how to take notes in college history classes

I have good news for those of you who hate to take notes.

I am a compulsive note-taker, but I have been doing it wrong.  I just completed my ninth year of college (Bachelors + Bible college + teaching credential + Masters) and I have boxes of binders and notebooks full of the copious notes I took for dozens and dozens of courses.  I always think that I’m going to go back and flip through a notebook and find some profound and/or useful nugget of information, but I have yet to do so.  I kind of enjoy taking lecture notes, and it helps me to interact with a text to take notes as I read, but there is a better way.

As far as I know, this will only be useful for history students.  In your upper division courses, you will probably receive a massive required reading list of monographs and articles, and it will be impossible to read every single word and take notes on every single section.  Fortunately, your professors won’t actually expect you to know every minute detail of every text they assign.  There are certain aspects of a text, however, that you will want to make sure you are familiar with.

Oftentimes, my binder full of notes didn’t include these crucial elements.  But this semester I was teaching full time, in grad school, completing a super annoyingly time-consuming aspect of teacher preparation, and teaching music lessons after school.  So I desperately needed a way to streamline my note-taking and reading.  Here is what I started doing:


You can download this form by clicking the on the file below.  Sorry it looks so small on screen!


If you are reading a monograph or an article for a discussion course, or even to incorporate into a short paper or book review, one page of notes should be enough.  The important thing is that you are taking purposeful and relevant notes, and those will help you more than my notebooks full of fun facts.

Title & Author: self-explanatory

Argument: If you don’t know what the author’s argument is, no amount of quotes or details is going to help you.  Nail down the main argument.  You will find this in the Introduction.  What is the author trying to prove in this book or article?  If you do understand the argument, you will be able to interact with any other portion of the book.  (Note: This method will only work for a monograph, not for a synthesis. A monograph contains an argument, while a synthesis is just an overall history of a topic.)

Historiography: Historiography is (for lack of a better explanation) the history of the history.  What have other people written about this topic already?  Is your author trying to prove them wrong, or add a missing piece to the story?  Is this a relatively new field of history, such as the importance of animals in combat in WWI?  Or, you might have a fairly old monograph, and you will need to take the timing into consideration.  Is this a book about race, written before the Civil Rights era?  Address any relevant issues in your notes so that they can inform your reading and analysis.

Categories of Analysis: A category of analysis is a lens through which a historian looks at an event.  You might read an article about women during WWII.  The  category of analysis, then, is probably gender.  Other examples of categories of analysis are race, labor, economics, migration, change over time, agriculture, social history, etc.  The categories of analysis are usually related to the argument.  If an author argues that horses were vital to the success of the Comanche tribe against the Spanish, then husbandry is a category of analysis.  Chapter titles are usually your best hint for recognizing categories of analysis.

Methodology: How did this author conduct his or her research, or structure the book?  Sometimes authors will do a comparative study and compare two seemingly different things, and prove that they are similar.  Or an author will do a case study and show how an individual story can shed light on an entire event/ situation.  Oftentimes the author will explain the methodology explicitly in the Introduction.

Evidence: What did the author use to prove his or her argument?  Census records, diaries, presidential speeches?  The evidence usually consists of primary source documents.  You can be critical of the evidence, too.  Did the author use enough sources?  Were these sources credible?  If you are writing a book review, you will definitely want to be mindful of the evidence the author chose to include.

Other notes: Here is where I get to indulge in a little trivia gathering, or jot down interesting quotes.  I can’t just quit cold turkey!

Side note: This is a great way to outline your own papers as well.  When you don’t have these elements worked out, you tend to have writer’s block at 3:00am the night before the paper is due.

Here is an example of some of my notes from last semester…


My professor specifically only wanted one page of notes for two articles, so I had to adjust my format a little.  But with just half a page of notes per article, I was able to fully engage in classroom discussion and I had a clear understanding of the material.

Let me know if this is useful! 🙂