Step 3: Gather data (read and make notes)
Do you read fiction for pleasure? Maybe you read detective novels or action thrillers. What makes you turn each page? What questions do you ask? If the story is exciting or it captures your imagination, you probably ask, ‘What happens next?’ or ‘Who is the murderer?’, and you read on to find answers to your questions.
The experience of reading a text book or a journal article is usually quite different from reading fiction, but when you read for study purposes rather than for pleasure it is just as important to ask questions. When you’re reading to gather information for an essay, instead of asking, ‘What happens next?’ you ask, ‘How does this point relate to my thesis statement?’ or ‘How can I use that point in developing an argument to support my thesis statement?’
Reading as an active experience
To make reading for an essay an active experience, you need to:
Always remember your purpose in reading: gathering information to support your thesis statement with evidence and argument. Here are some details of how you might carry out each of the five activities effectively.
Preview the text
- Note the title, writer’s name, date and place of publication.
- Read the abstract.
- Read sub-headings and first sentences of paragraphs.
- Read any summaries within or at end of the text.
- Pick up main ideas, key words (words that tell you who, what, when, where, how many, and how much).
- Check that the text is relevant to your thesis statement.
- Be clear about the purpose of your reading (background reading for overview or context, close reading for detail, and so on)
Ask questions of the text
Turn the title, headings, subheadings into questions:
- What is the author’s thesis or ‘big idea’?
- What does the author have to say that I can use in supporting my thesis?
- What connections and relationships does the author identify/develop?
- How does the author structure and develop their ideas/support of their thesis?
- Are there any words, expressions, technical terms that I don’t understand?
- Always record bibliographical details of the text from which you are taking notes (keep a record of all texts you consult).
- Focus on understanding sections (or individual paragraphs) of the text before you start making notes.
- Highlight sections which seem important to you and take down notes of important details.
- Be selective; don’t overload on data large quantities of information can be hard to organise and process.
- Use headings, subheadings, diagrams, and/or mind-maps in your notes.
- Leave space for later comments and cross-referencing on the points noted.
- Identify, underline, colour code main ideas and supporting points.
- Number points where applicable.
- Paraphrase rather than copy verbatim (except for ‘quotable quotes’, which must be copied meticulously).
- Keep notes brief but full enough to make sense to you when you read them later.
- Record page numbers for all notes (helps you to refer back to original if necessary).
Make notes to create your own synthesis
- What you read should inform your own critical thinking about a topic it should not be a substitute for your thinking.
- Always keep your thesis statement in mind.
- Write down from the text key words that relate to your thesis statement.
- Compress your notes into your own words and focus on integrating an independent understanding.
- Identify patterns and themes as they emerge.
- Leave spaces within your notes for rethinking, cross-referencing, comments, connections.
- As you make notes, think about how you will use them in your essay.
- Consider using a mind-map (see Step 4)
Summarise what you have read
- A summary picks out the main points the writer makes that relate to your thesis statement.
- Writing a summary allows you to test yourself on your understanding of the text and its relevance to your thesis statement.
- A summary provides you with a compact account of the text for use in your essay.
- The process of summarising turns source information into developing knowledge.
Reviewing and reflecting
- When you’ve finished a note-making session, review your notes and reflect on their relevance to your thesis statement and to the case or argument you will develop to support your thesis statement.
- Go back to the text and check that your main points are actually the main points raised by the author.
- ‘Ruminate’. That is, put the article aside and think about what you have read. If anything you have read remains unclear, go back to the article to clarify your understanding of it.
Following are examples of notes taken from three fictitious texts. These notes will be used in the next section (Step 4). The red text represents comments and thoughts regarding these notes.
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