s). This step is necessary if you keep your notes separately from printed copies of the journal articles, or you prefer to read online. Either way, it helps keep your data or evidence organised. You can obtain this information from reading the front sheet of the journal article together with the abstract. Write it down on your template.
It’s also helpful to write down what TYPE of paper you’re reading, as there are several types of journal article out there:
- Experimental setting/Real life setting
- Literature review
- Meta-analysis (an analysis of other analyses)
The advantage of doing this is not only will the type of journal article be clearly fixed in your mind, but when the time comes to consolidate the reading you've done, it will be easier to survey the material you’ve gathered and see the types of article that dominate the field.
If you've gathered mainly quantitative studies, this might indicate that qualitative research is lacking in that field. Or maybe there are a number of experimental studies conducted, but few research studies on that topic in real life settings. These are useful observations you can make in your essay and will demonstrate your observation skills and strategic approach to the material to the tutor marking your work.
3. Write down the purpose of the article
What research question or hypothesis is the researcher attempting to answer? What is the purpose of the study? These questions are critically important because they enable you to keep in mind the purpose of the research and evaluate whether the study achieved what it set out to investigate.
In this section, also write down any further details that are helpful to understand the purpose of the study:
- Was it to address a gap or weakness in existing knowledge?
- Was it to extend a previous model or concept?
- Was it to explore new variables or aspects of a phenomenon?
These are all helpful points to bear in mind and make notes on while you’re reading the research paper.
4. Review the method and sample
Most journal articles will use a particular method to investigate their subject matter and this is usually clearly stated. The method might be a survey, interviews, experiments or a different approach. Whatever the method, it’s helpful to write it down and think about why the author chose that method. Again, this helps you to engage with the material, rather than read passively.
Also make a note of the sample; its size, the participants and any other observations such as gender or age. Think about why this is a good fit. Is the sample representative of the phenomenon under investigation? If it is an experiment about the workplace and the participants are students then is the sample truly representative? Maybe, maybe not. These are the types of questions to wrap your mind around!
5. Examine the results
In this section, make a note of the results obtained in the experiment, plus whether the results supported the hypotheses or research questions. Take time to think about whether there is anything in the study which might influence the results. Could another factor have contributed to the results or invalidated them? Were all the independent variables taken into consideration? Are there environmental or contextual features which might account for the results? Remember, you are not looking to discredit the author, but to make meaningful (and memorable!) observations!
6. Think critically about the conclusion
Finally, look at the discussion at the end. What conclusions has the author drawn? Are the conclusions valid? Do they surprise you? If you interpreted the results would you have come to the same conclusion…or a different one? Don’t take the conclusion for granted; approach the data with an open mind. This helps you to remember more about the study and to form your own opinion.
Building new knowledge is a collaborative pursuit. Every researcher endeavours to do the best work possible, but relies on others to examine their findings, move the research further forward and ultimately advance their field. Be part of the solution and get your thinking cap on.
Space for your thoughts:
There are three sections included on the template which don't follow the natural flow of the journal article or research paper. These are the My Questions, Key Points and Observations and Further Reading sections. You may be wondering: what are those?
Let’s take the first one, the section labelled My Questions.
I recommend using the SQ3R method for all detailed reading. The SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recall and Review. You can read more about this approach in my previous blog post on Three Essential Reading Strategies for University.
When you first read through an article you will SURVEY the material at a high level. This helps you to gain an overview of the article such as how long it is, what the main headings are and how it’s structured. That’s the S in SQ3R. The Q stands for Questions. These are your questions about the article or paper. Not the researcher’s hypothesis or questions, but the ones that you want to answer. Do you have general questions about the subject matter covered? Are there any specific aspects of your essay which might be answered by this evidence? Write your questions down in the My Questions section. Keep these questions to one side as you read each page. Have you found any answers? More questions? You’ll find this technique keeps your brain awake and prevents your thoughts from wandering off. While you’re in detective mode, your mind is interested – it doesn’t want to go anywhere except for where your attention is focussed!
The second extra section is for your Key Points and Observations.
This is the place to write down your observations throughout your reading. These may be the answers to the questions you formulate before and during reading. Or they may be major points you find, general observations and your 'aha' moments.
This method of writing questions, then answering them as you go through the paper helps you to critically engage with the material and evaluate it throughout the time you’re reading. Bye bye, boredom!
Alternately, in the Observations section, you might simply summarise what you’ve read. Responding to the article in your OWN words is the first step towards formulating your own arguments and extending your essays beyond the ideas of the authors you’ve studied.
The final section on the template which differs from the article structure is Further Reading.
It's here because as you read through the article you may find a reference to an interesting study or to more information related to your essay topic. Great! Park it in your Further Reading section. It's ESSENTIAL you park it here because if you’re reading online it’s all too easy to click on a hyperlink to read another paper... and another... and before you know it you’ve become distracted from the task at hand. It’s a sure-fire way to read through half a dozen papers superficially, but not focus properly on any one in detail.
Instead, make a note of the title and author in the Further Reading section and follow it up at a later point. I keep a running list of the articles and chapters I intend to read inside the front of my planner and simply transfer the names of the paper and author across from all my Further Reading sections each week into my master reading list. No more disappearing down internet rabbit holes!
Finishing your review
You want to make sure the information you’ve read and made notes on stays put in your memory. That way you’ll have the evidence in your mind long after you’ve finished writing your essay.
Here's the solution...
After you've completed your review, close down the article on your computer or put away the paper copy. From memory, try to RECALL the information you’ve just read and made notes on– the author, title and date, plus the key observations and takeaways. REVIEW this against the notes you’ve written on the template. Have you missed anything? Repeat this stage and try again.
The observant among you will have noticed that Recall and Review are the final two Rs in the SQ3R sequence. The methods I cover aren't just thrown together you know - they work!
Put aside 15 to 30 minutes at the end of each day to recall and review your reading. Do the same again at the end of each week. Each time you retrieve and remember the information you will embed the memory even deeper in your mind.
If you’re alone, then recite the information out loud. This engages a further sense - your hearing - alongside your sight and sense of touch when you originally read it and wrote down your thoughts.
That’s it. You're ready to make notes on any journal article or research paper and recall everything you need when you come to write an essay. And you know what the best part is? You’ll never find your mind wandering to what you’re doing at the weekend again halfway through a reading session again :)
Want to get started? Download your template now and begin to put these techniques into action.
Which tip gave you the biggest ‘aha’ moment? Post a picture on Twitter or Instagram when you use the template and tag me @joineduponline using the hashtag #writewithRachael
Any questions or comments? Ask me anything below!