Subscribe to History Today

Note-Taking: Purpose, Problems and Proposals

Drawing on classroom experience, Viv Sanders offers advice and seeks answers.

As talking about note-taking in a vacuum can be difficult, I refer here to an exercise I set my Year 12 students every June: taking notes upon Martin McCauley's 148-page The Origins of the Cold War, 1941-49 (Longman Pearson, 2003). They are given several weeks to do it, with the option of doing some work in the summer vacation. In the first week of the autumn term, I read and try to make helpful comments on their notes. This note-taking exercise causes some students great problems, despite my efforts to explain and justify the task as fully as possible, both orally and in a written booklet. I would like to be able to make this note-taking exercise go more smoothly. 

Purpose of Note-Taking  

I always hope that explaining to students why I am asking them to do a particular task makes the task more acceptable. I explain why I am setting them the note-taking task on McCauley. 

(a) General purpose of note-taking  

  • Making notes on a book helps us to focus on the content and to remember it. The more we make notes, the easier it becomes.
  • Notes should be easier for us to re-read than the book itself, as they will be shorter and in our own familiar style.
  • Once formal education is finished, we often have to use documents or other books, so note-taking is a useful transferable skill.
  • We usually need to acquire specific information from a book, and our notes will select and summarise what is important to us.  

(b) Specific purpose of the task on McCauley  

  • Edexcel Module 6 tests knowledge of the origins of the Cold War, quite a difficult topic to get into. Reading this book reinforces what is taught in class, facilitates discussion and provides a really important foundation for the next few months' work.
  • When faced with so many modules in Year 12, students find it difficult to find time to read around history topics. This exercise ensures that some reading is done and may encourage more.
  • Module 6 requires students to understand extracts from historians and contemporaries, so reading McCauley is good practice.
  • Module 6 requires the ability to recognise the perspective from which any extract is written. One of the historians frequently used for a source extract is McCauley, so students should be familiar with his style and interpretation. As well as offering a classic post-revisionist interpretation, he explains other historians' interpretations.
  • Other source extracts in the examination are from contemporaries, and McCauley's book has an excellent collection of contemporary sources, some of which have been used in the exam.
  • McCauley is quite a difficult read. In the exam, extracts have to be read, understood and used at a high-speed, so it is good to practise reading a historian who writes at a ‘higher’ level than we find in many textbooks.
  • When I write my students' UCAS references, I want to be able to say that they are well-organised, read around the subject, select relevant information and have a good understanding of the topic we are studying. Completed notes on McCauley give me a lot of positive points that I can use in the reference.


Students will already have been set some notes-taking homework during Year 12, on small sections of books or on individuals covered in the course. They will also have been taking notes in lessons throughout the year. Therefore they have already been given some basic, preliminary advice on note-taking:

  • Write legibly – you do not want to refer back to notes that you cannot read.
  • Do not try to write everything out – summarise, always using your own words, never anyone else's, unless you want a pithy phrase or an illuminating quotation from a historian or a contemporary.
  • Use abbreviations, but make sure that you do a key, so that when you re-read your notes you know what they mean. (For instance, HT = Harry Truman, WC = Winston Churchill, OCW = origins of the cold war, fp = foreign policy, mil = military, upper case ‘G’ at the end of a word = ‘-ing’.)

With these preliminaries already covered, the students face new problems in taking notes on a complete book.

Problems in Taking Notes on McCauley

Some students each year experience one or all of the following problems:

  • Some fail to organise their time and do not get the notes in by the first day of the Year 13 autumn term. (The occasional student never gets them in at all!)
  • Some tend to write out notes on everything, even parts of the book that are not relevant to our syllabus.
  • Although Module 6 is a source-based module, most leave out the contemporary sources, even if they have written at length on irrelevant material.
  • Some write out a great deal of undifferentiated prose, instead of setting the notes out in a reader-friendly format.
  • Some find it difficult to recognise that there is any value in the process, until they under-achieve on Module 6, by which time it is too late.

