Taking Science Notes Effectively

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
trgirill@acm.org

Why Make Effective Notes?

Notes (on student activities or lab work, class discussions, readings) seem to be private and personal, unlike typical science "publications." And since they are usually connected with school, homework, and teachers, many students may fail to see any place for notetaking in their adult or professional lives. Actually, however, good notes achieve three goals important to any scientist or engineer:
  1. Record.
    Effective notes create an authentic record. They provide evidence of laboratory or field work performed and results achieved by scientists. They provide evidence of ideas conceived, plans drafted, and designs developed by engineers.
  2. Organize.
    Effective notes gather and structure one's thoughts. Biologist Robert Barrass (2002, p. 9) calls them "an aid to concentration" while learning anything new. One engineering study found that notetaking patterns predicted subsequent student performance on exams with 75% accuracy (Wang and Chen, 2004).
  3. Comment.
    Effective notes are the engine of new ideas because they enable one to analyze one's own past efforts as well as to comment on relevant work of others. Good notes preserve one's unexpected results along with the successes. And they capture critiques, counter-examples, and objections to one's ideas for thoughtful review later.
But what features make some science notes valuable and effective while others remain useless or worse? How can your students learn (better) science notetaking techniques? A tour through the issues that science notes pose will reveal how to answer these questions.

Notes and Cognitive Apprenticeship: Developmental Issues

Can the same cognitive-apprenticeship moves that help students build general technical writing skills also strengthen their approach to taking notes? One way to find out is to offer both children and adults the chance to take science notes spontaneously (without requiring it) and see how their notes evolve over time. This could show the extent to which people learn notetaking techniques by explicit coaching and apprenticeship. Merce Garcia-Mila and Christopher Andersen (2007) have conducted that experiment and their results are indeed revealing.

Garcia-Mila and Andersen asked 15 grade-4 students (ages 8.5 to 10.5) and 16 adults (ages 22 to 47) to participate in basic "scientific inquiry tasks" (Garcia-Mila and Andersen, 2007, p. 1039; simple physics experiments or science-information management projects) twice a week for 10 weeks. Everyone received a notebook "in case you want to keep a record of what you find out" (p. 1040), but notes were never required. Most subjects were self-reported Hispanic/Latino, and 13 of the 16 adults (but none of the children) claimed Spanish as their first language (p. 1041). This experiment thus allowed within-subject developmental comparisons (notes were checked weekly during the 10-week project) and between-subject age (maturity) comparisons in an urban ESL population.

Without getting into the inevitable scoring eccentricities of an experiment this complex, we can learn much about the relevance of cognitive apprenticeship for notetaking by looking at what these researchers found about the

of the notes that their child and adult subjects chose to take on their science activities.

Modelling and Embedding

Because the point of this work was to observe science notes taken "in the wild," when not dictated or illustrated by any teacher, no one here modelled "correct notetaking" or influenced the content (or amount) of child or adult notes. The experimenters did observe, however, that perceived task relevance was important for participant motivation. Real-life notetaking "needs to be exercised within [science] tasks," not as an isolated activity (Garcia-Mila and Andersen, p. 1053). Those participants who saw their own "notetaking [as] necessary for the task's completion" (each week) took more, and more effective, notes than those who never connected their notes to their success with subsequent science tasks (p. 1054). This finding reinforces the value of embedding writing into other (science and engineering) activities, a standard feature of cognitive apprenticeship.

Externalization

Gacria-Mila and Andersen found that differences in cognitive maturity between their adult and child subjects yielded very divergent patterns of spontaneous notetaking. Fifteen of their 16 adults used their notebooks during the 10-week study. The adults made about three times as many "note entries" (roughly, text blocks) as the children, and their rate of making notes held constant between the first and second 5-week block. On the other hand, 7 of the 15 children "never made a note" during the experiment (p. 1044), and the note entry rate for the children who took notes dropped by half from the first to the second 5-week block (p. 1046).

While the adults mostly recognized the potential value of taking notes, the children needed someone to externalize the relevance of their notebooks for them: "Notetaking was not perceived by [child] students in this study to be a valuable activity" (p. 1053). Garcia-Mila and Andersen therefore urged educators to make explicit for their students two aspects of studying (and later researching) in science of which the children were unaware without help (p. 1054):

Scaffolding

When these experimenters looked at the difference in content between adult and child science notes, they found more opportunities for cognitive apprenticeship. For example, "[child] students need to understand what to note" (p. 1054), a need that extra prompts or scaffolds can address in three ways:

Coaching

Another related aspect of content weakness in the spontaneous notes studied by Garcia-Mila and Andersen was imbalance: "children appeared to use their notebooks to write only conclusions rather than variables [observed data] and outcomes..." (p. 1051). Learning to balance economy and completeness in technical notes usually calls for some personal coaching. A writing coach can call attention to the thoroughness and structure of student notes as they evolve. An experienced coach can also suggest alternative features or organizational aids that inexperienced notetakers can gradually explore but would never think to try on their own.

Successive Approximation

Mastery through apprenticeship comes iteratively, not suddenly. Unsurprisingly, Garcia-Mila and Andersen found that the subjects in their study who used their earlier notes improved the quality not only of their later science (their problem solving) but also the quality of their later notes. "By making one's internal thoughts explicit on paper, they become more available as objects of cognition" and criticism (p. 1052), but only for those who bother to review their notes to tap this source of self-awareness and feedback. Notetakers who worked iteratively discovered this path to better experimentation along with better subsequent notes: "the participants' evaluation of the usefulness of the [earlier] notes provided feedback that fueled the development of their [own] strategic and metastrategic knowledge of notetaking" (p. 1054).

