Skip to Main Content

Academic Integrity - Referencing, Citation & Avoiding Plagiarism: Active reading and note-taking

This guide explains what referencing and citation is and how to use the APA, Chicago, Harvard, MLA and Vancouver Styles. It includes links to each style guide.

Active reading defined

Active reading involves reading with a purpose in order to grasp definitions and meanings, understand debates, and identify and interpret evidence. It requires you to engage in reading and thinking at one and the same time. 

Active reading is how you

  • organise the information you read
  • build a picture of the evidence presented
  • draw links and differences between the texts/article/books in order to find a way into you research question


For the majority of your time in higher education you will be reading journal articles or academic texts. These takes months or years to produce, therefore reading them will take longer and more effort than is normally the case.

Active reading and note taking

Active note-taking will help you to remember, interpret and apply what you have read for your university work. This means noting your questions and reflections of texts, as you take your notes.

There is no one way to make notes, try out the different methods, and see what suits you and the particular text best. For texts that are your own, this might include highlighting, underlining, writing in the margins questions and summaries, mind maps or writing your notes on paper.

Skim the text before you start reading in detail. This can be done by reading the introduction, the summary or conclusion, and the first line or so of each paragraph. Note down any initial thoughts as you go. 

Ask yourself the questions recommended under tips for Active Reading and those for Critical reading and really try to answer some of them as you read the text.

Referencing and citation - ensure that you have a full reference for each text you are taking notes on. Clearly mark in your notes any direct quotes with the author name and the page you took the quote from.

Reflection - after reading your text, take a break, then look at your notes again. Does anything really hit you about the article or text? Perhaps you can see a theme more clearly now, or even how this text links with other works you have read. Take a note of this, so you can use it in your assignments/research.

Reading a journal article - UCD Writing Centre

Techniques for active reading: questioning

Reading Individual Texts: Questioning the Literature

  • What sort of text is it? 
  • What is the methodology? 
  • Is a particular approach or school followed? 
  • What are the definitions used? 
  • What is the theoretical basis? 
  • What is the main thesis of the piece?
  • What evidence is used to back up the thesis? 
  • What are the conclusions? 

Reading Across the literature: Analyse and Evaluate

  • What is your research question and how does this material relate? 
  • Are there foundational articles/seminal works which must be included in your research? 
  • How is the topic framed in the literature? 
  • Are there some works that should not be included? 
  • Is there a central debate that should be acknowledged and addressed? 
  • Where is research on the topic headed in the future?

Techniques for active reading: critical reading

Reading critically involves acquiring the skill to be able to read academic information and arguments while assessing their validity.

Questions to ask when reading critically are

  • What is the line of argument of this text?
  • Is the argument based on valid assumptions? Are the assumptions opinion or fact?
  • Is there any natural bias in the piece?
  • Is the evidence presented reliable and valid?
  • What is the conclusion of the piece? Does the argument and evidence support the conclusion?
  • Are there any alternative conclusions that could be drawn?
  • How does this text relate to the literature more widely?


To find out more about interpreting the theory or research you are reading, try looking at our tutorial on Critical thinking.

Putting it all together - organising your notes

Being organised will help you with both revision and writing up assignments. Here are some tips for organising them:

  • Write short summaries of each piece of text. 
  • For each relevant text, try to write a one paragraph summary similar to an abstract. Make sure the source is fully referenced so that you know what the summary is of. 
  • Organise the summaries, again, with them clearly referenced. 
  • Try to identify similarities and group the summaries accordingly. At this stage you may see links and themes that you had not seen before.


Note Taking Tools

Software can be used to organise your notes. For example EndNote has a note taking space on each reference, Evernote, Google Keep, OneNote, PDF notes, PowerPoint Notes, or the traditional and very popular, handwritten notes.

One way to organise your research notes is using a spreadsheet with questions and notes for each text. Not all questions would need to be answered for each text, just those of relevance.

note taking spreadsheet