Monday, July 13, 2015

Taking meeting notes

Minutes are a very specialized type of meeting artefact. They serve as a record and are associated with a variety of social conventions. In essence, these conventions create truth and limit conflicting narratives. Directors, for example, can't typically keep their own notes.

Not every meeting, however, is as structured as a formal board meeting. We meet for a variety of reasons including information exchange. In many of these meetings, we take notes.


And, more importantly: How?

Are there best practices for note taking in a meeting, particularly when these notes shouldn't be considered minutes?

First, let's review what we know about how people use information. In general, we hoard. We keep far more information than we can possibly use and we are very weak at actually maintaining it. We can be filers or pilers but we are generally poor at reusing information. Recognize that most of the information we collect in our notes is unlikely to get used.

Let's see what a random walk through the literature on note taking has to say…

First, a 2002 IDIAP white paper by McCowan et al. called "Modeling human interaction in meetings." The study involved observation of meetings to identify typical behaviors including:
  • Monologue
  • Monologue with note-taking
  • Presentation
  • Presentation with note-taking
  • White board
  • White board with note-taking
  • Consensus
  • Disagreement
  • Note-taking
  • Discussion
The paper subsequently explores the use of these behaviours to automatically identify and record information. The behaviour taxonomy is interesting but not quite what I'm looking for.

Geoffrey Nunberg provides some great justification for my interest in a piece from 2013 ("Noted" in The chronicle of higher education)"

"Considering how much attention we lavish on the technologies of writing—scroll, codex, print, screen—it's striking how little we pay to the technologies for digesting and regurgitating it. One way or another, there's no sector of the modern world that isn't saturated with note-taking—the bureaucracy, the liberal professions, the sciences, the modern firm, and especially the academy, whose residents, transient and permanent, have more right than anyone else to claim that taking notes is what we do."

He also gives us some other awesome quotes like: "The Post-it ranks as one of modern chemistry's two major contributions to the work of annotation, as partial reparation the highlighter pen, the colorist's revenge on the printed page."

And, in reference to Leibniz's inability to organize his "chaos of jotting that I do not have the leisure to arrange and mark" -- "It's my guess that he acquired Placcius's cabinet out of the same yearning for order that drives me to acquire new organizing systems, as I contemplate the scattered piles of notes and papers that make my workspace look like downtown Pompeii. Though for me, in the digital age, order seems even more tantalizingly just out of reach."

He also takes on PowerPoint: "PowerPoint goes further still. Posting one's lecture slides accomplishes the note transfer automatically, without requiring conversion to a different filing system, once the notes have been ceremonially verticalized and consecrated in the class session. Yet however detailed the slides are, students seem to feel compelled to take notes on them, as if they need something to do with their hands."

Number has struggled to come up with a way of organizing information to actually organize his book efforts. He explains that "writing is 10 percent inspiration, 10 percent perspiration, and 80 percent transitions." Despite his failings, he notes:

"Still, I keep trying, assembling project notes in one medium after another—Evernote, Word's notebook view, SOHO, stickies, Google docs, and those carnets with the little squares that I stock up on when I'm in France—to the point where my personal knowledge base, like Leibniz's, is scattered across a farrago of incommensurable schemes—the way my books would look if I just kept adding new shelves without ever reorganizing the old ones. It's a little disheartening, but not a cause for dejection as it must have been for Leibniz. If I need to find something, I can always run a search over the whole accumulation. We need never lose track of any thought in the age of search, only of its place in the order of things."

The Atlantic also gave the topic some love back in 2012 with an article called "Duly noted: the past, present, and future of note-taking" by Sebastian Stockman. It reports on the same conference described by Nunberg and provided a nice quote by Ann Blair. Note survive due to "long periods of benign neglect, combined with crucial moments of careful stewardship." Another good quote by Peter Burke: "When you take down almost everything, it becomes a disease."

