Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Taking Notes

Scribe Jean Jean Miélot, circa 1400s.

Today we have amazing palm sized recording devices that allow us to photograph/take video/voice record at the drop of a hat*. But no one seems to take actual notes any more. There’s a connection between the physical activity of writing or drawing and memory that just doesn’t happen when you turn on a machine to capture information**.

Some might argue that recording with camera or video frees you to pay closer attention to the information at hand, preventing distraction caused by dealing with your note taking. I don’t see much evidence of that. What I see is that it fosters a kind of laziness along the lines of “I’m recording this so I don’t have to pay close attention to the lecture or demo. I can review it again later.”

I know, because I do it myself sometimes.

But there is something lost in note taking by proxy, and that’s being in the present moment. The pictures or videos reviewed later are echoes of the event. Subtlety and nuance are lost.

Marginalia in a circa 1520 herbal
Someone writing in a book around a picture of someone writing in a book.

Taking notes by hand slows you down, forces you to pay attention, and compels you to edit and select the most important bits. It hones your ability to recognize what’s useful and what’s superfluous.  You learn to focus and that in turn aids retention. Taking notes by hand exemplifies that old Chinese saying about learning: “I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.” Taking notes, writing down or drawing the information you are studying, is a way of doing and therefore understanding. 

My own notes on making stencils, from an enameling workshop.
I remember this.

By drawing out the arrangement I can much more easily
remember the construction of a fabricated prong.

 From Jennifer Walsh, a friend who graciously shared her excellent notes.

 My notes from a demo by Lisa Fidler
at the Penland School of Craft.

*At the drop of a hat:  Apparently a phrase from the old American west to signal the start of a fight or race. Also serviceable: In the wink of an eye; in a heartbeat; in a New York minute.

** Evidence suggests doodling helps memory retention. Have your pen and note pad ready while you read and you can check it out here


  1. I completely agree with you, Ken. I've always preferred to take notes by hands for exactly the reason you listed. I learn it. There were a few times in college when I used a handheld voice recorder to record an art history lecture, with the thought that it would help me understand the lecture better since I'd be able to listen to it repeatedly. What it really did was make it more difficult and time-consuming to study for the exam, because listening to the tape was now separated from the experience of the lecture. I'm one of "those people" who take copious notes at every opportunity, and then I usually re-write them soon after the fact, not only to make the notes legible to me and others, but to reexamine the notes and clarify the content. Thanks for this, Ken.

    1. You know Annie I do the same ~ rewrite the notes later ~ for similar reasons. I know I wont be able to decipher my clumsy scribbling three years down the road just when I need the info.

  2. I love this post! I just did a study of rolling mill layers and took notes on each outcome, feeling quite like the scientist and loving every second of the experience. Note taking is so valuable.

  3. Thanks Allisunny S. I'll bet that down the line they'll come handy when you'll need to remember a particular effect.