Monday, 26 October 2015

Note taking as a learning aid

Note taking is a critical learning skill because it helps to capture the fragments of thoughts, observations and ideas that emerge as you work and learn.  I keep a small notebook to hand at all times that I only use for my learning notes.  My notebook and my blog are central to my learning.   This post is a reflection on note-taking as a learning aid using the what? so what? now what? model.


The most influential process of learning that I have experienced was the Masters in Management Learning from Lancaster University, UK that I completed between 2006 and 2008.  The expectation to explore, inquire into and reflect on my own practice was relentless, challenging and messy - messy because the process of inquiry never followed direct pathways to 'the answer'.  It felt much more like detective work, where notes became critical ways of making connections between ideas and the means of returning to specific pages in articles and the like

So what?

I was briefing a group of team leaders recently at the kick-off of a new leadership programme that I'm supervising.   The core learning resources for the programme are online and, similar to the process that I experienced during my masters, I am expecting the participants to make notes about what they are learning and noticing as they progress. The method for this is a weekly learning report that's to be shared with a mentor and also submited to the programme office.  The latter step is there solely as a means of monitoring that the reports have been done and is not an evaluation of the content.  

The note-taking is important because I want to help them to develop the confidence to follow their own learning interests and, therefore, to be able to search for resources that will address their personal and work-based learning needs, rather than following a spoon-fed agenda.  Note-taking is also important because it's a 12 week programme at the end of which each person will need to produce a personal summary of their learning highlights and impacts.  To be effective this needs to be based on solid continuous reflection.

As I briefed the group, I thought back to how it felt to be part of a learning process that demanded a formative assignment.  In the case of the masters course, this was done via an online virtual learning environment rather than a weekly report, but regardless of the approach, I remember feeling exposed by the need to share my thoughts and unsure as to whether they were good enough, or what was expected.  If this is how I felt, and I was already a mature learner, I know that what I'm asking is quite demanding.  So to help the process I thought I would make some notes about why note taking is important and how it might be done.

Now what? 

Writing is useful because it helps you...

...notice more.  You become more aware of what is happening around you and this helps to link learning and practice.  

...get ideas and thoughts out of your head.  The process of writing allows things to be put into perspective and assessed more objectively. share ideas.  Blogging is a very public form of note-taking but even if you don't want to publish, sharing notes with fellow participants opens up the possibility of others relating to your insights and prompting their own thoughts and ideas.

Use a notebook 

By this I mean a paper notebook.  Of course, if you prefer to make notes on a tablet or laptop, then OK, but a notebook is cheap and portable and it's a handy way of making brief notes about anything that emerges from the things you read or observe.  As well as written notes, note-taking can also include pictures, mind maps, colours, cutting and pasting from newspapers - anything that helps you capture what comes to mind.

Use a smartphone to make audio notes 

I sometimes find it helpful to talk through my ideas first before writing things downAs Karl Weick, the Organizational Theorist, once said, "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"  If there is nobody available to listen, then use the recorder on a smartphone.  

Take pictures, short videos and screen grabs

Images can be very useful to bring ideas to life, especially where you are interested in showing something about how things get done in the workplace.  

Make notes continuously

My experience is to make notes as often as you can.  An approach that I often use, which I picked up from my coaching practice, is to ask myself the questions 'what am I thinking?', 'what am I seeing?' and 'what am I feeling?'  The latter two questions can be particularly useful in tapping into other aspects of our conscious and unconscious experiences.

Review, reflect, make notes

And if you do make notes then at some stage you should go back to what you have written, reflect and, as you do so, to make more notes.

However simple the concept of note-taking may seem, I have learnt never to underestimate the challenge inherent in committing our thoughts to paper.  But my encouragement, and my experience, is that the rewards of doing so are deeper learning and greater self-confidence.
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