Some thoughts on Note Taking and Planning.

The following set of notes and images have been pulled together as a work in progress looking at potential hacks for developing better note-taking and brief planning skills.
I will add further info and visuals as more hacks and example visuals are developed. 


There are a number of thoughts and research strands to look at when first starting out consideration of the value of student note-taking in academic sessions.

Research has shown that attempting to write everything that is said in a lecture is often counter-productive, as the whole activity becomes exercise in dictation with the note-taker becoming a passive conduit for the information discussed from the mouth of the lecturer to the notes on the paper or alternatively the electronic device (iPad, laptop etc.), rather than aiding in the practical uptake of information.

Notes don’t even need to be neat or beautifully organised (just legible).

What they need to be is useful.

I’ve included some of my own note-taking below.


Notes taken in a PGCE session with a doodle expressing an extension of the lecture (synthesising and developing lecture content) looking at management hierarchies, culpability and blame culture.

Notes Taken on Curriculum Meeting 001 col

Differentiating complex notes with a little colour for clarity.

As far as examples of research into this particular field of “study skills”, its worth taking a look at Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer’s work, found here in Scientific American – Hand written (edited notes) over electronic (verbatim) dictation and here in its original form in Psychological Science.

While New Scientist goes a step further in its damning of elements of this digital revolution in study practice (whilst elsewhere praising it).

Studies appear to show that the development of edited notes whilst listening to a presentation or lecture are more beneficial to the learner, as it is just this editing process that appears to allow the learner to recall the information faster and more readily interconnected and ready for application at a later date, than having just taken the information down verbatim.

PGCE notes 2

Notes taken during a PGCE lecture using interlocking jigsaw pieces, cranes and canyons as visual metaphors for division, building and entrapment.

Recent research has also pointed to the value of visualisation as part of note taking, the use of visual metaphors to shortcut or “short hand” the capture of information, an activity that sees the listener having to adapt and edit the information further, adopting sybolic reference, visual language and visual metaphors.

See for example, see this article found at the online design magazine Core77 by Craighton Berman, and his subsequent “how to” article.

So, it may be worth considering the use of visual imagery in your note taking as well.


Notes taken whilst watching a documentary on drawing and architecture.

Further, this blog post by Curtis Chandler on Middleweb, looks at similar principles and ideas but for younger students.

Its also worth considering the efforts of organisation such as RCA Animate who have added a “sketchnote” style visualisation to lectures that where originally oral delivery only.

All of the above also ties into research on the differences between reading text from a book and reading from the screen, and the related discussions on information uptake.

Discussions which look at the topography of the written word in print versus on screen and how this allows for student’s recall to tap into properties of written text (such as the idea that books have an expanded geography by comparison to that of the screen).

Further still, knowing that something is on the right or left page of a book, or that a specific piece of information resides about “half the way through” a chapter or book, may well help order and structure a more efficient recall of information.

All of which appears, more obviously perhaps, to be supported by the historical precedent that goes all the way back to the beginning of the printed word, i.e. that of illumination and illustration being added to text to expand on the content of text.

[Or that in actual fact text is, without any doubt, simply images that originally represented concepts and ideas and have overtime evolved to become shorthand images or marks that we now see as divorced from illustration altogether.]

It’s worth noting (no pun intended) that this visual method can often be misconstrued at a glance by observed and disengaged doodling, so make sure if you find this useful, you discuss it with your lecturer (particularly in the classroom or the studio environment, lecture halls rarely pose this issue) – see this anecdote for details.


Seans Workload

A simple plan for a Critical and Theoretical Studies assignment that shows amounts required through volume.

By extension this method of note-taking can be expanded to help with planning assignments and written or practical project work.

For example, lists can sometimes be deceptive, the written lines that follow (below) belie the effort involved the given tasks in their use of space within the said list.

Task 1 – Researched Essay, 2500 words.

Task 2 – A short paragraph on the links between stereotyping and attitudes in the media and video games violence, 250 words.

The first task appearing short at just four words, the second racking up a word count of eighteen, four and a half times the length of the former, whilst the task in actuality fact is one tenth of the word count.

Perhaps this is part of the issue with those students who struggle with dense lists of information.

We can see a further example of this with the pure text list below versus the visually “thickened” list, with image based “variable volumes” denoting the various tasks and their complexity or expected effort.

Lists versus Spidergram

Variable Volume based visual planning versus a straight forward list.

With the example above and below I went as far as to draft a more finished visual aid to help with the grasping of the various elements of the course requirements.


Visual Assignment Plan

The addition of check boxes allows for a sense of achievement as project elements are completed, as well as the advantage of a readily “readable” account of the volumes of work required.

Essays and their chapter/section requirements can be denoted in this way also.

essay-planVolume based assignment plan.

Giving the planner a quick visual cue for the amount of work perhaps expected for each section of the work and so an opportunity to concentrate efforts to some of the denser areas of the project rather than leaving writing heavy section until its too late.

The same can be done for practical projects.

scan-112Volume based project plan.

Where above, (A) might suggest a written proposal, (B) through to (G) will be reflective practice notes, and (H) a written evaluation written using hindsight and notes gleaned from your reflective practice, while parts (0) through to (5) suggest the effort/work loads expected from the practical sections of the project work at the various stages of production.

An elaborated version of this idea can be found below explaining the expected workloads/effort/evidence expected from students layered over the traditional design process.

The amount of work expected for a projectVisual/volume based plan to show expected and often received workloads.

Concepts can be organised on paper in this way also, using a mixture of short notes, headings and areas for further research, plus visual metaphors and symbolic representations, a plan can be formulated in a way that allows a holistic overview of the entire idea in one glance.

Just to be clear, you don’t have to have great drawing skills for this mixture of visual and written notes to be viable – But… if you are at art school, well perhaps its another reason to hit the sketchbooks and the life class.

the-moral-and-ethical-line-of-no-consequence-games-designA predominantly visual mind map looking at the ethics of designing video games that contain the ability to enact violent acts.

Again… This is all something that in previous centuries, painters, architectural sculptors and symbolist illustrators dealing with major themes and subjects in limited spaces knew and employed on a regular basis.

Hopefully these ideas may be of some use in your tackling of both note-taking in lectures and other sessions as well as your planning of projects and assignments, or even just establishing a concept.

scan-115Sketch notes attempting to figure out correlations and differences between narrative media such as literature and interactive games.

Don’t just copy those lectures verbatim…

Listen, synthesise, edit and then record your understanding.


~ by hesir on October 3, 2016.

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