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How to Take Notes From College Textbooks the Right Way

Meagan is a mother and non-traditional student. She is passionate about family and helping others find success in different areas of life.

Notetaking is an important skill for students to master.

Notetaking is an important skill for students to master.

Don't Just Copy!

Most students take notes to help them study for a test because it’s easier to study a few pages of notes than to re-read multiple chapters of a textbook. Textbooks are a nightmare. They’re designed to pack a ton of information into a small space, and almost every single sentence contains something important. Understandably, this leads to some common note-taking mistakes. First, students tend to note everything they read, and second, they write it word for word.

Why Is This a Problem?

The problem with writing everything is that you’ll often end up with more pages of notes than the chapter was long. This is especially common when a student rents a book because they worry they might need to reflect on certain information after they have returned the book. However, if you follow the tips below, you’ll find you can still include the same amount of information in a more condensed space.

Anyone can copy a sentence or paragraph word for word, but copying it is not the same as understanding it. As you’ll find out below, being able to comprehend what the text is saying is important and can help you immensely while taking notes.

So how can you avoid making these common mistakes while still taking good, organized notes from a textbook? Let’s find out!


  1. Handwrite notes when possible.
  2. Keeps notes for each subject together in one labeled place.
  3. Note the learning objectives and chapter questions.
  4. Organize your notes through your textbook's chapter headings and subheadings.
  5. Read a section before you start taking notes on that section.
  6. Don’t ignore information on tables and graphs.
  7. Use shorthand and symbols to help you find things quickly in your notes.
  8. Look for the overall concept of a chapter and put notes into your own words.
  9. Read through your notes and check that they help you recall information and are not confusing.
  10. Try to summarize information into easy-to-read, bulleted sentences.

Typed or Handwritten?

There are pros and cons to both handwritten and typed notes, but taking notes by hand is preferable. Typing is a quick and efficient way to record a lot of information, is much easier to store, and has its time and place. However, when we type, we go into autopilot mode and think more about the words themselves and less about the overall meaning of those words.

If you prefer to type notes, that’s okay, but I would suggest making a handwritten copy for study purposes. If you stick to typing your notes, you should make it a habit to focus on the meaning behind the words and avoid switching into autopilot.

Organize Your Notes

Imagine you have a big test coming up. You have to study for the test. You open your computer and pull up notes from class. You dig through folders and find scattered, loose pages of notes which are not in order. You pull several notebooks out of a backpack. Now, you’ll have to figure out what information you need to study from each source and if the information is even relevant to the impending test. What a headache!

Now imagine this scenario. You pull one notebook from a bag. In that one notebook, you have all the chapter notes in order and can quickly scan to find the information you need to study.

Which one sounds better? Just reading the first example is enough to give a person anxiety.

Before you ever start taking notes, you must designate a space for those notes. Dedicate one notebook to each class and clearly label that notebook. You could even go a step further and divide a multi-subject notebook into areas for textbook notes, class notes, and your own personal thoughts/questions.

Having a notebook for each class will help you organize and find what you need quickly.

Having a notebook for each class will help you organize and find what you need quickly.

Answer Chapter Questions and Look at Learning Objectives

There are many aspects of a textbook that go unnoticed but should be considered when taking notes. Textbooks are divided into chapters that students are instructed to read within a certain time frame. Typically, a chapter is preceded by a summary of the information a chapter will cover, and they often include a list of learning objectives or questions that a student should reflect on during the reading. Take note of these.

If there are questions at the start of a chapter, write them on a piece of paper and do your best to either identify the answer while reading or answer the question after you have finished the chapter. Those questions often mimic ones a teacher will add to a test. Additionally, they cover the important topics the chapter covers. One can use those questions as a guide as to what the chapter is trying to teach you.

If questions are not included (either at the beginning or the end of a chapter) they are typically replaced by a list of learning objectives. This list contains the most important ideas the chapter is teaching. Pay attention, take note of this list, and use it as a guideline to understand what the chapter is trying to teach.

Doing this is useful because it gives you a good idea of what the chapter wants you to have learned by the time you finish reading it. They reflect the core ideas of the chapter. Each idea will be described in greater detail throughout the text, and understanding the core idea is important if you wish to understand the supporting details.

Utilize Headings and Subheadings

Textbooks are broken down into chapters, but those chapters are further broken down by headings and subheadings. It’s easy to skim over these and ignore them, but they are extremely useful when taking notes.

You should organize your notes in the same format that the information is organized in the book. The information in the book is organized through its headings. Therefore, your notes should also be organized with these headings.

  1. Write the heading on your paper.
  2. Read the section (the text between the heading you wrote down and the next heading).
  3. Once you have read the section, go back to the start and begin taking notes.

Why should you read through it once before taking notes? For a few reasons.

First, you are reading without interruption. During the initial reading, you’re not stopping to take notes every five seconds.

Second, you will have a better understanding of what you need to include in your notes. This can help you avoid writing everything down.

Finally, instead of copying the information word-for-word, you can sum up large bits of information into simpler words.

Don't Ignore Tables and Graphs

Textbooks will often highlight important information that may be hard to understand in words, with tables or graphs. Tables, graphs, and other informative images should not be ignored. However, it would be time-consuming to re-draw or copy these things into your notes. Instead, try to sum up the information it’s showing you in your notes. What is the graph or table trying to say? Is it trying to show you that something has grown exponentially? Is it showing you an example?

Use Symbols for Identification

Students typically create their own short-hand language when writing notes. This helps them write a lot more information in a shorter amount of time. Another useful thing to add is symbols. If you are noting a key word or definition, highlight that with a symbol. If you are noting something your teacher hinted might be important, highlight it with a symbol. If you are noting an important date, make it with a symbol. Utilizing these symbols in your notes will help you find things quickly. For example, if you are having a quiz on vocab words, you could quickly scan your notes and find the vocab words because you had marked them with a symbol.

Look for the Overall Concept

Almost everything in a textbook is important to the subject you’re learning. They are not trying to write a novel or fill an essay with fluff; they are trying to cram as much useful information as they can into limited space. However, each chapter, heading, and subheading has an overall concept that it’s trying to convey. This concept is typically the most important part of the chapter, and being able to identify that is just as important as taking note of the details that support it.

Answering the chapter questions is a great way to test if you understood the overall concept of a chapter. Summary points (if your textbook has them) are important because they highlight the more important concepts. Some text will offer additional homework that corresponds with the text and should be utilized when possible.

Once you understand a concept, use it in your notes. Take note of details that will help you remember the concept or are important to it. Add notes that are written in your own words to help you remember supporting details. Mix it up, and write it in a way that when you examine the notes later, that concept will still be identifiable to you.

© 2020 Meagan Ireland