Perhaps the greatest problem of all is that approaches to note-taking are very personal, and that what suits some students does not suit others.


We have not yet found the solutions to these problems, although I have proposed several.


Students should begin by consulting the syllabus (‘The Origins and Early Development of the Cold War, 1945-62’) and the Teacher Guide information that I give to, and go over with, them. The syllabus outlines the main topics and key issues. The Teacher Guide expands upon this information. It points to the need for a broad knowledge of the Eastern and Western ‘spheres of influence’ but promises that questions will not be set requiring a detailed knowledge of the internal history of states in the ‘Eastern bloc’ or ‘Western alliance’, nor questions on the internal politics of the US and Soviet alliance systems. Finally, the Guide wants students to be aware that the topic has generated historical debate.

Has this first suggestion worked? Not always. For example, some students omit to note the historians' debates covered in McCauley, and many write in great detail about the internal histories of states in the Eastern bloc.


Students should differentiate and code their notes through a variety of techniques. These include adding sub-headings of one's own, using different colours to highlight countries, dates or individuals, giving special signs for important events and sources. Lists should be made where possible, especially where there are different viewpoints or causes or results of an event. Crises deserve some sign, as do important individuals. Turning points and ‘blame’ also need to be noted.

Some suggested ‘sign-posts’ to go on notes, perhaps in the margin, include: important individual – a pin man; possible source extracts – a book; a country – the national flag; crisis – * or several *s, depending upon the gravity of the crisis; aggressive superpower behaviour – the grumpy face; non-aggressive superpower behaviour – a happy face; meetings – two pin men.

Have these suggestions worked? Some students take to the technique, but the majority do not.


Students need to note the page in McCauley to which they are referring, and to number the pages of their own notes. This is because they might want to look back at McCauley, and they (or I) might drop their pages.

Has this suggestion worked? A minority of students follow this practical tip.


Knowing the very human tendency to put things off until the last minute, I am going to try something new this summer: I will look at each pupil's notes at least twice before the term ends and give some (hopefully) helpful tips. This might motivate/force them to start working on the task earlier and give them more confidence to persevere if they are assured that they are on the right track. I have not done this before because some students will only decide on AS results day whether or not they will continue with History in Year 13. Hence I am not sure it will work.


Another new approach I am going to try this year will be to invent (or use with permission) examples from previous students' note-taking, and to invite current students to comment on their quality and consider what grade the candidate probably ended up with.

Invented notes from Katie, Sally  and Jane on the Truman Doctrine

This exercise is best done on a small, but important section in McCauley, for example, his page on the Truman Doctrine. ‘Katie’ in effect wrote out the whole page, and obtained a D grade in the module. She was clearly a hard-working candidate, but was unable to select what was important and so wasted a lot of time and effort. 'Jane', who obtained an A grade, wrote:

31/3/47: GB announced cld no longer afford mil/econ aid to Gk Tky.

12/3/47: Tru told Cong ‘world div  into gd guys v bad guys, free v unfree, and free needed US aid to remain so’. [She uses a single quotation mark to signify she is paraphrasing, and double quotation marks to signify verbatim quotations]

So, Cong gave him $300 million 4 Gk, $100 million 4 Tky

Signif: "The strident anti-communism of the Truman doctrine touched a responsive chord and transformed the doctrine of containment into a national crusade" (Mc).

Jane was able to summarise the important facts, and to pick out significant points of analysis, which helped her to get the A grade.

‘Sally’, who got a B grade, wrote far more than Jane, but about half as much as Katie. She was obviously more selective, and therefore less exhausted than Katie! However, she lacked the skills of analysis and précis that enabled Jane to get the higher grade.

Where Now?

Note-taking causes problems for both students and teachers. It might therefore be beneficial if students and teachers aired problems and suggested solutions in the pages of History Review. Somewhere in the ensuing debate there might be some answers to the note-taking dilemma.

Viv Sanders is Head of History at Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford.


The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email