A number of phrases on taking notes


Illustration of taking notes

As we’re about to begin the planning conferences for 2024 at AWS, I’ve been pondering so much about how I take notes. In the identical vein, the method of placing collectively a re: Invent keynote takes months, and it implies that I’m assembly with a number of good people doing analysis and constructing wonderful merchandise. And at each assembly I’m taking notes — a number of them.

The earliest reminiscences I’ve of taking notes are in main faculty. I might copy word-for-word what the instructor would say or write on the board. Issues like definitions and multiplication tables. Then I’d go dwelling, research what I’d copied, and finally take a take a look at. In apply, I used to be studying to encode, retailer, and recall data. When you consider it, it’s a bit like S3.

However this was memorisation, not synthesis.

As I continued alongside my instructional journey, and the subject material grew to become more and more extra advanced, it compelled me to rethink be aware taking. It was much less about being a scribe, and extra about listening, observing, and comprehending what was being taught. For instance, the youthful me might have copied the next definition verbatim: “The traditional position of mitochondria is oxidative phosphorylation, which generates ATP by utilising the vitality launched in the course of the oxidation of the meals we eat.” And when finding out, I might have dedicated this to reminiscence with out essentially understanding the way it really labored. What would have been extra useful would have been to learn the definition, then write it out in a approach that was significant to me, equivalent to: “Mitochondria are the energy plant of the cell. They generate many of the chemical vitality wanted to energy the cell’s biochemical reactions.” Perhaps even diagram the method within the margins. That is synthesis. This denotes understanding.

And there’s analysis to again this up. Particularly, that verbatim be aware taking simply isn’t as efficient once you’re attempting to study and retain new data.

Pen and paper

To at the present time, I nonetheless take a number of my notes by hand. It helps me to take care of focus and internalise the vital bits. It’s not possible to put in writing as quick as folks communicate, so I’m compelled to put in writing down what I feel is most vital or make be aware of what I don’t perceive in order that I can ask questions.

A stack of notebooks
The pocket book archive view from my desk…

The Cornell Methodology

I’ve spent fairly a little bit of time over the previous couple of months studying about and relearning totally different note-taking approaches. All the pieces from outlining to thoughts mapping to charting. And what’s labored fairly effectively for me is the Cornell Methodology. A easy strategy that has you break up a pocket book web page into 4 components: 1/ title, 2/ notes, 3/ key phrases/questions, and 4/ abstract. And no, it’s not as a result of I labored at Cornell for the higher a part of a decade, however as a result of this methodology encourages you to doc your thought processes (i.e., ask questions), synthesise what you’re studying in real-time (i.e., take notes), and summarise all of it after the very fact (i.e., write a succinct abstract).

What I wind up with are structured notes which might be straightforward to learn, organise, and revisit, as a result of it’s extra than simply writing one thing down, however with the ability to return and evaluation questions and problem assumptions.

Illustration of the Cornell Method
Credit score: https://www.flexcil.com/suggestions/cornell-note-taking/

A latest research by Kuniyoshi Sakai, titled Paper Notebooks vs. Cellular Units: Mind Activation Variations Throughout Reminiscence Retrieval, really confirmed larger retention and recall for topics that used pen and paper versus a keyboard, or pill and stylus. Nonetheless, there’s broad settlement that taking notes, in any kind with any enter, helps with encoding, retention, and recall.

As you possibly can see from the picture above, I’m a giant fan of analog note-taking. For me, analog helps with memorising, synthesising, and summarising. As quickly as I write one thing down with pen and paper, it additionally appears to seek out its approach into my mind – one thing that doesn’t occur with digital. I even use the Cornell methodology when getting ready for conferences; I summarise the briefing doc in my pocket book, and it instantly sticks. The truth that you’re energetic with the textual content as an alternative of simply studying it drives this course of.

Utilizing ML and generative AI

There’s a number of worth within the act of taking notes and actively synthesising data. However we dwell in a world with extra information than we may ever moderately anticipate to comb by way of. That is an space the place ML and generative AI will play an more and more vital position. A number of examples that come to thoughts are:

  • Utilizing a transcription service with speaker identification to complement the notes you are taking throughout a gathering.
  • Utilizing laptop imaginative and prescient and optical character recognition (OCR) to transform your handwritten notes into docs you can simply share with others or retailer in a central location. (Assuming that you just’re not already utilizing one thing like Kindle Scribe).
  • Close to-instant summarisation.
  • Iterating over a complete corpus of notes utilizing an LLM to determine themes, traits, and vital folks throughout a whole lot of pages from conferences, lectures, doc evaluations, on-site visits, and many others.

I see this like studying a map. In the event you return 20 years, studying a map was a reasonably widespread ability. You’d plan a route, take some notes, then attempt to navigate it. And should you took the route sufficient occasions, you’d recall it. You’d bear in mind a fountain or the color of a particular home alongside the way in which. You’d know when and the place there could be site visitors or development, and the alternate routes to get round it. However today, we simply use our telephones. We observe turn-by-turn instructions from street-to-street without having to commit an excessive amount of to reminiscence.

It’s useful. It’s straightforward. That’s probably not up for debate. However studying a bodily map remains to be a really helpful ability. There’ll inevitably be occasions that you just don’t have cell service (otherwise you lose your telephone, or possibly you need to disconnect from know-how), and realizing the place you’re and easy methods to get the place you’re going are vital. And identical to taking notes by hand, it means that you can take away a number of the noise created by know-how, and to concentrate on the vital bits.

I’m genuinely curious to see how analysis will evolve within the subsequent 10+ years as we proceed to review what works greatest for digital natives.

Take notes, a number of them

I’ll go away you with a quote from the author Anne Lamott: “[…] one of many worst emotions I can consider, [is] to have had a beautiful second or perception or imaginative and prescient or phrase, to know you had it, then lose it.” My recommendation: take notes, a number of them.

Now, go construct!

Notice: I’m genuinely curious how my readers take notes and synthesise data. In the event you’re doing issues in another way than me, let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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