Notes on Notes

I recently revived my languishing Latin studies and remembered that I had started a vocabulary list in Word. After looking at it I realized it would be much more useful in OneNote, where I could arrange the conjugations and declensions on separate “pages,” making them easier to update and review. Once I had that set up I started adding more pages of Latin notes, which got me on to the subject of note-taking generally.

I had started taking Latin notes in pencil in a little spiral notebook, but I found that writing in it was awkward if I got too close to the edge or the spiral, and finding anything required a lot of page-flipping. Since I already had a binder set up with downloaded answer keys, I switched to loose leaf paper, which is much more practical as it lays flat. I have to admit I love the sound and feel of pencil scratching on paper, but I wonder if it would be easier to do my work on the computer?

I’ve also been thinking about note-taking for my serious reading. I don’t expect to keep my Latin notes, but I do intend to keep my reading notes. Until now I’ve used Moleskine notebooks for my reading notes (as I’ve posted before), but as aesthetically pleasing as the notebooks are, they have some drawbacks. The main problem is what to do if I want to go through a book two or three times, as per the traditional grammar–logic–rhetoric method. Notes or comments from a second reading can’t be placed with notes from the first reading for a given chapter. One solution is to write on one side of the notebook and leave the other page blank for future use or for quotations. I tried that and ended up with many blank pages, which is not much fun with an expensive notebook. I’ve also had problems with running out of room to write down a list of characters (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy!). Switching to loose leaf paper would solve both of those problems, but cheap paper will yellow soon and binders are bulky to use and store. Typing or scanning rough notes into a notebook is a possibility, but an onerous one.

Going digital would eliminate the problem of my increasingly illegible handwriting. I can type much faster than I can write, and being able to search my notes could come in very handy. My little netbook is really not much larger than a Moleskine, and, with wifi, has the added advantage of letting me look up words or facts wherever I happen to be reading. The only problem is ergonomics. If I’m taking notes on paper, I can hold the book open with one hand and write with the other. Typing obviously requires two hands, so I’d have to put the book in a bookstand, which makes it a nuisance to turn the pages.

There is also the perennial problem of digital obsolescence. The notes in my sewn, acid-free Moleskines will probably last as long as I do. The notes in Microsoft OneNote will last as long as Microsoft exists and continues to support OneNote. OneNote has been around for a mere 6 years, and though the people who use it absolutely adore it, it is not well known, which is usually a recipe for getting cancelled! Like all electronic formats, OneNote is only temporary, and my notes will require updating and converting for as long as I want to use them in digital form.

Then there’s the more important question of whether typing notes is as good of a memory aid as writing notes. ME/CFS has ravaged my short-term memory, so I must take notes if I want to remember (and blog about!) what I’ve read. I’ve been googling around and there doesn’t seem to be any research on the subject, despite the fact that laptops are taking over university and even some high school classrooms. I did find some comments from students who found they retained information better if they took notes by hand, but I wonder if that’s just a question of acclimatization. If you’re used to writing notes on paper, switching to computer will probably not work as well at first. It used to be that I could only write by hand and had to type it in later, but now I only write on the computer and can edit on screen as well. Something has changed in my brain with regard to how I perform the act of writing. But memory is a different faculty, and I wonder if typing on a computer gets stored in the same way as handwriting? Typing is arguably as tactile as writing with a pen, but the connection between our fingers and the letters on the monitor is perhaps more virtual than our quarter-million year old brains can relate to.

I suppose the only thing to do is to keep experimenting. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear winner. It probably comes down to personal preference and which system is more likely to get used. If you’ve tried taking reading notes electronically I’d love to hear about it!


11 comments on “Notes on Notes

  1. I've done both electronic note taking and by hand and I agree that by hand you retain the info better. I think the reason is precisely that it takes longer. The info rolls around in your brain longer as you're writing. The question for students is how fast is the teacher going? I had one instructor who's lectures were so laden with important info I had to by a recorder.
    As far as a reading notebook, as you know it's difficult for me to juggle that. If I had regular quiet time in the evening I'd give it a shot but that's a rare night for me. Maybe when the baby is bigger and I can send her to her room instead of the little baby who's cries I cannot possibly ignore. She's rolling about my lap right now and licking my arm.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for that, Autodidact101. You bring up a good point about speed. I've read that some college students who take their laptops to class end up more or less transcribing the lecture without really having heard it just because they can. Taking lecture notes by hand forces you to summarize and select what is important, which requires thinking and understanding. I would guess that that is what makes things stick in one's memory rather than the physical act of writing, but without research we can't know for sure. Perhaps taking electronic notes with the conscious intention of 'digesting' the material would have the same result. I've found that writing summaries in complete sentences is a great memory aid, and on a computer it doesn't take much longer to take notes in sentence form than in point form (for a touch-typist). Perhaps that would combine the best of both worlds.

    Yes, you definitely have an ergonomic problem there with your rollicking baby! I suppose you could use voice recognition software but it would have to be programmed to ignore those cries!

  3. That's my husbands advice, voice recognition. He loves technology and gadgets and I'm a technophobe.

    I think trying note taking with your laptop can work. You're not subject to a lecturers pace as students are.

  4. Sylvia says:

    I knew a guy who had to use voice recognition at work because of wrist problems. It was a pain at first but once he got the hang of it he loved it.

    I just had to look it up and it turns out Windows has built-in speech recognition capability. I had no idea! Something else to play with.

  5. Heather says:

    I take meeting notes on a netbook, when I can. But for study, I generally write out my notes…less chance of accidental plaigarism that way, really, and it forces me to slow down and read what I'm doing.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Heather, that's a great point about plagiarism. It certainly is easy to “borrow” words and phrases when taking notes. That's something I'll have to watch for if/when I take notes on computer.

  7. Stefanie says:

    I've done notes by hand and notes on the computer using Aquaminds Notetaker I remember better what I have written but much prefer the search and organization of eletronic notes. Have you tried 3X5 notecards? I've used those as a nice middle ground. But then I ended up with showboxes full of cards and eventually moved them all into Notetaker!

  8. Anonymous says:

    You may want to try a Livescribe Pulse Pen. It captures what you write on paper for computer. Separate software (MyScript) can convert your handwriting to text. You get to have your cake and eat it too. I have used one for about two years, and I have been very pleased.

  9. Sylvia says:

    Stefanie, NoteTaker looks like the Mac equivalent to OneNote. The more I use that sort of system the more I like it. I've tried index cards once or twice but it didn't appeal to me. They end up scattering and I prefer to keep things together and compact. It seems easier to search a few pages of notes than to flip through numerous cards to find what you want.

    Anonymous, that's a pretty amazing pen! I don't think I'd buy one but it's an interesting idea. I can scan written notes into OneNote if I want to, and OneNote automatically OCRs the text and makes it searchable. It's an extra step but it's free. I am thinking of doing that with some of my existing notes.

  10. tony says:

    I'd love to be able to do notes electronically too, but the point you make about digital obsolescence is the killer, I reckon. My old notebooks (like my diaries from 1967 and earlier) will still be around when my present computers (and probably next 10 or 20) are long gone. Also, the keyboard doesn't give the same aesthetic pleasure. I'm just as undecided as you all are!

  11. Sylvia says:

    Hi Tony! The only way I can be comfortable with digital obsolescence is if I tell myself that I will print out my e-notebooks when they are more or less complete. I've done that with my blog, and have even bought a laser printer for the purpose (cheaper than having it done at the office supply store). I certainly wouldn't trust my notes entirely to the computer. But then, I still buy CDs. Call me quaint, I like hard copies.

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