Keeping a Researcher's Notebook

Excerpts from pages 13-16 and 99-112 of Writing Research Papers Across the Curriculum, Third Edition, by Susan M. Hubbach, copyright 1992 by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, reprinted by permission of the publisher. This material may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

A researcher's notebook will help you to maintain your own voice in the research process. Although there's no correct way to set up your notebook, consider including the following sections: 

  • Research Strategy Section
  • Lists of things to do
  • Deadlines
  • Questions to be answered
  • Places to find information

Example entries:

* See if Denison has Browning poem.
* Get list of books for interlibrary loan - NOW!
* Ask Prof. Jones for names of local experts on this topic.

Reading Notes Section

This section is not what your sources say (which goes on notecards), but your reactions as you read. Try the following strategies: 

  • Freewrite (write for a specified period without stopping).
  • Ask and answer questions a reading raises; criticize it:
  • What do I think of this work?
  •  How does this study compare to others?
  • What's missing?
  • What assumptions does this author make? Do I agree with them?
  • Do I fully understand the argument here?


Working Hypothesis Section

This is the key section that assures the final paper is original - is yours. It is what keeps you from writing a "passive sponge" paper. You are keeping a written record of what is happening in your head as you read, think, discuss your ideas with others, and shift your thinking. As you do this, you lay the groundwork for your paper, and when you begin drafting, you may find that much of the work is already done. You have figured out what you want to say. Don't wait until you have gathered all your evidence and finished all your notetaking to decide what to say, for two main reasons: 

1. You may be overwhelmed by so much material that you can't organize it. A common result is the "information dump" paper. 

2. You need to give your research a sense of direction as you are doing it so that you know what evidence to look for next, what new questions to ask, what old sources to reread, etc. 


Therefore, once you have a working hypothesis in answer to your research question, you should return to this section of your notebook every few days to review it. Ask yourself: 

  • Is my hypothesis still right?
  • Should I change direction? How?
  • What questions about this project do I have now?
  • Talk to yourself. Try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. 
  • What picture is emerging?
  • Does it fit my hypothesis? 
  • What information do I still need?

Here is a sample of an entry made a few weeks into the research process for an education paper: 

I came into this project convinced that an open classroom was the best environment for kids' learning. Now I'm not so sure. Ramirez, Wilheim, and Kim all stress how important it is for children to have structure. So -- what's the story? A completely free environment in which kids do what they feel like doing when they feel like doing it or a version of military school? There has got to be something in the middle. OK, let's start with structure. What does that mean? If I am understanding what I've been reading, these experts are saying that children need . . . what? (1) a sense of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, (2) they need to know what kinds of tasks they are expected to do and when they should hand them in, (3) they need to know how to go about doing these tasks. Do students need to sit in rows of desks facing the teacher, never talking unless asked a question by the teacher, to have these kinds of structure? NO. Children talking to each other doesn't have to be classified as inappropriate behavior. In fact, Hashimoto and DeMartino both say that kids learn best when they work in groups. But they do need to be told HOW to work in groups. There's the structure. I'm cooking. Let's go on with this. (Hubbach 16)



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