Haghverdi et al. (2010). Note taking strategies and academic achievement. Journal of language and linguistic studies, 6(1).

Apparently the study of note taking was initiated by C.C. Crawford in the 1920 and continues to generate debates. The benefits of note taking include encoding and artefact. In general, note taking:
  • Improves attention span
  • Improves focus on a subject
  • Improves memory and recall
  • Provides a mechanism for concept organization

Apparently people "may forget" 50% of a lecture within 24 hours, 80% in two weeks, and 95% with a month if they don't take notes.

There is an extensive literature on why note-taking is potentially beneficial. There seems to be trends towards improved effectiveness for outline formats, including personal interpretations and explanations, concept mapping, and -- surprisingly -- being a naïve or uneducated note taker! Not surprisingly, few students are actually taught anything about note taking but there are a few methods:
  • The Cornell Method
  • The Unified Note-Taking System
  • The Split Page Method
Ultimately, note-taking should be adapted to individual needs and uses.

Quality is an interesting concept in note taking. The number of "idea units" in notes correlates positively with test performance.

Okay, perhaps it's time to step back a little bit and focus on the corporate sense of note-taking. A 2010 article by Mike Hawkins appeared in Training magazine. It's called "Help them retain what you train." It gives us eight principles:

  1. Invest time, money, and effort into knowledge acquisition.
  2. Take notes… but it doesn't tell us how.
  3. Synthesize notes into a framework. Again, weak on the "how" other that the list of "model, diagram, flowchart, cluster, picture, rhyme, acrostic, acronym, analogy, metaphor."
  4. Reflect
  5. Discuss with others
  6. Apply
  7. Practice
  8. Teach

That kind of sucked.

I have another article called "What's in your field book?" by Wesley Crawford, a Purdue University professor. I've lost the rest of the reference (UPDATE: Point of Beginning 97(22) from May 1997)! The article is really about notes taken in the field on an engineering project. It notes:
  • Record data exactly -- "the field book must be honest to be admissible in a court of law"
  • Keep it safe
  • Leave no room for interpretation /w legibility, etc.
  • Make references, particularly when you have brought outside data or information
  • Use 4H or permanent ink. Soft pencils will smudge and ink may blot
  • Set up the book in the first few pages:
    • Identify the owner
    • Provide a ToC
    • Number the pages (recto, top right)
    • A page for a legend of symbols
  • Set up a page:
    • Use standard note forms
    • Provide a north arrow
    • Sketch. Lots.
    • Provide date, time, and weather
    • Identify people doing the work on the left corner of the right hand page
    • Record everything
  • Don't crowd; use lots of paper
  • Do not erase
  • Use all caps; align decimals; use sig digs for angles (e.g., 042 degree 07' 31"i)
  • Use drafting techniques; carry a straight edge/protractor; aim for proportionality
  • Check your math

Most of the literature -- and there's a lot of it -- is really about learning skills.  Let's take a look at a 1995 article by Cohn et al. called "Notetaking, working memory, and learning in principles of economics" (Research in Economic Education). The authors conducted a fairly detailed study with over 200 undergraduates to explore the effectiveness of different notetaking styles and strategies. Their conclusions are a bit underwhelming: "Our results suggest that, in addition to student academic achievement, ability, and other socio-demographic characteristics, memory and notetaking may have an effect on learning." Wow, how's that for damning with faint praise!

Apparently, the technique that the authors encourage involves the lecturer presenting ideas for about 10 minutes during which time nobody takes notes. The students are then given 5 minutes to take notes. The instructor then summarizes and gives guidance on what they feel is important.

Switching back to the professional world, we have Middendorf and Macan's 2002 article from Journal of Applied Psychology called "Note-taking in the employment interview: effects on recall and judgements." The authors used a fairly rigorous methodology to come up with a similarly lukewarm response "taking notes is better than not taking notes for one's cued recall of information." Ideally, those notes are reviewed prior to decision making. Interesting, a key-points approach (i.e., filling in bullets in a pre-organized arrangement of headings) may reduce procedural and judgemental notes.

