Critical Notes

Chapter Two: Critical Notes


We believe the best way to work on a difficult text is by rereading . . . but you can also work on the difficult text by writing, by taking possession of the work through sentences and paragraphs of your own, through summary, paraphrase, and quotation, by making another writer’s work part of your work (12).

— Bartholomae and Petrosky, “Introduction.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers


Taking critical notes

One objective of the annotations described in the previous chapter is to help you create a critical outline during a subsequent reading. The objective in the critical outline is to boil the entire argument down to its essence without losing any significant detail. The focus, then, is on reduction: taking something complex and unwieldy and turning it into something small and useful for study or your own writing. There is a real art to this, and you will become better and faster at this as you practice. Over time, you will train your mind to operate in such a way that you will perform these tasks almost unconsciously as you read. These critical notes will be indispensable study aids. They will also dramatically improve your writing since key information, important passages, and significant quotations from the text will be easily accessible to you with minimal recovery efforts.

These critical summaries are comprised of nothing more than summary, paraphrase, quotation, and your own observations and questions. Quote only the most important, memorable language. Summarize or paraphrase the rest in as objective a manner as possible. Take great care when summarizing or paraphrasing; if your work is too similar to the original text and is used later in your own writing, you may inadvertently commit plagiarism, a serious academic offense. Therefore, carefully place the writing of others into your own words and cite the text and ideas you reference in your notes.

As you write this critical outline you will not only try to reduce the main points of the argument, you will also ask questions and make observations of the text. You should note the argumentative points that you find yourself strongly agreeing or disagreeing with and your reasons for doing so. You might see a logical inconsistency or want the author to provide more evidence for his or her claims. You might make a note to perform some research at the library or on the Internet on an unfamiliar concept or event mentioned in the argument. Ultimately, however, you will want to determine if the argument you have read is persuasive and provide the reasons why.

At the end of this process, you should have a simplified—but objective and accurate—version of the essay that has been ruthlessly cut down to its bare essentials as well as a number of critical observations, questions, and ideas that have emerged in your process of reading. By the time you reach this stage and read over your notes, you will have taken great strides toward understanding the information or argument. Of course, if the text is difficult, you may have to repeat the process until you have a breakthrough. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful and important this process is. It will help you arrive at a greater understanding of the text’s claims and weaknesses while also activating your long-term memory.

Finally, to be a successful student and scholar, you will need to preserve your notes for later use. You might use a series of organized folders on your computer or some kind of filing system in manila folders. Whatever works best for you. Retaining all of this hard work will be of great importance to you later, particularly as you engage in large research projects. As I describe in the next chapter, being a scholar—or just a great student—involves reusing and re-purposing prior work and information.

How to take in-class notes

You might consider taking your notes on paper. Some research suggests that taking notes by hand, rather than using a computer, aids memory and improves student performance:

Obviously it is advantageous to draft more complete notes that precisely capture the course content and allow for a verbatim review of the material at a later date. Only it isn’t. New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more. Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand. As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes. In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

  • Of course, we’re all different with unique strengths and challenges. So this advice may not be appropriate for everyone.

Critical notes strategies

Developing a process for making critical notes is perhaps the most important new habit you will need to be successful in college. Here are some strategies or principles that may guide your efforts:

  • Reduce. Use summary, paraphrase, quotation, to reduce an argument to its bare bones.

  • Engage. Grapple with the ideas and arguments in the text. Ask questions and make observations. You should note the argumentative points that you find yourself strongly agreeing or disagreeing with and your reasons for doing so. You might see a logical inconsistency or want the author to provide more evidence for his or her claims. You might make a note to perform some research on an unfamiliar word, concept, or event mentioned in the argument.

  • Protect yourself. Be scrupulous when you summarize and paraphrase source materials in your notes by ensuring that you use your own language and sentence structure. A lazy mistake at this stage may cost you dearly later if you inadvertently plagiarize material. Don’t forget to meticulously cite the page numbers of all the information you include in your notes.

  • Save your work. You will need to create a system for organizing and retaining these annotations and notes for later use. You might use a series of organized folders on your computer or some kind of filing system in manila folders. Whatever works best for you.