The Most Practical Skill

Four lessons from four decades of note-taking

In the fall, the Little Miss will be heading into 7th grade. Forty years ago, I too, was spending my summer what 7th grade would be like. In the Los Angeles Unified School District at that time, 6th grade was the last year of elementary school, while 7th was the first year of junior high school. Back the, just about everything we did for school was on paper. We text books which we covered with brown shopping bag paper to protect them. We had beige newsprint for scratch work and loose-leaf notebook paper for other types of work. In class, we often received “dittos”–what today might be called Xerox copies–of assignments.

Today, all three of our kids have school-issued iPads and no textbooks. Paper is a rarity. And with the dearth of paper comes a lack of something else that I’ve noticed over the years: the ability to take good notes.

In the fall of 1983, in my first 7th grade science class, I learned what I consider to be the most valuable, practical skill I took from all of my schooling: how to take good notes. It is the only time I can ever recall a teacher making lessons in note-taking part of the curriculum. Our teacher, Maureen Burrill, had introduced us to the scientific method and was discussing various types of tools and skills that scientists used to further their investigation of nature. One of the most important things a scientist could do, she told us, was to take good notes. Scientists not only had to carefully record observations, and collect data, but their experiments had to be reproducible. Only good, clear notes could do this.

The great thing about Mrs. Burrill, and a most fortunate thing for me, was that she didn’t just tell us this. She demonstrated the importance of good notes in the most practical way possible: for the entire school year, we were to keep all of our science work in a notebook. The notebook was a 3-ring binder, divided into sections using divider inserts. We had to keep our class notes in the binder, as well as other things like tests, homework, results of experiments. It all had to be organized and easily accessible. Mrs. Burrill was treating us like young scientists. Little did I know at the time that the lesson I learned in that class went far beyond science. They are lessons that I am still using today.

Experiments in note-taking

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many forms of note-taking. During the rest of junior high school and all through high school, I took notes on paper. Most of that paper, alas, is lost now. Despite at least one of the lessons I learned about note-taking in Mrs. Burrill’s class, the notes got thrown away, or lost in one move or another.

In college, I continued to take notes on paper, but beginning in my junior year (ca. 1992-93) I began typing up my notes on my IBM PC (286) as a way of helping me review the notes. I came up with a procedure that worked very well for me. I used Word for DOS 5.5 and created a file for each class I took. In that file, I typed up my lecture and reading notes. When it came time for a test, I used Word’s “Index” feature to label terms in the document as items for the index. I then generated an index and printed the file, index included. I used the topics on the index as a study guide with the page number references readily available to review the details. One of the earliest examples of these notes still exists in my archive. It is reading notes from a book we used in one of my political science classes. The file is dated June 19, 1993–just over 30 years ago.

Notes from a political science class in 1993
Notes from a political science class in 1993

When I began working at my company, a few months after graduating, I continued to keep notes: meeting notes, developer notes, outlines of briefings and presentation.

As I was taught in Mrs. Burrill’s science class, I experimented with note-taking. For several years, I kept the equivalent of “engineering day books” in the form of Composition books. In these books, I recorded meeting notes, documented bugs in code and how I went about fixing them, working out requirements for software my team was building. Here is a stack of 11 of these notebook, spanning November 2017 – September 2019, roughly 2,200 pages of notes.

A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019
A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019

I’ve also tried out plenty of tools for note-taking. I’ve used Evernote, Apple Notes, and Obsidian. I was introduced into a wide variety of note-taking methodologies: Evernote and its “Remember Everything” slogan; Obsidian and its “Second Brain”; there was a brief, intense fascination with Zettlekasten and “linking your thinking.” Ultimately, however, I continued to come back to the basic principles of note-taking that I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class.

Four principles of note-taking

Mrs. Burrill did not teach us what we should record in our notes, or even how to organize the notes on the page. She was smart enough to know that everyone had a different way of learning. For some people, scribbling keywords on a page was enough. For others, like me, a more hierarchical approach worked better (e.g., outline form). But she gave us four principles that have made all the difference to me and taught me through experience just how valuable notes can be.

1. Clearly label the subject of the notes

When we learned about the phases of the moon, it was clear to us that our notes should be labeled “Phases of the moon” or something close to that. Clear labeling makes it easy to find your notes. Back in 1983, this was far less complicated than it has become today. The label was not much more than a line scribbled at the top of a page. Today, labels can involve numerous elements, from a title, to a filename, to a tag. Regardless, what I learned was to be as succinct and precise in my labeling as I could be.

