Take a Note...

Headed-notepaperToday’s guest poster is unavailable for comment following a open toe sandal incident earlier today. Therefore inno once more wheeled me into the breech like a colossal wooden badger, set on promoting his own thoughts and ideas on papery note makin'...

Information and knowledge are not the preserve of the lecture hall nor the text book, they surround us filling our senses and yet so familiar are they we barely take time to acknowledge them before new information takes their place. Every day we find ourselves bombarded with more and more – some surf over the top leading to mediocre thinking, still others splash and play. Another group find themselves drowning in a sea of ‘stuff’ which in turn lead to procrastination. Only by critical thinking and making notes are we are able to sift through the detritus to reveal the nuggets of information on which the empires of knowledge are built upon.

Form and Function

Today we are overwhelmed with choices. Tiny business cards, Moleskine notebooks, bound lab books, loose paper. Computers; from tiny data watches to palmtops to note and laptops, even desktops for some people. Mobile phones that record a few seconds speech; dictation machines costing hundreds of dollars. The list seems endless. For most people, paper and card still holds the advantage over other forms of media. Paper and ink is relatively cheap, pencil cheaper still. It can out last any computer and papers is easily cross referenced. Let us not forget notes differ from other forms of information; notes are summarised snippets of information that we wish to retain for later use. Perhaps a research project or book. Maybe something funny we heard and wish to add to our journals. While most of us are familiar with written ones lets not forget drawings, diagrams, and conceptual maps can also make ‘good’ notes.

Bound vs. Loose Leaf

For some the choice is made for them – a bound or e-lab book is a necessity. For those of use who have a choice loose leaf paper has several advantages over bound pages or computers.

  • Lighten the load: It is easier to carry a few sheet of paper each day than a full size manuscript book or laptop computer.

  • Storage and Good Housekeeping: It is easier to discard the odd sheet of paper than an entire book and low price, large capacity hard drives encourage us to store vast amounts of useless data rather than be selective in our choices.

  • Indexing and Filing: is far less difficult when one can move individual pages. Although advances have been made in software design and there are a plethora of Personal Information Managers on the market, few if any live up to expectations and all force the user to alter their thinking.

  • Lessening Loss: We have all been there, hours of work vanishes in to thin air. Lessen the risks by spreading the work between ring binder and envelope folders.

  • Privacy and Ethics: I have placed these two together as we cannot have rights unless we also have responsibilities. Sometimes we need things to remain private and one of the simplest ways is to record the data on paper and move the entire page to a new folder rather than try to encrypt odd files. (Note: By privacy and ethics I refer not only to plagiarism, but also how one records, uses and stores personal information about other people).

Whether one uses notebooks, loose leaf or computers for primary note making, as with the humble towel one should feel naked without a small field notebook or organiser in addition to their main capture device.

Methods: What to take and how to take it.

Date: Some people try to use chronological information for indexing and soon abandon it for more efficient methods. Dating one’s notes has a different purpose entirely. It enables one to track to the history of their thinking and in the case of certain types of research the date on which a discovery was made.

Source: Where did your information come from? Sometimes one needs to state which book, website or article your information came from. And this is important to note along with that quote. For proper citation one also needs to add the reference to a database. Index/record cards are the traditional method however I recommend setting up an e-database. Anything from a simple spreadsheet to Bibus. I use EndNote to avoid fighting the Python. There are a wide range of downloadable ‘style guides’ as well as supporting an array of academic and professional on-line databases available for EndNote.

There are a number of referencing methods that one may come across. Each one is designed to meet the needs of a particular group. For example:

  • APA (American Psychological Association)
  • Chicago-Style (The Chicago Manual of Style)
  • MLA (Modern Language Association)
  • OSCOLA (The Oxford Standard for Citation Of Legal Authorities)
  • Turabian
  • The Vancouver System. (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors)

Unless told otherwise try to use the Harvard system (BS 5605:1990 and BS 1629:1998, or BS ISO 690-2: 1997 for e-references). The main advantage being that one inserts a short citation in one’s notes linked to a full citation in the bibliography.

Notes on Plagiarism: The OED defines plagiarism as: "the act of taking and using as one’s own of the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another". If one uses the intellectual property of another person without the proper acknowledgment, usually through citations, this is plagiarism. Even if it's unintentional. However, if something is common knowledge simple obscured by use of uncommon language then it is not plagiarism to use it in one’s own words.