Noteworthy Content: Scope Issues

What To Include

The previous section pointed out that without explicit training most people, especially children, tend to draft notes that are simultaneously redundant and incomplete. Avoiding needless repetition while also capturing project-relevant specifics and details are not spontaneous behaviors. They have to be taught and practiced. Other important scope issues arise as well for effective note takers, as a case from the history of science reveals.

The Krebs Notebook Case

Throughout the 1930s Hans Adolf Krebs studied metabolism, culminating in his 1937 formulation of the critic acid cycle, now a standard biology-class topic that earned Krebs a Nobel Prize in 1953. Fifty years after that discovery, science historian Frederic L. Holmes painstakingly traced through Krebs's laboratory notebooks, going day by day from 1933 to 1937, to construct the first book-length technical biography of Krebs and his research. In a 1990 article just before that biography was published, historian Holmes let everyone look over his shoulder as he in turn looked over the shoulder of Krebs at the lab bench.

Holmes found in the Krebs notebooks some expected information: a systematically saved, detailed, chronological record of what Krebs did as an experimental biologist. Holmes also found gems of understanding that he did not expect. Krebs's notetaking style was famously terse, yet he did include enough headings and comments on his hand-written data tables to reveal:

This list alerts today's students about what future historians of science will seek in their lab notebooks if later their research turns out to be of enduring interest. Those "extra" explanatory comments, comparisons, and references that they insert now will make their notes more useful to themselves, to their junior colleagues, and to historians years later. Especially helpful are lab or field notes enriched with comments on

The CSI Perspective

In his textbook on Criminal Investigation (2005), Michael Lyman brings this historical perspective on notetaking scope into the modern world of crime scene investigation (CSI). Lyman echoes the concern expressed above by historian Holmes as well as psychologists Garcia-Mila and Andersen that students need overt coaching to help adjust the scope of their notes to the demands those notes must meet later. Officers and evidence technicians, for example, must learn to annotate (pp. 35-37)

The scope of effective notes is thus dictated by the specific subject matter described, as revealed by the scaffolding within the taker's notebook.

Evidence Meets Usability: Competence Issues

Most students shouldn't have to concern themselves with the fine points of patent law. But patent requirements do reveal another aspect of effective science notes, namely, what attorneys call "competence."

To patent a device or process, one must establish both "conception" and "reduction to practice." A scientist's or engineer's notebook can be the first (and, if well done, the best) evidence of device "conception." The University of California San Francisco's Office of Technology Management notes that while

...generally, a sketch and brief written description [in a notebook] are sufficient to establish conception (OTM, 2004)
the relevant notebook entry must also be legally "competent." Unfortunately,
...it is possible for a laboratory [notebook] entry to be so vague and lacking in clarity that it is not competent to prove such matters. For example, the entry may be so fragmentary that it is meaningless by itself, and can only be made intelligible when it is interpreted by the author.
This last comment suggests that colleague usability is the real test of note value for patent purposes: write your notebook so that it is usable by an informed colleague and it will also be adequate to defend any patentable devices that you describe.

So this brings specific note-effectiveness techniques right back to the general principles for technical writing usability:

Another investigator, by looking over these entries [notebook diagrams and their explanations], should be able to determine the nature of the project, when it was commenced, what ideas were considered during the project, the compounds made or circuits and equipment actually built and tested, the results of the tests, the dates with respect to all of the above, and the final conclusions.
As a teacher, if you approach notetaking cases, activities, and classroom aids from this broad usability perspective, you will automatically expose your students to

Resource Overview

Resources are available to help your students apply general good-description writing techniques to the specific challenges of taking useful science notes. They include customized guidelines (checklists), note templates or scaffolds, and motivational cases from the history of science. This chart summarizes these links:

Taking Science Notes Effectively
How cognitive apprenticeship addresses the note skills problem (this document).
Taking Notes Effectively: Techniques To Try
An itemized chart (checklist) of helpful, specific notetaking techniques for students.
Helping Students Take Notes Effectively
Pedagogical background and history-of-science cases to help teachers support the checklists (left).
Taking Lab/Project Notes Effectively
The same techniques as above but illustrated with medical, forensic-science, and torture-case examples.
CSI Issues
More notes background in the crime-scene context.

References

Barrass, Robert. (2002).
Scientists Must Write, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.
Garcia-Mila, Merce, and Andersen, Christopher. (2007).
Developmental change in notetaking during scientific inquiry. International Journal of Science Education, June, 29(8), 1035-1058. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500690600931103
Holmes, Frederic L. (1990).
Laboratory notebooks. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 134(4), 349-366.
Lyman, Michael D. (2005).
Criminal Investigation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Office of Technology Management, UC San Francisco. (2004).
Recommended laboratory procedures, Dec. 17, 2004. Online at http://www.otm.ucsf.edu/docs/otmLabProc.asp
Wang, C. Y. and Chen, G. D. (2004).
Extending e-books with annotation. ACM SIGUSE Bulletin. September, 36(3), 132-136.