I know “knowledge management” is a high-value buzzword; I just tend to feel a twinge of weariness when I see it. I’m not sure you can manage knowledge; the best you can hope for, I think, is to try and set up weirs, reservoirs, sidings, and whatnot to channel some of the flow. The idea is that you’ll eventually be able to retrieve it and put it to use.
What helps foster that retrieval? Note-taking. I’m not sure I agree with the authors of this study (PDF), who believe that “learning to take notes well… takes as much time as learning to write in a relatively experienced way.” They see the purposes of taking notes as “to record information and/or to aid reflection.”
A note to take: “and/or” is nearly always the worst possible phrase. It implies precision but just smudges things. You’re dithering or obsessing or both. (See how I managed to say that without “and/or?”)
“Aid reflection” isn’t the term I’d use. I like Stephen Downes’s description of note-taking as your contribution a two-way communication with the source of learning. Downes recently noted a post by D’Arcy Norman, who says:
Note taking is not primarily about manual duplication of a set of resources produced by a teacher. It’s an active process of sense-making and internalization. Of visualizing the processes of thinking.
Granted, that’s not the way people often think about note-taking. For them the phrase is a quick trip back to a lecture hall, with a professor relentlessly flinging chunks of some “body of knowledge” at you. Eventually you’d have to reassemble them to the satisfaction of the flinger.
I can be a very traditional note-taker. As an undergraduate, I adopted two strategies that I thought were worth about 0.75 on a four-point grade scale: sit in the first or second seat of a row, and take notes. Both of these acted to keep me more awake and more engaged, even during the tedium of English Literature: The Augustans.
I have a longstanding habit of taking notes in ink:
Ink’s no more essential to note-taking than a soup spoon is to lunch, even if the lunch is soup.
If I’m trying to capture a lot of information for later analysis and search, my first stop is… Microsoft Word’s outlining. I’ve created a few outline templates (one with I-A-1-a numbering, one with that technoid 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1 format, and other with indents and various bullets for different levels). I type fast and can shift outline levels almost without thinking, which means I’ve got more bandwidth available to take in and reprocess whatever I’m outlining.
Especially when the knowledge stream’s wider than it is deep, I use Evernote. I like the idea that my notes are in two places–online, where I can access them from any computer, and on my own laptop, where my useful paranoia means I back my stuff up.
Evernote extends the concept of “note,” because I can take photos of signs, whiteboard sketches, or flipchart pages. Evernote lets me search for text in images, as in the example on the right (click for a larger view).
I’ve used personal wikis to collect information, and I use several blogs as well. Each wiki or blog has a focus, a way of deciding what parts of the flow to direct into the format. And by actively directing–through entering text, through tagging, through classifying and moving–I’m working with the information and increasing the likelihood that I’ll recall it in a context that makes sense to me.
Some more-or-less related items I found along the way:
- iPad, Therefore iKludge: David Dobbs writes about problems with noting, and sharing notes, on devices like the iPad.
- Teaching with Wikis: Sandra Porter enables electronic notes for students who forget the dead-tree kind.
- Cognitive Effort during Note Taking (PDF), a 2005 paper that appeared in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
Much of what I found deals with note-taking in an academic setting. That last paper by Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg makes the point that
…from a cognitive perspective, note taking cannot be conceived of as only a simple abbreviated transcription of information that is heard or read…. on the contrary,it is an activity that strongly depends on the central executive functions of working memory to manage comprehension, selection, and production processes concurrently.
I thought it worth including that statement. For one thing, note-taking looks obvious–you take notes. But what you really do, as the researchers are saying, is manipulate incoming information while managing the technical aspects of recording the results of your manipulation.
If you were into straight transcription, like a court reporter, then it’s possible you learn very little, because your focus is purely on the capture. But for notes to be useful, other than as a transcript, you’re doing things mentally while you’re doing things physically.