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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Reading and note-taking

As we’ve mentioned, you have a lot of reading to do to understand your field and the knowledge gaps and debates you are about to become involved with. To ensure that you do not waste time reading and taking detailed notes on literature that isn’t relevant, scan reading is an effective tool to increase your reading efficiency. You cannot be expected to read the entirety of the literature within your subject, especially with the vast amount of new research being published daily, so it is important to find the sources relevant to you quickly.

Cardiff business school give a handy table and explanation on when you should scan, skim and intensively read a piece of literature depending on what you want to achieve.

Reading purpose Example from daily life Example from academic work
1.  look for specific information when you know how to locate it by following a procedure look up the meaning of a word in a dictionary look for a particular reference in a reference list of an article
2.  search for specific information that may be somewhere in a text check particular details of an incident reported in a newspaper article check what research methods the authors of a research report article used
3.  look quickly through a text to see what it is about before deciding to read it see whether a magazine article will be worth reading see whether an academic article is going to be relevant for your task
4.  read quickly through a text to gain an overview of its content read through a new recipe read a front-line text which is relevant but not central to your task
5.  read through an easy text where it is not important to remember all that you’ve read read a novel read a textbook chapter to revise a subject that you know well
6.  read a text thoroughly to understand and remember what you’ve read read the instructions for booking and paying for a journey on-line read a front-line text whose content is central to your task


Scanning allows you to find key words and phrases for the information you are looking for, whereas skimming describes reading the specific sections of the text that surround those keywords to gain the information. If the text proves very relevant, then intensive reading is needed to digest the whole piece.

Many will approach literature in waves, as discussed in the previous section, where you first scan and skim papers you have deemed relevant from the title and abstract, before then reading in detail those which are especially relevant. This process is easier to do in batches, ensuring you don’t can search and collect a group of sources without getting distracted reading each of them in depth.

Academic and blogger Pat Thomson outlines a 3 step process for scan reading, aimed at helping you decide whether you should read an article intensively:

  1. Read the title
  2. Read the abstract
  3. Read the introduction, the headings, the first and last sentence of every paragraph, and the conclusion

It is surprising how much you can grasp from this less detailed/arduous textual engagement.


Many also find the Feynman technique a helpful tool to increase your scan reading abilities and gather a breadth of information on the topic before you begin delving in to detailed intensive reading. The technique follows four steps, and not only improves your understanding and critical thinking, but your teaching abilities too:

1.       Explain your topic out loud to a peer at their level of understanding

2.       Identify the gaps in your knowledge or areas where you cannot use simple language

3.       Go to the source material with your series of questions and scan read, saving relevant sources until you understand

4.       Repeat this process.

Remember, as helpful as scan reading can be, it is important to gather the depth of knowledge from the sources you have found through detailed reading and note taking to ensure your literature review will be detailed and thorough.


There are lots of different ways to approach scan reading for your literature review.  Reflecting on the approaches to scan reading outlined above, think about what a scan reading strategy might look like for your research.

Taking detailed, helpful notes is very important when reading literature, not only to ensure you are collecting information effectively, but to allow you to form your own ideas and arguments that will be used in your writing. It allows you to start critically thinking about what you are reading, make connections between concepts and digest material to gather the key messages. If you are only reading without taking notes, the passive style of learning can make recall and understanding harder.

Key points that improve your note taking speed and efficiency:


  • Take notes electronically, this allows you to locate and arrange your notes more easily.
  • Group your notes based on the questions and concepts you want to cover, this will make converting your notes into writing much easier and allow you to highlight areas you still need to research.
  • Try not to copy and paste phrases or paragraphs into your notes. This increases your risk of plagiarising later and avoids the active learning of note taking in your own words, which is very important in the understanding of the text.
  • Think critically and use note taking as a time for reflection, both on the information itself and the way the author has conducted and written the literature. This will help immensely in your writing.
  • Find a form of note taking that works for you, Course hero has an excellent video discussing different note taking methods for lectures that can easily be applied to your reading and highlights the benefits and drawbacks of each. This includes the Cornell method, the Outline method, Charting and Mind mapping. All are great note taking methods, so find the one that works for you in each circumstance.

Custom writing have produced useful note taking templates for the most common methods:

The Thesis Whisperer also has a slidedeck online about speedy note-taking which you might find useful.

Of course you can use Microsoft Word or notebooks to record your notes, but there are many other digital tools too, including:

Beth Mills, PGR in English created an Excel template for recording her searches and taking notes. 


Choose three papers and use a different template each time to each notes. Which do you like best and why? Do some have better uses in other areas of your research degree, like in meetings/conferences or designing new experiments?

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