I should make a note of this.
December 5, 2012 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Please help me improve my note-taking.

What are your tips, tricks, or rules for taking notes? I would like to improve my note-taking abilities. I have never been all that good at taking notes, no matter what it is for. In general, I am thinking about notes from (productive) meetings, classes, and reading materials but feel free to offer anything you think is relevant.

I have many different tools (Eastgate Tinderbox, Folding Text, Nvalt, Drafts, Evernote) so that isn't a problem so much as content, but if you particularly strongly about a tool you use, feel free to mention it.
posted by Silvertree to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure what exactly you're looking to improve: content? Organization? Comprehension of the material?

My answer will focus on comprehension:

Are you taking notes via pen/paper or typing?

I recently heard a talk at a conference that showed that typing encourages verbatim note taking, which had a negative impact on comprehension of the material later on. Summarizing, however, was shown to enhance comprehension, and students were more likely to remember and synthesize information if they were writing and summarizing (although they found that typing summaries also helped. It was the verbatim copying that didn't help with comprehension of the material.)

Personally, I find I understand the material better if I write it down. Typing gets me into a "don't think copy" mode that doesn't help me understand. When I write, I have the tactile feedback, the ability to draw diagrams and flow charts, etc. The problem with writing is that it's hard to organize and store. I wish there was a notetaking app that allows handwriting and drawing, but could be searched and stored electronically. Hive mind: does that exist?

Anyway, if you are typing, find some way to slow down and summarize, rather than typing things verbatim.
posted by absquatulate at 9:54 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I take notes, I try to capture as much of the information as possible. I use bullets, underlines, etc... to highlight key points. I try to organize as I go. If there are action items I have to deliver on, I use a special notation (mine is an ->) in the margin to call it out. I use white space liberally. Not sure if this is the kind of advice you are looking for, but there it is :).
posted by elmay at 9:55 AM on December 5, 2012

I'll give this part of your question a stab, notes from (productive) meetings, and also assume that this implies work environment, because I really believe that for the notes do be actionable and that you *do* something with them requires followup steps. Using experience not just as a previous employee, but in working with many,many companies and the same thing happens over and over again.

I don't think the tool matters. I type in word because I can cut and paste and send it to other people, but again, this step isn't important.

During a work meeting, do keep track of who says what and who commits to what. Bob states that step A wasn't done because Q did not give him 1. Q then states that she will give Bob 1.Write all of that down (or if you are not sure what is important then, write it down).

If there is anything interesting that pertains to you (actionable item/or interesting item that you want to read about), color code. I highlight things in 2 different colors, and I know what it means to me....but when you review it immediately after the meeting, it helps.

Now here is the more important step. After the meeting, review and clean up your notes. Summarize all of it in bullet points. List the actionable items, such as
--Q to send 1 to Bob
--Bob to complete A when Q completes XXXx..

Now email it to the entire team, with directions at the top to please edit or revise. This really helps because if you skip this at the next meeting Q and Bob will forget the entire discussion.

Now for a brief blurb for classes (this is for the advanced sciences, don't know about other areas and domains, sorry).

Do write down the material, again, but take note if the prof is showing a particular figure or discussing a particular study.

Later on, again, you need to review and clean up your notes. But here is the followup step.If the prof was reviewing an anatomy picture of organs or a recent publication picture with data, go find that picture, copy, and paste it in there. Because the point of the entire conversation was to help you interpret the information, and if it is just a conversation or just a picture, it means nothing alone. You may also want to put a link or info as to where to find the paper in its entirety.
posted by Wolfster at 9:56 AM on December 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

If you are taking notes in class /conferences from a lecture I strongly recommend Circusponies notebook. The killer feature which it has is both an outliner (think omnioutliner) and a timestamped audiorecorder.

What that means is that it will record the lecture, and after you finish the lecture and save - when you click on a line in your notes it will jump to that point in the audio recording. This means that if you took bad notes on an aspect of a lecture on don't understand it - it is super easy to go back to that precise point and click and here the actual explanation that was given in class.
The second step is to then go back afterclass and clearup and review your notes. Using the recording to make them super clear and simple to follow, and make sure you captured all the points that you needed.

I find that this 2-step process with a recording lets me take great notes in practically every lecture I am in.

When I am taking notes from reading material (more common as a research student), I am platform agnostic. The key for me is to not just attempt to summarise a reading but to both change the outline so that it is not just following the flow of the article but the flow of the argument/research. (this is more challenging than it sounds!). As a rule of thumb I attempt to write my notes sufficient that they would work as a textbook for someone who is one "level" below me. Thus, if you are an undergrad, you should try and explain ideas clearly enough in your notes that you could have followed them in high school, if you are a professional so that an intern could pick them up and follow along. Of course, you are not in high school/an intern so you also need to include all the detail and develop you own critical responses to the material. But herin lies the challenge and I have no more advice than hard work.

When taking notes in a small group or meeting, I use an audiorecorder and a pen&paper. I find a laptop or typing too disruptive in these formats. It is not ideal but the best I can do)
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:19 AM on December 5, 2012

I wish there was a notetaking app that allows handwriting and drawing, but could be searched and stored electronically. Hive mind: does that exist?

Yes, I use the built-in note programs on my Motion tablet, which allow you to write in your own handwriting, use various pen colors, move things around a bit, add arrows or whatever you want, and is still somewhat searchable later. (That is, it's crappy at converting to text, but if you use a term many times, it will probably be legible at least once. Or you could add keywords later.)

