How to take scientific notes efficiently?
March 18, 2014 5:10 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to take grad level notes that feature tons of text, math equations and diagrams, during class, while reading books, and while reading research? Ability to search and organize a huge plus! Digital or non-digital solutions considered.

So I’ve been working for the past 10 years but am going back to grad school next fall for a PhD – starting to read up but realized I needed to take notes again, which I’ve pretty much forgotten how to do.

I used to do loose paper + binder, but I’m sure new things have come up since then. Is the iPad + stylus really an option? Not sure I would be able to type fast enough on it though? How does it work for equations? Is some kind of Mac laptop a better option? Which one? Should I get a drawing pad to add to the Mac? Etc…..

posted by Riton to Education (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I use an iPad, good stylus, and Notability. I don't use the keyboard with it. I usually go through after class and sometimes digitize the notes and equations with LaTeX.
posted by supercres at 5:15 AM on March 18, 2014

Best answer: For reading notes, I go with flash cards, Husbunny is studying for an actuarial exam and he uses more index cards than you can shake a stick at.

There's something about writing down one equation, or one fact or one whatever on a card. It's visual and it's kinesthetic. You can read them to yourself and it's auditory. Flash cards are awesome.

For lectures, I have a spiral notebook and I date the top of the page and I take contemporaneous notes. I work more on the theory of an outline, not straight-out transcription. I do emphasize specific ideas that the professor seems to be hammering on.

Try everything, see what works for you. We're all different.

There are services on-line where you can buy class notes.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:17 AM on March 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Record your lectures! That way, if you miss something because you were furiously scribbling down an equation, you can go back and listen again.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:25 AM on March 18, 2014

Response by poster: I use an iPad, good stylus, and Notability. I don't use the keyboard with it.

Meaning you 'hand-write' the text part as well?

sometimes digitize the notes and equations with LaTeX.

On your iPad? Or do you use a different note taking system on a lap/desktop?
posted by Riton at 5:29 AM on March 18, 2014

Best answer: I'm a second year PhD student in economics, so also math/diagram heavy.

Medium-wise, I do everything on paper, as does nearly everyone in my department. I will occasionally go through and type up lecture notes after the fact in LaTeX, or if I'm wrapping up a stage of a project and want to have all of the derivations neatly organized. I found it was a little bit easier to do things on paper because often after the fact I'll want to make changes or let someone photocopy my stuff or add someone's photocopied stuff to my notes. In principle there's no reason you couldn't do this all digitally, I suppose, but paper is cheap and easy. I tried the stylus + ipad thing for awhile and didn't like it much, but that may have been me being a cheapskate on the stylus/not giving it a fair go. Part of the problem might be that I have The.Worst.Handwriting.Ever. and trying to take notes electronically takes it from "nearly illegible" to "completely illegible."

You might try getting in touch with students further along in your department and see what they do. You might find out that a professor objects to using laptops in a particular class for example (I realize it's weird, but it happens!)

For note-taking method stuff:
I found that each class was a little different. Some of my professors had slides and it was usually a lot easier to print out the slides and write on them directly, but to also have extra paper handy to slip in if there was a lengthy derivation or interesting tangent that occurred. Others, I just wrote down what was going on. I tend to lean towards transcription-type notes because it keeps me paying attention to what's going on. Some of my classmates have recorded lectures (get your professor's permission to do this, I guess) and they go back through and add what they missed to their notes later.

I have three (!) copies of my first year notes. The first was what I did in class, which were messy and had gaps where the professor would indicate we should work out the details. The second were the ones I made after class, going through the class notes and filling in the gaps. The third were the distilled versions of the clean notes that I made when I was studying for my comprehensive exams. When I was an undergraduate, I almost never recopied notes but now I think it's the best way for me to review things.

For journal articles, I tend to read things more than once - a quick once-over, and then if I need to know the details of the derivation, I work through the steps by hand.
posted by dismas at 5:38 AM on March 18, 2014

Meaning you 'hand-write' the text part as well?

Yep. Downside there is not searchable BUT it often leads to me rereading notes more closely when looking for one specific thing. The way around that would be a bluetooth keyboard or keyboard case, but then it's harder to handwrite things that need to be handwritten.

I could also theoretically just add tags to the PDF notes.

On your iPad? Or do you use a different note taking system on a lap/desktop?

Desktop. Notability syncs through Dropbox, so I can pull them up on my desktop instantly. I have a "notes" LaTeX template that has all my shortcuts.

You should learn LaTeX if you don't already know it, btw.
posted by supercres at 5:59 AM on March 18, 2014

I will say that the only other setup that tempts me is Macbook Air + Wacom tablet, but (a) much more to lug around, and (b) many desks at my school are too small for two pieces of equipment.
posted by supercres at 6:01 AM on March 18, 2014

Best answer: Do you know if your professors will provide PDF or PowerPoint copies of their lecture slides prior to class? I just download those 5 mins before class and use iAnnotate to add either typed texted with my Logitech Bluetooth keyboard or scribble handwritten notes on them with a stylus. I store all of my notes with Dropbox so that I can access them on a different device pretty effortlessly. I've plugged iAnnotate before on the green, but it does a really great job for what I need it for and they're quite good at responding to questions or fixing bugs I've found.

It's NOT a good app for word processing. Also, if you do a lot of your work on google docs you may find the iPad to be a poor choice--I'm still trying to figure out a way to make that workable for me..

That's what works for me, but in my class of 100, I'd say maybe 10 of us take notes on iPads, 10 use a similar tablet device, 30 use laptops and the rest handwrite on print-outs of the lecture ppt slides. Even though handwriting means you're going to have binders and binders full of hard to search notes, the process of actually handwriting something helps it to stick in your brain. When I'm studying for an upcoming exam, I condense my digital lecture notes down into a short study guide that I handwrite.
posted by gumtree at 7:32 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

take a picture of the graphics using ipad? With the professor's prior ok of course.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 8:31 AM on March 18, 2014

Best answer: A few months ago I replaced my computer setup with a Surface Pro and have been using it to take notes in class with the digitizer pen and OneNote (the office application, not the free Metro “app”). Nothing fancy, just separate sections for each class and a new page for each day. You can select chunks of handwriting and convert it to text (with occasionally hilarious results) to make your notes searchable, and you have the option to back everything up to SkyDrive, if that’s your thing. You can get a first-generation SP from Microsoft at around the iPad price range, and that’s with the Wacom digitizer and the ability to use it as a regular computer if you grab one of the keyboard covers or similar. Something to consider, if you're open to non-Apple products.
posted by btfreek at 12:13 PM on March 18, 2014

Here's a radical idea you might try if others don't work out. In grad school, I didn't actually start learning anything until I stopped taking notes and paying my full attention to the lecture. I brought a bunch of blank paper and a pen, and would jot a few things down here and there, or try to work out the end of a proof before the professor would finish it, but by and large, I didn't write anything else down (or have much of anything to keep).

You could ask your professors if they make their notes available after the fact. A lot of them do, meaning that you transcribing what they write on the board is probably a waste of your time. It divides your energy. It distracts you from paying attention.

Maybe others will come in here and say I'm crazy, but you could try it for a couple weeks if other things aren't working and see where you are at that point.
posted by King Bee at 6:54 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers - I'm thinking of going

1) handwritten notes
2) color scanning the note
3) tagging and saving in DevonThink
4) when going over the handwritten notes, type out (in Latex) a clean condensed version and save that in DevonThink as well

Not 100% sure how to do 4) the most efficiently and how to organize the 2 levels of notes in devonthink yet!
posted by Riton at 5:19 AM on March 19, 2014

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