2. Don’t erase

Mrs. Burrill emphasized the importance of being able to reproduce our work, especially when doing experiments. If we erased our mistakes, we couldn’t learn from them. We might make them again. Moreover, others couldn’t see the pitfalls that we ran into when trying to reproduce our work. Prior to this class, I would occasionally get math homework back from my teachers with the following words scrawled in red across the top of the page: “DO NOT ERASE.”

But this lesson proved invaluable to me, especially for more difficult subjects like organic chemistry and calculus. Seeing the mistakes I made ensured I could learn from them.

Today, I use Jupyter notebooks as “lab books” when working on code. I never delete anything. If something doesn’t work in the notebook, I’ll jot notes as to why it didn’t work and move on to the next cell and try again.

3. Don’t throw anything away

Perhaps this is a corollary to “don’t erase,” but Mrs. Burrill insisted we keep everything. You never knew when old notes might come in handy. When I was young, some of this was out of my control. Notebooks and folders were lost or thrown away. But once I started keeping my notes on the computer, beginning in the fall of 1992, I have managed to avoid throwing them away. Of course, they take up less room in digital form than on paper. And I do refer to them, now and then, if for no other reason than to prove to my kids that I went through the same thing they did in school by showing them, say, a sample of my math homework from 3rd grade:

Some of my math homework from 3rd grade
Some of my math homework from 3rd grade

4. Date every page

It wasn’t obvious to me why this was important at first. It eventually became clear, and then it became a habit. Put a date on every page. It no only lets me know when the notes were created, but it allows me to put notes in some kind of order. I can see the evolution of my thinking on a subject or even across multiple subjects.

In the digital age, files are automatically dated, but I still put in a date on the first line of my notes anyway, partially out of habit, and partially in case the file date gets changed (it has been known to happen).

Are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today?

When the summer is over, our kids will end 2nd, 7th, and 9th grades respectively. The Little Miss, entering 7th grade, will be in the same position I was in when I was first introduced to Mrs. Burrill’s science class. But are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today, teaching kids practical note-taking? If my observations of my own kids’ experience is any example, then it isn’t likely. No one taught my kids to take notes. They are sometimes given notes to study, but that is a very different thing that formulating the ideas on your own, and summarizing them in a way that works best for you.

I am trying to fill in, to pay forward the great gift that Mrs. Burrill gave to me forty years ago. I am teaching my kids some of the same concepts: not erase anything, or throw anything away, to date everything and label it as clearly as they can. What I am not doing is telling them how they should take their notes. The tools one uses, and the way that one records things is an entirely subjective thing.

Looking back across the decades, and all of the notes I’ve taken, it seems to me that I owe a lot of the success I’ve had to the principles I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class. The notes I took in college helped me graduate. The notes I take in my job have made me a modestly successful software developer and project manager. I frequently impress friends and family by how quickly I can pull up a piece of information or a needed document, thanks to the note-taking principles pounded into my in 7th grade. I hope that my kids can look back and say the same forty years from now.

Written on June 21-24, 2023.

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    1. Raffy, I still use Obsidian. I use it as the “index to my life,” or as I think of it these days, my personal almanac. Daily notes, personal (and family) papers and document, travel summaries, journals, etc. all go into Obsidian. What I no longer use it for is generalized note-taking for things like reading, studying, coding, or learning in general. In my day job, I use Juypter notebooks quite a bit for this type of work because code and text (notes) can live together in the same document. For personal note-taking outside my almanac, I’ve gone back to using Wolfram Notebooks (Mathematica) because I can use that tool for a single source of a lot of the work I do (writing, scripting, coding, note-taking, etc.) and because the underlying architecture of that software works well for me.

      1. Relieved! I was reading the line “I’ve used Evernote, Apple Notes, and Obsidian” and thought that was all passed tense and time for a new series “How to take notes without a computer!” which was nearly the subject of the blog.

  1. I did much the same thing with spiral notebooks for work. Each page is dated and numbered with an index in the front of the book for key information. I’ve retired now and thinking that it might be time to do one last look through them, scanning anything I want to keep, and recycling the rest.

    it was suggested that I put up my personally owned but work related Evernote up for bid to my co-workers. The combination of the notebooks and Evernote made me the go-to person for information.


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