The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Experimenting with note-taking

Most EAP courses include something about note-taking. It’s an area I’m always a bit unsure about how to teach … Is it better to teach a specific note-taking technique? To get students to experiment with a few? Or just to stick to explaining general principles and let them find their own preferred format? 

Recently, I’ve found myself on the other side of the classroom as I’ve started studying for a part-time MA. It’s given me lots of food for thought from a student’s perspective and the opportunity to play around with different approaches to studying, including notetaking.

I should probably start off by admitting that my note-taking in lectures has been minimal to non-existent. All my lecturers use PowerPoint presentations, the slides are available online and often as a printed handout as well and there’s generally another handout and a reading list to take away too. So beyond the odd scribble on a handout, I haven’t really felt the need to take notes. I’m just making sure I file all the handouts for future reference.

When it comes to reading though, I’m very aware of the need to take notes, especially when you’re reading to write. I’ve always banged on to my students about the importance of note-taking when you read to keep a record of ideas that you might want to use with all the relevant reference information so you don’t waste ages trying to track something down again later. I also stress how useful note-taking can be in transforming the ideas you’ve read into your own voice and incorporating them into your train of thought that will then, hopefully, help you slot them seamlessly into your writing. I know that so many of my students slip into plagiarism or patch-writing just because they’re writing their essay with the source text open in front of them and it’s all too easy just to copy the words across. If you process the information as you read and translate it into notes, then half the job of linking ideas together and weaving them into your own argument has been done already.

But what’s the best format for doing that? Well, I’ve had two sets of assignments to complete so far, two pieces of coursework mid-term and two more over the Christmas break and I approached each using a different technique …

I’ve been using Evernote for a while now for keeping notes on various work-related things, so it was the first format I turned to when I was preparing for the first set of assignments. 

Pros: I was doing some of my reading on the train to and from university (an hour each way, twice a week and I found, one of my best times for reading), some I was doing at home and occasionally, I did a bit in the library too. This meant that being able to make notes either on my tablet or on my desktop and having them automatically synced was really useful. Plus the notes are all neatly filed and easy to refer back to in future.

Cons: There’s lots of flicking about between windows, both if you’re reading and making notes on the same device and when you’re using notes to write from. Although during writing, I got round this by having my notes open on my tablet while writing on my desktop. I also found it quite difficult to get on overview of key ideas when faced with lots of screens of similar-looking, small, black text. I could probably experiment with different fonts and colours, but that’s fiddly when you’re making notes on a tablet.

My second set of assignments were during the Christmas break, so I was working almost entirely at home. And with a longer essay which involved a review of the literature in a particular area, I took a different approach. As I was reading (quite a bit from books this time), I noted down key points that might be relevant on post-it notes and stuck them on the page as I went along (including those all-important page numbers!).

Then when I’d done a big chunk of reading, I used my wardrobe doors to arrange the notes into themes and to order them.

Pros: It was fun! I still find it much more natural to write notes by hand than using my fiddly tablet keyboard and rearranging the notes so I could see the shape of the essay emerging was a really nice way to organize my ideas; moving things about, spotting gaps, doing a bit more reading, adding more notes, taking stuff off that wasn’t really relevant. I was almost tempted to stop at that point and just submit a photo of my notes! But actually it did help the writing process too, getting up to look at the notes, taking one off to include it, then sticking it back up, checking that I hadn’t missed any key points.

Cons: It only worked because I was at home for the whole process, it wouldn’t have been practical if I’d been trying to read and collect post-its on the train. And I realized as I took them down that they won’t be very practical to store for future reference, so at some point, I’ll probably sit down and type them up into Evernote anyway!

So what are my conclusions … well, first and foremost, I’d say that experimenting is definitely good, it helps you work out what approach works best for you. If I were teaching EAP classes again in the future, I’d definitely get students to try out different techniques and to make submitting their notes part of some writing tasks … and not just as a boring page of bullets points either!

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Blogger Nergiz Kern said...

Hi Julie
Like you I was on the learner's side when doing my part-time/distance MA, and I experimented with note-taking just like you using technology/apps and handwriting. I also try to introduce my EAP students to different techniques and set them tasks to experiment and see what works for them.
I can relate to your situation of sometimes being on the way and appreciating electronic texts and note-taking apps. But I loved reading and sorting my printed articles and handwritten notes into different stacks or areas for the same reasons you mentioned. There is an app that brings both worlds a bit closer: Scrivener. It's a writing app developed by writers. It's got many useful features (maybe too many), but one is that you can switch between normal view and corkboard view and you can easily rearrange your ideas and paragraphs. So, a bit like a combination of Word, Evernote and post-its: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

All the best with your MA

6:25 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Ahh the blurry pit of notetaking whilst reading... it's something I think no EAP program (mine included) has tackled in concrete 'do-this' ways. I wish it were more concrete. We've tried a prescriptivist approach, a leave-it-to-your-own-devices approach, and a model-various-ways-including-our-own-individual-ways on readings and get students to try them all. Nothing is best. Nothing seems to be agreed upon as the right way. Nothing seems to be fully transferable to a lesson on it.

For me, I couldn't get into Evernote and it dropped by the wayside very early on in its existence. It just seemed too fiddly, as you say. Post-its make too much of a physical mess for me. I tend simply to write little scribbles right in the margins of articles I might use, mostly highlighting an area for me to eye as I'm writing a paper so I don't have to reread the whole thing. I'm not sure it's effective either though.

2:48 pm  

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