For the original poster, for classes I think in terms of an outline of the material -- main headings and additional points under them, capturing the main ideas or turns of phrase, looking up to watch the presentation between times. For meetings, sort of the same, but maybe not quite so thorough and more focused on the take-home points -- maybe themes, or actions items FOR YOU (star in margin! list!), directions, contact people, whatever will be useful to refer to later. This will depend on what you are hoping to get from that meeting, as well as how likely you are to refer to the notes. I suspect that essentially outlining the lecture is a way of processing the material and helps with retention, as well as study or implementation later...
posted by acm at 10:34 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Methods for effective note taking depend entirely upon your reasons behind taking notes in the first place. My methods for taking notes in lecture differ completely from my methods for meeting notes, research, and reading. In order to take good notes, you need to know what your goals are ahead of time.

My general methods:

1. Recall/Study. Class notes are easy. I read material ahead of time in preparation for class and take notes on the reading material in outline format, leaving lots of extra space. During lecture I highlight stuff emphasized in lecture, add meat to my skeletal outline, insert examples, cross out stuff the professor doesn't seem to care about, etc. Very little writing is done during lecture. I use a simplified Cornell method so that I can study effectively later--no summaries at the bottom, just questions on the left side of the paper. I'm a stickler for neatness, so I tend to type or re-copy my notes to make them as clear as possible.

2. Meetings/Action. I don't attend meetings anymore, but when I did I kept a lab notebook with numbered pages and an index. I worked in a technical field, so this method made sense in context. On the left page, each meeting got a date, list of important attendees, purpose of the meeting, and a simple list of the topics covered. Action items (for everyone, not just me) got circles or checkboxes next to them. On the right hand side I'd pull just my action items, leaving room for notes on each item--date of completion, problems I'd encountered, notes for future reference, due dates, etc. This also doubled as yearly review fodder.

3. Reading/Research. This really depends on the topic. For research papers I used the notecard method, though I adapted it to a digital format in college. For projects I'm doing I just keep track of everything in OneNote using whatever format that fits my fancy. Lots of outlines and links to sources. I like OneNote because of the "all over and anywhere on the page" nature of the product. I can fit more data into a smaller area and organize things according to my own thought processes and organizational style.
posted by xyzzy at 11:30 AM on December 5, 2012

While taking notes I often include my initial reaction to the thing being said. This is especially helpful if I had a particular reaction but didn't voice it during the note-taking session in fear that my reaction would derail the conversation or be a digression. Later, when I need to process my notes better, my marginalia helps me recall directions I want to take the notes.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 12:25 PM on December 5, 2012

Just to be clear, I am not looking for processes, unless you feel particularly strongly. I am looking for content ideas.
posted by Silvertree at 12:53 PM on December 5, 2012

Silvertree: "I am not looking for processes, unless you feel particularly strongly. I am looking for content ideas."

I think you might want to consider the ways in which tools, processes and content ideas are linked. If you make the choice to use an audio recording tool to record a lecture (process), you're making a decision about saving a particular type of content and not saving other types of content. One of the reasons I like FoldingText so much (which you mentioned) is that it makes it functionally easy to record notes and todos in the same document. That tool can then lead to a process I think is particularly helpful (capturing action steps from a meeting), which in turn leads to a focus on a particular kind of content (what's actionable).
posted by Apropos of Something at 4:37 PM on December 5, 2012

I take notes in meetings and one-on-one conversations on a regular basis. For me, notes serve three purposes:
1- They help me remember. I have a terrible memory, but the act of writing things down helps me cement things in my brain, even when I don't have to read the notes ever again.
2- As documentation that I can refer to later/as a reminder of next steps and actions.
3- To use in my work as a journalist. See "terrible memory" above. I don't write or report ANYTHING that I can't link to a document, so my notes don't just provide quotes, they also help me guarantee that what I think I remember is what really happened.

I type faster than I write by hand, so I really like phone-based interviews or meetings where a laptop is acceptable for that reason.

When at a meeting/event with an agenda, I make sure to have a paper copy of the agenda and to write macro notes on it, and to organize my computer or paper notes in a way that mirrors the organization of the agenda. So if Item B requires follow-up after the meeting, I put a star next to it on the agenda, and maybe the word "folo" as a reminder. When Item C is being addressed, I write "ITEM C" in big letters in my notes.

While taking rapid notes on a computer, it's useful to know the shortcut keys for bold (usually ctrl-b or option-b) and italics (usually ctrl-i or option-i) so that you can highlight important info on the fly. When something is especially important, or when I need to signify a break in topic or speaker, I use multiple asterisks.

To successfully take notes on paper, it's crucial for me to have key abbreviations figured out in advance. What words are likely to occur multiple times? Since I often take notes on job-related issues, fore example, "ee" has become "employee," "eet" is "employment," etc. When I had to take notes on a Columbia County, it became "CC."

When abbreviating, I pay attention to how important is it to get the meaning right, vs. how important is it to exactly record what is said. For example, if you just want to remember that somebody said it will cost a lot of money it's OK to write "Person: Lots of $." But if you want to get the word right, you won't know if they said "money," "dollars" or something else later, so "$" is a bad abbreviation when precision/accuracy is important.

When taking notes on paper I like to take a sheet from the back of my notebook and fold it 90 degrees, so that it's still attached to the binding but now a portion of the paper is sticking out of the notebook. I use this to write meta-notes as I'm scribbling -- "don't forget to ask about X," or "review notes on Y," for example.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:48 PM on December 5, 2012

I use a notebook - I go through about 1/month. Most of my notes are obsolete after three days, because I go back through them. I have a symbol for a to-do, and the rest of my notes are really just information and brainstorming to help me make decisions. After learning to use a notebook in every meaning and seeing what it helps me remember, I don't trust my memory or the memory of others.
posted by jander03 at 8:29 PM on December 9, 2012

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