How to Take Research Notes

Your research notebook is an important piece of information useful for future projects and presentations. Maintaining organized and legible notes allows your research notebook to be a valuable resource to you and your research group. It allows others and yourself to replicate experiments, and it also serves as a useful troubleshooting tool. Besides it being an important part of the research process, taking detailed notes of your research will help you stay organized and allow you to easily review your work.

Here are some common reasons to maintain organized notes:

  • Keeps a record of your goals and thoughts during your research experiments.
  • Keeps a record of what worked and what didn't in your research experiments.
  • Enables others to use your notes as a guide for similar procedures and techniques.
  • A helpful tool to reference when writing a paper, submitting a proposal, or giving a presentation.
  • Assists you in answering experimental questions.
  • Useful to efficiently share experimental approaches, data, and results with others.

Before taking notes:

  • Ask your research professor what note-taking method they recommend or prefer.
  • Consider what type of media you'll be using to take notes.
  • Once you have decided on how you'll be taking notes, be sure to keep all of your notes in one place to remain organized.
  • Plan on taking notes regularly (meetings, important dates, procedures, journal/manuscript revisions, etc.).
  • Keep track of the different skills you develop and the responsibilities you are involved in within your research.
    • This is useful when applying to programs or internships that ask about your research experience.

Note Taking Tips:

Taking Notes By Hand:
  • Research notebooks don’t belong to you so make sure your notes are legible for others.
  • Use post-it notes or tabs to flag important sections.
  • Start sorting your notes early so that you don't become backed up and disorganized.
  • Only write with a pen as pencils aren’t permanent & sharpies can bleed through.
  • Make it a habit to write in your notebook and not directly on sticky notes or paper towels. Rewriting notes can waste time and sometimes lead to inaccurate data or results.
Taking Notes Electronically
  • Make sure your device is charged and backed up to store data.
  • Invest in note-taking apps or E-Ink tablets
  • If using your laptop, create folders to organize your notes and data.
    • Create shortcuts to your folders so you have easier access
  • Create outlines.
  • Keep your notes short and legible.

Note Taking Tips Continued:

Things to Avoid
  • Avoid using pencils or markers that may bleed through.
  • Avoid erasing entries. Instead, draw a straight line through any mistakes and write the date next to the crossed-out information.
  • Avoid writing in cursive.
  • Avoid delaying your entries so you don’t fall behind and forget information.
Formatting Tips
  • Customize your notes.
    • Use bullet points to condense your notes to make them simpler to access or color-code them.
  • Record all mistakes as they can be helpful learning tools.
    • Tracking your failures and mistakes can improve your work in the future.
  • If possible, take notes as you’re experimenting or make time at the end of each workday to get it done.
  • Record the date at the start of every day, including all dates spent on research.

Types of media to use when taking notes:

  • Traditional paper notebook
    • Pros: Able to take quick notes, convenient access to notes, cheaper option
    • Cons: Requires a table of contents or tabs as it is not easily searchable, can get damaged easily, needs to be scanned if making a digital copy
  • Electronic notebook 
    • Invest in note-taking apps:
    • Invest in E-Ink Tablets:
    • Pros: Easily searchable, note-taking apps available, easy to edit & customize
    • Cons: Can be difficult to find notes if they are unorganized, not as easy to take quick notes, can be a more expensive option
  • Combination of both
Office of Undergraduate Research