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Vol 37 No 2, April - June 1999
Page 18



by Amirullah Khan

The recent explosion of knowledge in the world has produced a vast number of books and other reading materials. Students often have to read a large number of books and take notes. Often, a careful glance at the table of contents reveals the contents in a nutshell. However, one also needs some practice in condensing the reading materials into brief note forms that are meaningful and concise and that facilitate recall—note-taking. In this article, I will present some ideas about note-taking that will help students to understand how implementing this important aid can improve their learning.

Why take notes?

Note-taking is a very useful practice as it enables the reader to preserve relevant information for future use. Usually we cannot remember a great deal of new information without writing some of it down. This act of taking notes often helps us remember information when we need to take an examination, write an essay, or prepare a report.

Characteristics of good notes

Several qualities are important in good notes.

Notes should be brief and to the point. They need not be taken in full sentences since words, phrases, and topics are enough. They are, therefore, not always in English that is grammatically correct.


Only relevant facts are needed; the determining factor is the purpose for which the notes are made.

There should be no ambiguity. Notes should make sense when viewed after a few weeks, months, or years. Failure to decipher the notes at a later stage may render the whole labour useless.

Note form.
Information may be noted in a logical sequence that can be properly divided and subdivided, using figures, letters, and dashes. The divisions may be as follows:

main section: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
sub-sections: a, b, c, d, etc.
sub-sub-sections: i, ii, iii, iv, etc.


main sections: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
sub-sections: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, etc.
sub-sub-sections: 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, etc.

Abbreviations and symbols.
Generally, abbreviation falls into three main divisions: (1) using capitalised initial letters, e.g., U.N. (United Nations), IBM (International Business Machines); (2) using the first few letters of a word (if plural, add an "s"), e.g., pts (points), divs (divisions); (3) using a combination of the first few and the last few letters of a word with an apostrophe in between, e.g., gov’t (government), int’l (international).

In addition to common abbreviations that we find in newspapers and timetables, one can also create his or her own abbreviations and symbols; but these should be such that the note-taker can decipher them easily at a later time. Some standard symbols are commonly used: i.e. (that is), e.g. (for example), viz. (namely), ... (therefore), & (and), % (percentage).

Sample activities

First, the chosen passage is read, in order to get an idea of the content. Next, the passage is read again—once or twice as needed—and both important and relatively unimportant points are jotted down. These points give a skeletal idea about the passage. Then we regroup them into a sequential and prioritised order and provide a suitable title.

The sequential order denotes the facts emerging in a linear, vertical manner. This helps to classify the points noted under one major head in the order of their importance. For instance, I gave an exercise to my students at the undergraduate level on the following passage which was about the origin of money. One of my students outlined it out in the note-taking exercise that follows the text:

In small, primitive societies nobody needed money because everybody worked together and shared things, but in bigger societies people specialise. For example, one person spends all his time making pots, and another person spends all his time fishing. The fisherman needs pots, and the potter needs fish, so they exchange or barter. However, this system can become very complicated if, for instance, the potter wants ten fish, but the fisherman wants only one pot. For this reason people began to use money. They agreed to take an invaluable object such as a shell, a stone, or a piece of metal in exchange for what they were selling. They could collect the objects and wait until they found something they really wanted to buy.

Gold and silver were often used as money because they can be divided into very small quantities, and they are not damaged by water or air. Gold is especially valuable because there is not very much of it in the world, and it is expensive to take out of the ground where it is mixed with rocks.

The Origin of Money

1. Life in small societies

a. people worked—shared products

b. no need for money

2. Life in bigger societies

a. Each labourer—a specialist

i. e.g., a fisherman occupied in fishing

ii. a potter engaged in making pots

b. Diff. to effect exact change of goods

i. in terms of needs

ii. in terms of value

c. Birth of money

i. initially exchange of stone, shells/


ii. later switched over to gold & silver

(a) could be divided into small qty(s)

(b) not damaged by air/water

d. Gold specially valued

i. found scarcely

ii. expensive

When a passage draws a comparison between two products, objects, or activities, notes can be put into columns with proper serial numbers. The similarities and dissimilarities can be presented with appropriate abbreviations to enable immediate understanding. For instance, a passage on "Types of Motivation" was carefully read by my students, and one of my students recorded the notes in tabular columns for logical and easy retrieval. (See Figure 1.)

Positive motivation or incentive motivation is based on reward. The workers are offered incentives for achieving the desired goals. The incentives may be in the shape of more pay, promotion, recognition of work, etc. The employees are offered the incentives, so they try to improve their performances willingly. According to Peter Drucker, the "real and positive motivators are responsible for placement, high standard of performance, information adequate for self- control, and the participation of the worker as a responsible citizen in the plant community." Thus, positive motivation is achieved by the cooperation of employees who have a feeling of happiness.

Negative motivation or fear motivation is based on force or fear. Fear causes employees to act in a certain way. If they do not act accordingly, they may be punished with demotions or lay-offs. The fear acts as a push mechanism. The employees do not willingly cooperate, rather they want to avoid the punishment. Though employees work up to a level where punishment is avoided, this type of motivation causes anger and frustration and generally becomes a cause of industrial unrest.

When students reach an advanced stage of note-taking, the teacher may give only the note form and ask students to develop it into a meaningful passage.


Note-taking is an important skill that should not be neglected by English language teachers and English language learners. Students need to develop their skills at note-taking, not only because it will help them preserve relevant information for their future use, but also because during the note-taking stage they reach the highest level of comprehension.


Agarwal, R. 1993. Higher level writing skills. New Delhi: Arya Book Depot.

Ghosh, R. et al. 1978. A course in written English. New Delhi: NCERT

Moula, S. 1993. Communication skill: A practical approach. New Delhi: Frank Brothers and Company.

Nwokoreze, U. 1990. Note-taking. English Teaching Forum, 28, 2, pp. 39–41.    


Figure 1

Types of Motivation

Features +ve motivation -ve motivation
  1. Another name
incentive motive fear motive
     2.  Motive
a push mechanism for achievement of desired goals a push mechanism for achievement of desired goals
     3.  Nature of motive
          a) egs.
pay, promotion, recognition of work
lay off,
demonstrate, etc.
     4.  Reaction
          a) personal
willingly co-op-
inform adequate for self control, respect citizen in the plant
don't willingly co-op-
anger and frustration
     5.  Outcome
          a) industrial
placement, high standard of performance, happiness unrest

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Amirullah Khan teaches English at Aligarh Muslim University, India.

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Vol 37 No 2, April - June 1999
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