The Lost Art of Note Taking When Writing a Research Paper

When students write essays requiring research, in the age of Wikipedia and other online resources, I worry a little, not so much about the quality of the sources themselves (that has always varied, even in the day of hardcopy sources), but about the quality or outright dearth of note taking that often accompanies the writing of research papers.

When I was a student, I was taught to take notes when researching by summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting on note cards. Although this process was often tiresome and time-consuming, it did force me to read and, hopefully, process the information that would eventually end up in my essay.

I think maybe that phase in writing in which students allot time to actually take notes on their sources—to, in a sense, “process” and internalize their research—is being lost as students increasingly access their sources from online sites and “cut and paste” together the first draft of their essay.

Now, I’m not advocating a return to taking notes on note cards—a practice I began to abandon even before I was finished with my graduate studies years ago. Although I think it is a form of note taking that still may work for some, the ease with which students can take notes on their computers means that the 3 x 5 note card may well be on its way out as a research method.

What I am advocating, however, is that we as writing instructors (and I don’t only mean English teachers!) talk much more explicitly about the importance of note taking (or, as some texts now call it, “information gathering”) in the writing process. I think this is important because so many students skip this phase and try to write an essay without having completed the research they need to produce a substantive and thoughtful essay. We’ve all read these kinds of essays—slapdash, lacking in depth or analysis, a patch quilt of different sources that don’t go anywhere.

Teaching note taking skills
Here’s how I address the issue with my students. In some of my early assignments, I apportion a whole class or part of a class to simply having students take notes on their sources, which I ask them to bring to class. Of course, you might, as I do, have Internet access in your classroom, but it’s better if you ask the students to print out one or two of their sources beforehand. I recommend letting students take notes for maybe a half hour or forty-five minutes at a stretch. Then, five or ten minutes before the end of class, talk to students about what they have just done.

We need to remember that at least some of these students are now, as freshmen, just discovering how to take notes on sources. Talking about note taking and even devoting class time to practicing this important skill is every bit as important as all the other skills students need to write a college-level essay. Although many writing texts now have sections describing the various ways students can take notes on sources, how many of us are actually teaching or modeling these techniques to students, as opposed to assuming that they are already employing them?

Matt Birkenhauer teaches English at Northern Kentucky University.