Remember it is much easier to find a reference if you add both page number and paragraph where applicable.

If you did an on-line search remember to record the search string in you notes too.

What things are good to capture?

Record general ideas, thoughts, concepts, quotes (underline or highlight so that they stand out and use sparingly). Find the arguments, assumptions and opinions note them down. Record evidence to support or contradict the underlying assumptions which may be buried in emotive language or other rhetorical tricks – never forget note making is a form of critical thinking.

Try not limit yourself only to concepts and words which you understand, write down those which you do not. If you're always looking up a new word, why not note it down along with its definition. Some things are easier to grasp than others and unless one wishes to limit their thinking to self-help titles building thinking skills, vocabulary and a strong knowledge base are of the utmost importance.

Restate in your own words and avoid jargon. For example: unless one is making notes on law there is no place for the word ‘actionable’ in one's notes. Use standard abbreviation such as viz. and et al. However try not to make up new ones. One has to be able to read their notes at a later date.

Do not be afraid to use pictures and analogies if these seem helpful. Pictures can be worth a thousand words. Remember you cannot explain that which you do not understand yourself.

Only use one side of the paper – When it is time to spread out you notes out and the only surface not in use is the floor you will understand why we only use the one side.

A short list of common methods:

Marginalia: Henry the VIII of England made margin notes as have countless other over the centuries. However it has two disadvantages over other forms of note making. One, the note remains in the book and two it defaces the book. Far better to take a photocopy and deface that. At least then one’s notes remain with the other data. The same applies to underlines, highlighting and other dubious practice.

Sentence: Here we write each thought, idea and concept on a new line double spaced. It is fast and simple, yet it is let down badly by lack of structure. For anyone using this method it is wise to read and revise one’s notes as soon as possible.

Columns: Benjamin Franklin used columns for his “pros and cons”. Simply mark off one third to the left of the page and write down the key points. In the right hand column add the details, including page and paragraph where relevant. Again one should leave a line or two between thoughts.

Cornell: The Cornell method (created by Walter Paulk at Cornell University) has two advantages over other forms of note making. Firstly, they can be used for any subject and second, they are self contained. They also happen to be my favourite method.

Take a sheet of paper and mark off the bottom two inches (50 mm on A4) then two and a half inches (40 mm on A4) on the left. For those adverse to rules try Cornell Notes Template, Cornell index card, or look through the Template directories

At the top of the right hand column write the date and detail of the book, journal, lecture - whatever one is taking notes of. Followed by:

  • Record: Your notes in the usual way. (keywords on the left main body on the right).

  • Question: The ideas you have been presented with. (I find a thesaurus and technical dictionary invaluable for this sort of work).

  • Recite: Cover the right hand column with a blank sheet of paper. Reading the keywords on the left, what can you remember of your notes?

  • Reflect: On the material you have gathered. Try to condense the key point and add them to the summary box at the bottom.

  • Review: Get into the habit of a ten minute review once a week. As you skill increase you will find new questions and ways of seeing things. Never be afraid to reflect these in your notes. (I use a red pen for updates).

Mapping: Three men are responsible for the popular rise in ‘idea maps’; E C Tolman (Cognitive Maps), J D Novak (Concept Maps) and Tony Buzan (Mind Maps) ‘Maps’ use concepts and ideas as nodes, interconnected by branches. The main difference being Mind Maps can only support on key idea whereas Concept Maps support limitless amounts. While these can be useful for quickly developing concepts and ideas. For example ‘brain storming’. I remain sceptical as to their application in note taking. For those who are interested in finding out more I have add links to Novak and Buzan’s respective websites.

Index (record) cards: An article on paper based note making would not be complete without a mention of the humble record card. These can be utilise in two ways: to capture data in lieu of a field notebook or to capture individual notes, one per card. The advantage is said to be that they are cheap, stronger than paper and can be shuffled like a deck of cards, therefore presenting the data in a randomised fashion. To my mind the main disadvantage is ‘knowledge fragmentation’ Obviously the knowledge should be in the owner of the notes head, however by splitting rather than building a web of information I find important contextual is lost or ignored. For those who need a practical example try Googling the word ‘shoe’, I got 56,000,000 in 0.08 seconds and some of the result were odd to say the least.