Moving back to educational settings, we have a 2008 article by Makany et al. in British Journal of Education Technology. It's called "Optimising the use of note-taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning." The main conclusion is that "non-linear note-takers were significantly better than the linear group both in terms of quantity and quality of the learned material." So, what is non-linear note-taking? Apparently the rate of speech is 2-3 words per second by handwriting is only 0.2-0.3 words per second so alternative strategies are important. The list of non-linear techniques includes:
  • Clustering
  • Concept mapping
  • Cornell system
  • Idea mapping
  • Instant replays
  • Ishikawa diagrams
  • Knowledge maps
  • Learning maps
  • Mind maps
  • Model maps
  • Pyramid principle
  • Semantic networks
  • SmartWisdom

The study compared the SmartWisdom approach to traditional note taking and found that the non-linear notetakers "performed on average 20% better than the linear control group in tasks measuring comprehension and metacognitive skills."

Haynes et al. gives us "An analysis of notes taken during and after a lecture presentation" (North American Journal of Psychology -- 2015). This study is interesting because it considers PowerPoint as an instructional medium. Specifically, the study reviewed actual notes and used quiz scores. The literature review reveals the typical trends -- working memory, external storage, etc. The study basically looked for differences due to the way in which students took notes, either during the lecture or after the lecture. There essentially were none. The big issue, however, is whether or not the students recorded relevant information. That's a big issue: what is relevant? This issue is more apparent in meeting minutes where the notes have to include motions, carried resolutions, actions, etc. The situation is much more complicated when we're dealing with note-taking for information exchange.

There's a brief article in Library Media Connection by Diaz from 2014. In "A notable process: teaching critical reading via note-taking (making)," she notes that students struggle to take notes while reading digital texts. She suggests using an annotation approach to facilitate critical reading of a text:

This issue of annotation in an interesting one. I've discussed marginalia and annotation in the past and it was a factor in my exploration of Thomas Arundell's copy of Ramelli. Blustein, Rowe, and Graff presented a paper in 2011 at the International conference on theory and practice of digital libraries. The title of the paper is "Making sense in the margins: a field study of annotation." The focus of the paper is really the review of digital texts rather than meeting note-taking but it could be interesting. Annotations can include:
  • Telegraphic annotations -- non-text, underlining, highlighting, etc.
  • Explicit annotations -- textual notes

Other coding categories include audience, location, types, etc. Type categories include anchors that draw attention to particular parts of the text and content types that improve understanding of the the text. The function of marks varies by urgency and complexity:
  • Interpretive marks
  • Problem-working (typically near charts or equations)
  • Tracing progress (associated with large blocks of highlighting indicating that the reader can't determine relative importance)
  • Procedural (intended to draw the reader back to important parts of the text)
  • Place-marking and aiding memory
  • Incidental (doodles; indicative of lack of engagement)
Not surprisingly, the results indicate that annotation is important but highly idiosyncratic.

This is all very interesting but we still haven't answered the question -- how should we take notes? It seems that there is some consensus that the Cornell system is a good approach. Basically, it mandates that you divide the page into two columns. The left column is called the "cue column" and the other one is the "notetaking column." The bottom of the page is dedicated to a "Summary" to be completed after class.

Note-taking involves a few steps:
  1. Record using "telegraphic sentences"…. Whatever that means.
  2. Create questions following class based on the content
  3. Recite. Review the key words in the cue column and say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the question
  4. Reflect. Ask: what's the significance
  5. Review. Spend the last 10 minutes of the week to review all your notes

The other approach that has emerged is the guided notes approach where one basically starts with a listing of key issues or bullets and fills in the details. I don't think that the approach is completely different from a general split page approach. For example, for a meeting, one could use a split page approach prepopulated with the agenda as cues. This approach could also be amenable to the taking of meeting minutes.


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