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July 10, 2005

Note taking in the digital world

My note taking in lectures last year was pretty much non-existent. I don't know how I got away with that. I guess I thought that as we had good notes provided there was no need to do anything other than to listen carefully. Of course with hindsight, I now know this to be very naive.

This year will be different. I have already formed a small study group with friends to collaborate on note taking and forming resources ready for when revision rolls round again. I plan to take good notes in lectures and seminars, and more than that my plan is to do this digitally, right from the start.

From reading and research that should have been done along time ago I have found a lot of self-evident facts about note taking.

  • Keeps you engaged and interested in the lecture. Asking and answering questions is another good way to do this, but not often possible in the context of a lecture. I found last year I would zone out very quickly in lectures if I was uninterested in the topic, or if I knew some/all of the material already, or due to lack of sleep / sleepy after lunch.

  • Writing things in your own words will give better understanding at the time, and make more sense later.

  • Distilling the content as you write, will make your revision more efficient later. Having to wade through more comprehensive notes was another attribute of my revision last year. You can skip or be brief on things you already know, so as to not waste time, and outlining, mind mapping or any other structuring of the content will assist in your ability to find what you are looking for quicker.

Note taking methods from California Polytechnic State University
and from Dartmouth College

So far this all applies to methodology as opposed to the tools which you use to accomplish the note taking.

So here's why I think doing it digitally is the way to go, preferably completely digitally, but if that is not possible the latter stages after capture still have advantages.

The are a number of different digital inputs you could use as opposed to pen and paper. Using a tablet pc to write in digital ink, using a keyboard on laptop (or tablet if it has one), using a graphics tablet for pen input into a laptop, or any appropriate combination of those.
Using a keyboard and graphics tablet is my current plan. Being able to type in quickly the wordy parts and then use the pen to draw in diagrams, graphs, sketches, highlightings… seems to me to be the best. Of course if you capture your notes digitally then you have no need the duplicate work of digitizing paper notes later.

Digital notating allows you to…

  • Produce rich, colourful notes. You can accomplish colour with your paper notebook, but not without carrying around a selection of coloured pens, and wasting time switching between the. Doing it digitally… tap the colour you want, and away you go. Beyond this digital notes allow you to do things which aren't easy or even possible. Paste in graphics from external sources be that images, diagrams, graphs etc., Hyperlink to other documents, add audio and/or video to your notes!

  • Annotate. Following on from the previous point. Pasting in images etc., is great; even better is importing in documents and annotating them. Notes in pdf?... rather than print them out and draw on them, import them into your note taking system and annotate them like that. You can in fact extend that to any sort of document (typically using a virtual printer). No need to worry about marking, library or your own books. Use Google Print to get relevant pages from books, or scan them in… even using a digital camera works great.

  • Other miscellaneous features. No need to carry around a binder, pads of paper and a variety of pens, do it all with a small portable machine, and never have to worry about paper or pens running out. Granted, battery life is also finite, but put on the charger ever night, a modern mobile processor will last you through all the lectures in your day. Digital input also gives you freedom in the form of your notes, if A4 is dull, why not an infinitely sized canvas which expands when you need it to. Some note taking systems allow you to use different paper styles/types and have templates for your digital paper.

Once you have captured your notes the following points become important

  • Storage. If you did your notes on paper, how are you going to effectively store that huge stack of papers. This is where the digital route really starts to excel. Organising your files is easy on computer and no physical storage space other than the computer itself is required. Now you can take everything, everywhere, and work on anything at any time, when before you could only fit a few subjects in your bag. Labelling files is simple on computer, stored into a self explanatory hierarchy of directories, automatically timestamped files, try doing that with ring binders.

  • Search. You have you mountain of material intelligently organised, and tucked away on your hard drive… now imagine if you could search it all. Googling your revision notes? Note taking systems include this ability, or you could do it with desktop search software from vendors like Google, so you really could Google your notes.

  • Management. Management encapsulated the previous two points, there are other management areas which the digital can help. Your note taking spills over into revision and coursework, and it all needs to be time managed. Again there is plenty of good software to schedule your time for lectures, seminars, revision… for tracking the progress of tasks and their approaching deadlines.

This post almost seems like a sales pitch and now it really will do…

So what are these note taking systems. Two ones which seem good are,

OneNote, from Microsoft

Microsoft Journal for the tablet PC is another candidate and there are some other systems available as well, some more specific in use than others.

This summer I've been developing my own digital note capturing software, building on a base on pre-existing code. I will blog more about this later as this post is already huge.

I think this wraps it all up pretty well, maybe this summer you'll think about your strategy for study next year.

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