Further Reading

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I have been going mind map

I have been going mind map crazy over the last couple of weeks. This is the closest I have ever been to an epiphany in organizational conquest. I can understand that some just "don't get it", and I guess it depends on the way your brain works, but when I set out a mind map of my problem/subject/project/diary, it just all makes sense.


I wish I had this back when I was writing papers regularly: Bibliography Generator

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Hi. Wow. This is going to

Wow. This is going to come in handy, thanks. I love their byline: Make a bibliography. It's free, easy and OttoMatic.


I sent the link to my 13 year old nephews and tried to express how important this will become in the near future :) Glad it will help you too ...

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Thanks, Sara

Now if only a lot of my books actually had ISBNs. :)

As wonderful as it is to

As wonderful as it is to find the odd recipe from a monk in an illuminated manuscript from days gone by, I wish I could have gone back in time to stop myself from using "marginalia" in so many of my beautiful books back in my early university days. For all the A's I wish I had found better ways to study. This website and type of advice has to be a great resource for students who can find the time to take advantage.

I ruined the books I loved and would like to keep and lowered the value of others. My heart sank when I found my sister had also marked on the books I had passed on to her.


While I appreciate your point I think that unless they were really rare and valuable that you probably got more out of them by writing in the margins.


Take a note...

Another valuable note-taking / contextual knowledge assimilating tool is General Knowledge Base which combines both the index card function (randomized) and the logical context-driven (linear-hierarchical) functions into one data entry procedure. The crux of the matter is that you would like to be able to follow a thread of a thought process to its conclusion based on references to knowledge you aquired some time ago. So if you start putting all your notes into GKB from the outset, then when you need to write your dissertation, you can perform many "what if" scenarios while being able to prove your thesis at every step of the way.

Hi Vincent Thank you for

Hi Vincent

Thank you for your input. However I have to disagree with you about the use of database software in the early stages of a PhD. In my opinion this type of software will not only restrict one's thinking, it encourages the student to acquire information rather then build concepts. I have also noticed that while you have an obvious knowledge of advanced database systems your post fails to tell us (the D*I*Y community) if 'GKB' supports RDF/XML, a user modifiable thesaurus, plugins for academic databases....

I suggest you talk to your supervisor and university IT department about recommended software and student discounts before you begin writing your thesis. :)


Question on 'Question'

Thanks for this. :) Could you expand a bit on this (under the Cornell notes):

Question: The ideas you have been presented with. (I find a thesaurus and technical dictionary invaluable for this sort of work).

Pardon my being dense (I do a lot of research for my current work, but it's been a long long time since I was in a class), but I don't quite understand the relationship between the thesaurus and dictionary and questioning the ideas. Do you mean to use the T and D for notions that you don't quite understand?

And I agree with you re: Cornell notes. I use the Levenger Circa version all the time for my research.

There are no stupid questions...

"Thanks for this". :)

You are welcome. :)

"Pardon my being dense"...

No apology necessary, you posts are always imaginative and well written. :)

"I don't quite understand the relationship between the thesaurus and dictionary and questioning the ideas. Do you mean to use the T and D for notions that you don't quite understand?"

Yes I should have made the distinction clear to start with. As you know we are often confronted by a word or words that may have a common meaning as well as a technical one or it may just be new to us. If we accept the notion that an 'author' can prescribe a certain meaning to a word or phrase and that meaning can be agreed upon by the author's peers then one cannot understand an idea or concept without understanding the semantic content of these 'containers'. For example Vincent (above) uses the terms context driven and linear-hierarchical to represent the same concept. By employing the correct dictionaries (in this case one for linguistics and one for computer science) we are able determine what the author is trying to tell us and in turn we can analysis the validity of his argument. A good example of a technical dictionary (in this case medical) is Dorland's. It supplements rather than replaces an everyday one such as the OED. I use a thesaurus to check for synonyms as different authors often express the same concept in different terms depending on their background knowledge and first language.

HTH. :)

Guest Poster's Toe

How is the Guest Poster's Toe? Will we be hearing about it?

Gowin's V heuristic. used to prove spontaneous guilt in men...

Hi Paula

You will be pleased to hear the guest poster's toe is healing nicely. She has even drawn a V heuristic to prove her short trip was my fault and not the shoe's. :D