The first installment of Keep It Together is dedicated to taking notes on readings, whether that be books, chapters, papers, articles, whatever.
One of the most important parts of developing good systems and habits as a student is understanding precisely what it is that you are reading, and developing a good note-taking system is, I think, a crucial part of that. The most crucial part is of course the reading, which I have a separate KIT for.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and harp on about my excellent note-taking skills. Learning is a process of constant evolution, and my note-taking style has changed a multitude of times over the years that I have been a tertiary student. However, in the last few years there are some base rules that I have developed in my own note-taking. These have lasted longer than previous methods I have used, and as they continue to make sense to me I shall continue to use them. This is important; do NOT use a system, any system, that you struggle to understand or remember. That way leads to frustration and madness, and usually to really crappy notes. Wasted time all around, not to mention the inevitable headache and whining about spending all that time and learning precisely zip.
Tip the first: pick a system that works for you, that you can remember, that is easy for you to use and understand.
Tip the second: stick to that system. I speak from experience when I say that there is nothing worse, when prepping for an exam, than flipping through notes that start out formatted and written one way and then just gradually devolve into bullet points that don’t make sense even to the person that wrote them. You know that feeling, that you’ll know what you were talking about when you read it again later? That voice in your head that says “I don’t need to write anything else here. I’ve done the reading, I will know what that refers to, so it is a waste of time to write anything else here.” That voice is a damn liar. You absolutely will not remember what that three-word bullet point means six weeks after writing it, three hours before your exam. Stick to your system: you settled on it because it has value, so don’t get lazy about being serious at school.
Tip the third: flag the important bits with a post-it as read, and take your notes after you finish the reading. For me at least, I gain a better understanding of the material if I read all the way through first, and then go back to the important bits. That way, I can mull over the concepts I flagged as important on the first go round, thereby increasing my information uptake and understanding. Then you take the notes, in your own words as much as possible. I do insert word-for-word sections in my notes if I think something is particularly important and I cannot personally think of a better way to articulate a point, but try not to overdo it. The act of thinking about what you are taking notes on helps to cement that knowledge into your brain.
Tip the fourth: pick a colour system. Yes, I highlight my own notes. It has actually become invaluable to me as a PhD student when I am looking for something specific in the notes I have taken. There is nothing quite so infuriating as being absolutely, positively CERTAIN you wrote down that thing about that other thing and then being completely incapable of locating it in your notes. If you have a working colour-code, this task becomes so. Much. Easier.
As you can see in the gallery above, there are four colours that form my primary code: pink, orange, blue and green. Each of these colours performs a different function, and indicate to me their content.
Pink indicates (for the most part!) a new section or, as in the example notes above, a new chapter. This lets me know that my notes are about to shift focus to a new topic. Sounds stupid, but this sort of indicator is actually really useful and a lot of the time it is overlooked.
Orange indicates an incident, operation, or event that I think is of interest. As a cyber scholar, there are a LOT of incidents, operations and events that are of (academic) interest. This just allows me to skim through my notes for particular cases, and then I can read the notes surrounding them.
Blue indicates important concepts and terms. Again, because I am a cyber scholar there is a lot to learn, and very often I come across terms or concepts which are new to me. Blue highlights let me know that these are concepts that are important to understand.
Green indicates actors or parties that are active in cyberspace, or potentially have an interest or stake in an incident, operation or event. This familiarizes me with the names of individuals, groups, agencies and militaries that are or have been active in cyberspace. Knowing these names can help you make connections you may not otherwise have seen as you move through the body of literature for your topic.
Other colours like yellow or purple are used here and there, but not in a systemic fashion; sometimes, just to emphasize something that doesn’t really fall into one of my system categories, which I think is still worth highlighting.
Tip the fifth: Save your work. I know these are only notes, but for the love of little green apples save them somewhere. I personally use Evernote and Evernote Scannable; I scan my notes once finished and save them to a notebook in Evernote. The photos above are just photos taken with my phone, and if you don’t want to use a scanner app go right ahead and just take pictures and email them to yourself or whatever. The point is, just friggin save your notes. Imagine what an absolute waste of time this would all have been if they get lost, stolen, or destroyed. Then where will you be when exam prep rolls around?! That’s right, you’ll be just fine because you did as I said and you saved your notes somewhere.
As an academic and a long-time student, I know this all sends like a hell of a lot of work, especially when you sit down and think about actually doing this for each and every assigned or important reading that you do. HOWEVER: it is going to be useful to you, and not just to exam prep. More and more often recently, I find myself turning to notes that I have taken over the past couple of years because they all of a sudden are pertinent to a new paper I am writing, or a proposal I am polishing, or better: I suddenly realize that a book or article I have notes on is actually the perfect reference for such-and-such section of my thesis. Huzzah! In addition, you may find that as you take these notes and break down the meaning the authors are trying to communicate, you will actually start percolating article ideas of your own. Understanding someone else’s work can lead you to further, publishable work of your own. That, my friends, makes all the effort of note-taking valuable far beyond exam preparation.
And as a bonus? You know stuff. Sort of the whole point of why you’re a student, isn’t it? To know stuff? All of this, all of the reading and the note-taking and the classes and the learning and the knowing stuff contributes to a foundation of knowledge that will eventually earn you the title of “expert in your field” that we Ph.D. candidates value so highly.
I hope this KIT system has helped you, or at least entertained you for the ten or so minutes this post took to read. If you do use this system or something like it, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message through the Contact Me page; I would love to hear from you!
Stay weird xxx