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
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
- Monologue with note-taking
- Presentation with note-taking
- White board
- White board with note-taking
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.
provides some great justification for my interest in a piece from 2013
("Noted" in The chronicle of higher
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
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
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,
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
"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
- The Split Page Method
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:
- Invest time, money, and
effort into knowledge acquisition.
- Take notes… but it doesn't
tell us how.
- 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."
- Discuss with others
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
- Record data exactly --
"the field book must be honest to be admissible in a court of
- 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
- Identify the owner
- Provide a ToC
- Number the pages (recto, top
- A page for a legend of
- Set up a page:
- Use standard note forms
- Provide a north arrow
- Sketch. Lots.
- Provide date, time, and
- Identify people doing the
work on the left corner of the right hand page
- Record everything
- Don't crowd; use lots of
- 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!
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:
- Concept mapping
- Cornell system
- Idea mapping
- Instant replays
- Ishikawa diagrams
- Knowledge maps
- Learning maps
- Mind maps
- Model maps
- Pyramid principle
- Semantic networks
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 --
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
- Incidental (doodles;
indicative of lack of engagement)
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.
a few steps:
- Record using
"telegraphic sentences"…. Whatever that means.
- Create questions following
class based on the content
- Recite. Review the key words
in the cue column and say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the
- Reflect. Ask: what's the
- 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.